Ruben Amaro's late July coup, landing reigning American League Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee at the trade deadline, is already paying handsome dividends. In some ways this is very obvious, and other ways it is less obvious, but maybe just as important. After yesterday seeing Lee's 3rd excellent performance in 3 outings for the Phillies, what seemed very apparent from the start is continuing to become clearer. Let's examine the broad impact of this blockbuster acquisition.
Ironically, one of the first impacts might have been to cause a little bit of complacency to set in after the initial euphoria. Adding one of the best pitchers in baseball to a team whose collective esteem was spiking after a tremendous month of play might have inadvertently caused the players to feel a little too confident. The inner voice in players' minds might very well have turned down the adrenaline and sense of urgency as logic would say that one of the best teams in baseball just got a lot better. The Marlins 3 game sweep and Charlie Manuel's post game address on Sunday helped to reinforce that games need to be won on the field.
The obvious impact of the Lee acquisition is that a starter-by-committee spot, dotted with a big question mark, is being replaced by a top notch pitcher. The chances of winning every 5th day clearly went up. Registering a 22-3 win/loss record last year is truly remarkable, but it becomes understandable as you witness Lee's make-up, repertoire and approach up close.
From the first time that Cliff Lee toed the pitching rubber in a Phillies uniform to now, it has been easy to see that he is a natural "leader-by-example." He exudes professionalism, a warm, yet no nonsense demeanor and positive energy in all his actions- and then proceeds to aggressively attack the strike zone with an upbeat tempo and laser focus on the mound. This is invaluable to other pitchers on the staff (especially similar style left-handers like Cole Hamels and J.A. Happ) as they observe the positive impact on the players behind him and ultimately, the results. Lee's impact on the staff is largely parallel to the impact that Raul Ibanez has had on the team's position players.
With Hamels struggling to find the consistent level of excellence and air of supreme confidence that he displayed last year, Lee gives the team a legitimate stopper on the staff. In theory, this serves to keep the team out of prolonged slumps, but more importantly, gives peace of mind to the team knowing that every fifth day they are backing one of the best pitchers in baseball. This also serves to take some pressure off the other starting pitchers as well as provide motivation. And, won't it be fun to see Hamels regain his mojo to give the Phillies two stoppers down the stretch and into the playoffs?
Speaking of the playoffs, many have expressed the opinion that this trade was engineered to strengthen the team for the post season. Although it is absolutely true that the impact becomes greater in the post season when teams go to a 3 or 4 man rotation, it would be folly to assume that the division championship is in the bag (as the Marlins reminded the team this past weekend.) The Phillies have the talent to win the division and make a strong post season run, but that needs to play out one pitch, one inning, one game at a time.
Lee looks to be another high character, personable team player who fits perfectly into a team with great chemistry. The Phillies have done a tremendous job building a team filled with talented players that are genuine, likable, competitive and function as a true team (that has fun along the way.) This played a big part in their past success, will be a key driver for future success and is foundational to their tremendous fan appeal.
I would be remiss to not recognize the other player acquired in the Lee deal. Ben Francisco has some pop in his bat, can run, has a plus arm and is versatile enough to play all 3 outfield positions. He has already contributed, as evidenced Tuesday night by his game winning home run in the 12th inning, and provides a more consistent, seasoned back-up who will help the team down the stretch.
Philadelphia Phillie fans are fortunate to have Cliff Lee join an already strong cast. It will be fun to see him contribute to the team's success in both the tangible and intangible ways over the course of 2009 season. Thank you, Ruben, for your insight and negotiating skill in making this deal.