Las Vegas has posted its odds for the World Series winner, and to nobody’s surprise, the Philadelphia Phillies are 3-1 favorites to win it all. Next come the New York Yankees at 5-1, the Boston Red Sox at 6-1 and the defending World Champion San Francisco Giants at 10-1. But the injuries of Spring Training could change these odds with none more glaring than Brad Lidge. Lidge will not be ready on Opening Day due to soreness in the back of his shoulder. Phillies fans may not be fretting too much, they likely have the best starting rotation in baseball.
The signing of Cliff Lee definitely puts the Phillies at the head of the pack. Even if Lee did not sign, the Phillies likely would have had one of the top two starting rotations in the National League, rivaled only by the Giants . But with Cliff Lee, there is no doubt Philadelphia has the best starting rotation in the Major Leagues and some may argue the best ever.
Cole Hamels would easily be a No. 1 or No. 2 starter for almost any other team in the majors. A powerful left-handed pitcher is a much prized commodity in MLB , but Hamels is relegated to the No. 4 position on the current Phillies staff.
The likely rotation from one to four will be Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, 2008 Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, who was the No. 1 starter for Houston for many years, and Hamels. One could argue the World Series is in the bag for Philly.
Looking at history, there is one team that had a starting rotation similar to the 2011 Phillies: the Atlanta Braves .
The Braves made the transition from perennial loser to perennial champion in 1991, but their starting staff became dominant in 1993 when they signed Greg Maddux.
The Braves had already come off of two pennant winning seasons but no championships. The Braves won 104 games the year Maddux signed but did not even win the pennant despite such dominant starting pitching.
From 1993-1999, the Braves would enter the season with a starting rotation consisting of three Cy Young award winners: John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. They were accompanied by top pitchers like Steve Avery, Kevin Millwood, Denny Neagle and Kent Mercker. Despite such a dominant pitching staff filled with Cy Young award winners and top tier pitchers, the Braves could only win one World Championship.
There are many reasons the experts cite for why the Braves did not win more than one World Series, but I will argue that the main reason is they did not possess a front line closer until 1995.
From 1993-1995 (’94 was a strike shortened year), the Braves closers were Mike Stanton, Greg McMichael and a young Mark Wohlers. Though they were good pitchers, they were not the front line closer needed to win a championship.
Enter 1995. Mark Wohlers has four years of experience under his belt along with his 99-100 mph fastball, and he has his best season in the MLB saves wise with 25. He had 7 saves his previous three years combined, and the Braves won their one and only World Championship during their period of dominance in the NL East.
Enter 2011. The Phillies now have two Cy Young award winners along with two pitchers that would be No. 1 or No. 2 pitchers on most MLB teams. Seems very similar to the Braves, but unlike the Braves, the Phillies have a front line closer in Brad Lidge.
Since Lidge’s arrival in 2008, the Phillies have won two pennants and have played in the playoffs all three years he has been with the team.
But Lidge can be streaky. Lidge already was a top tier closer with the Houston Astros until Oct. 18,2005.
That was Game 5 of the NLCS. It was the top of the ninth with two out and two Cardinals on base. Albert Pujols was at bat. Lidge hung a slider to Pujols that he hit for a three run homer. Lidge was never the same, and Houston let him go after the 2007 season.
A change of scenery was the best thing that happened to Lidge as he has resurrected and reclaimed his dominant role as a top tier closer. He did have struggles in the 2009 and 2010 seasons but was able to regain his form in time for the playoff run.
But what if Lidge loses it again? What if this injury is more serious than originally diagnosed?
Unless they can find an answer at the back end of their bullpen, the mighty Phillies -who everyone thinks will win it all-may fall to the same fate as most of the Braves team of the ’90s.
Braves history shows that a dominant closer is crucial for a championship run. The Phils have one in Lidge, but he has shown a history of being inconsistent. If he pitches like the inconsistent Brad Lidge we have seen glimpses of in the past or if this Spring training injury is serious, Philadelphia may not make the championship run everyone is predicting.
Despite all the fuss about the Phillies starters, Lidge must have a good year as a closer. Otherwise, the Phillies could suffer the same fate as the Braves teams did.