It takes more than arms to wear baseball's crown

February 19, 2011 

Ah, spring training. It's a time for unbridled hopes, dreams and optimism.

On paper, all 30 major league baseball teams start even -- 0-0. But Las Vegas odds on a team making the World Series are far from even. Right now there are 10 teams listed at 40-1 or higher.

As I read various newspapers online and listen to TV analysts, there are great expectations from coast to coast -- even for Pittsburgh, the team with the worst record (57-105) in baseball last season. New Pirates manager Clint Hurdle says the talent is there to resurrect the once-proud franchise.

The fact that two longshots -- San Francisco and Texas -- made it to the 2010 World Series nurtures the dream of those with little or no chance to be playing in October.

But the reality is that there are three elephants in the house and one of them, Philadelphia, may have the best pitching rotation in baseball history.

The other two, Boston and the New York Yankees, are loaded after spending more than $300 million on free agents in the offseason.

However, the Yankees missed out on the free agent pitcher they wanted most -- left-hander Cliff Lee -- and his decision to sign on with the Phillies has made them an even-money favorite to make it to the World Series. (The Red Sox and Yankees are both 5-2.)

Lee joins Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton to give the Phillies the potential to have the best five-man starting rotation ever. The key word here is "potential."

Baseball historians generally have agreed that up to now the three best starting groups are the 1954 Cleveland Indians, the 1971 Baltimore Orioles and the 1998 Atlanta Braves. Take your pick:

  • 1954 Indians: Won 111 games with Early Wynn (23-11), Bob Lemon (23-7), Mike Garcia (19-8), Art Houtteman (15-7) and Bob Feller (13-3).

  • 1971 Orioles: Won 101 games with Dave McNally (21-5), Mike Cuellar (20-9), Jim Palmer (20-9) and Pat Dobson (20-8).

  • 1998 Braves: Won 106 games with Tom Glavine (20-6), Greg Maddux (18-9), John Smoltz (17-3), Kevin Millwood (17-8) and Denny Neagle (16-11).

    It is interesting that none of those teams won the World Series. The '54 Indians lost four straight to the New York Giants in the WS; the '71 O's lost to Pittsburgh in a seven-game WS; and the '98 Braves didn't even make the World Series, losing to San Diego in the National League championship series.

    So the Phillies can really make history if they win the World Series this year.

    "We've got a chance to be a special club," Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel said in an interview with USA Today this week."Every guy we send out there is capable of being great."

    However, there are two big ifs standing in the way of success for the Phillies: Can they stay healthy over the 162-game season? Can they produce enough runs to support the pitching?

    These days, pitchers end up on the disabled list more often than they did back in the 1950s and '70s. So it becomes a question of how often and how serious are the inevitable injuries.

    But the real Philadelphia weakness is on the offensive side. Last year the Phillies went through long periods of poor hitting. They did nothing to correct this problem. As a matter of fact, they lost one of their best hitters, Jayson Werth, to free agency.

    Many baseball people claim that great pitching can make up for mediocre hitting. The Phillies may put that theory to the test in 2011.

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