The Phillies seemingly put themselves on a tier above practically all other MLB teams when they re-acquired Cliff Lee before the 2011 season, bringing back their southpaw savior from the '09 campaign, in which Philadelphia put up a fight in the World Series vs. New York. Adding Lee to a starting pitching rotation that already included NL Cy Young winner Roy Halladay and impressive trade acquisition Roy Oswalt, as well as former Series MVP Cole Hamels, made the Phils an obvious playoff contender, with analysts everywhere praising the team's "legion of arms." But how is the heralded rotation faring thus far in '11?
The Phillies sit atop the NL East as of early June, and they've been able to maintain a sufficient amount of offensive success without the presence of guys like Chase Utley and Shane Victorino for lengthy periods of time. However, the rotation hasn't exactly been as dominant as expected. While it's arguable the team's pitching is the primary reason Philadelphia is heading its divisional race because of inconsistencies on the other side of the ball, it'd be impossible to argue the "Phearsome Phoursome" of starters has performed as well as projected, especially with the type of contracts the organization handed out to make the rotation what it is today. When Lee was reeled back to the City of Brotherly Love, the general consensus was that the Phillies would simply become a shutdown defensive club as a result of the pitching firepower, but it's fair to say the well-recognized group of starters has yet to reach its full potential as a whole.
On the bright side of the rotation, there are the two H's--Halladay and Hamels. The former hasn't faltered in his role as the No. 1 starter; there's no other way to put it. With a record of 8-3 and an earned run average of just 2.56 through 13 appearances on the mound, he's been one of the most productive players on the team, and with a more reliable offensive unit, he could very well have been heading into the summer with a double-digit win total. While he's expected to put up these kinds of numbers because of his reputation, Halladay's excellent control and ability to manage a game as the pitcher are always admirable, and his presence in the rotation is nothing other than an evident force. If he keeps up his current pace, another Cy Young Award isn't out of the question, while Hamels has similarly been wowing fans with an impressive season. Since his sophomore year at the professional level, the 27-year-old left-hander hasn't eclipsed the 15-win total, but he's well on pace to surpass that mark in 2011, with eight victories of his own at this point. His ERA is nearly just as good as Halladay's at 2.58, while he has the fifth most strikeouts in the National League as one of the Phillies' emerging reliable starters.
When it comes to Lee, the prized acquisition of the offseason, and last year's down-the-stretch pitching wonder, Oswalt, it's hard to justify giving as much praise. When the former was previously with the Phillies, he absolutely dominated opposing batters with his array of pitches, firing the ball to seemingly whichever location he wanted. That same aspect of control hasn't been as evident in 2011, as Lee's been awfully inconsistent for a player that was brought in as a proverbial cherry on top of the sundae and is making over $100 million. He's been a top-notch recorder of strikeouts and while a bit more run support could have boosted his statistics to this point, it's clear he hasn't been nearly as effective as he once was, and with a record of 5-5 and an ERA of over 3.60, there is definitely some room for improvement. As for Oswalt, who lost just one game as a starter for the Phils in 2010, a number of issues have clouded his season, from a nagging back injury to a leave of absence following tornadoes that affected his family in Mississippi. To top those, which have limited his time on the mound, he also has yet to solidify himself as a reliable part of the rotation, acting as somewhat of an enigma in the 56 innings he's thrown.
Of course, it'd be unfair not to mention the likes of Joe Blanton as well; after all, he is part of the rotation. But it seems Big Joe's tenure in Philadelphia could very well be nearing its end. He's basically been a non-factor as the fifth starter this year, spending time on the DL and struggling to produce early in the year, and the fact that minor league prospect Vance Worley's been called upon for several starts indicates the team will soon be looking in another direction. Kyle Kendrick's also made some contributions, but the general consensus is that he's best suited to remain in his bullpen/emergency starter role.
Overall, the Phillies will need their top-notch pitching rotation to step up its game if the offense continues to struggle and the team intends on competing for its second World Series title in three years. Half of the heralded group is performing either up to or above expectations, but the other half needs to separate itself from the woes of inconsistency and provide Philadelphia the reliable, shutdown defense everyone figured the Phils would possess in 2011. In a few months, the aces will truly be tested when the Phillies make what's become a perennial hunt in October to advance in the postseason.