Phillies rotation the stuff of legend

The Phillies signed Cliff Lee last December, and the unanimous declaration came from bloggers, columnists and just about anyone with a Twitter feed.

This was destined to be one of the greatest rotations in baseball history.

At the very least, we hadn’t seen anything of its ilk since the Atlanta Braves of the early 1990s, with John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Steve Avery, and later Greg Maddux. So, it was quite reasonable when the Philadelphia starters were widely described as the best collection of arms in a generation.

The analysis was convenient and quick, the sort of thing that often appears flawed in hindsight. But here we are, eight months after Lee put pen to paper, and there is only one conclusion to be drawn.

The Philadelphia rotation is as good as expected — and perhaps even better.

Even when including Roy Oswalt’s decent-but-not-great performance on Sunday afternoon, the team’s starters have combined for a 2.95 ERA this season.

Think about that for a moment: Only 10 qualifying NL starters entered Sunday with ERAs below 3.00. So, on average, there is less than one pitcher per staff with an ERA that low. This is best-of-the-best territory.

Yet even with Oswalt and Joe Blanton missing significant time with injuries, the Phillies’ starters have maintained that elite performance as a group.

“That’s a big reason why I came here,” Lee said of the rotation’s ERA. “I knew it was going to be something like that. We’ve got some of the best pitchers in the game right now. I think we all knew the potential. We don’t play for expectations. We just play to win.”

“They’re all extremely competitive — that’s why they’ve been so successful over their careers,” second baseman Chase Utley said. “This year, they’re competing — not only against the other team — but against the other starters. They like to be dominant. For the most part, they have been.”

The last rotation to finish a season below 3.00, according to STATS LLC, was the 1992 Atlanta Braves. So, the best-in-a-generation hype has proven prophetic indeed. And let’s not forget that this rotation has done half of its work at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park.

“Just imagine,” one scout told me over the weekend, “what their numbers would look like if they were pitching in San Diego.”

Philadelphia employs three of those 10 pitchers with sub-3.00 ERAs: Cole Hamels (2.53), Roy Halladay (2.55), and Lee (2.96). But it takes superior depth for a rotation to pitch so well for so long. And that’s where Oswalt, Vance Worley and Kyle Kendrick deserve credit, too.

While Worley hasn’t pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, his mark of 2.35 is the best for any current Philadelphia starter.

That’s one statistic none of the pundits — nor Worley himself — would have predicted after Lee’s arrival formed the super rotation. Worley remembers being at home in Sacramento on the December night when the news broke.

“I got a couple text messages from friends, basically saying, ‘You guys are loaded now. You signed Cliff,’” Worley recalled. “My heart kind of sank for a second. I was like, ‘We got Cliff. We’re going to be good. But I’m going to be back at Triple-A.’”

Worley didn’t stay there long. Blanton’s injured throwing elbow pushed Worley into the major league rotation, where he’s now 8-1. Lee believes Worley can sustain his success, saying, “From when I saw him throw his first bullpen in spring training, I knew he had the potential to be something special. I didn’t know he was going to get an opportunity this year and do what he’s done, but it doesn’t surprise me, just seeing the stuff and how he locates.”

Now comes the really entertaining discussion: Who’s the best Cy Young Award candidate on this staff?

When I posed the question to Philadelphia catcher Carlos Ruiz, he laughed and said, “Tough, huh?”

Halladay is the reigning winner, and one could argue that the award belongs to him until proven otherwise. He will extend his NL innings lead Monday in Los Angeles. He’s tied for the league lead in victories (14). He again ranks among the top three in ERA.

“He’s definitely the hardest-working pitcher I’ve ever seen,” Lee said. “I heard that before I even had the chance to play with him. He’s obviously the best — just about anyone can agree with that. Any other argument don’t make a whole lot of sense, in my opinion. When the best works as hard as he works, that’s refreshing.

“It’s hard to justify yourself slacking on things when you know the best in the game has the best work ethic. That’s good for the game. It’s good for the other players to see.”

But Doc’s toughest challenger for the Cy Young Award might come from within his own clubhouse. Hamels moved ahead of Halladay in ERA and WHIP with Saturday’s complete-game humbling of the Giants. And the lefty has pitched almost as many innings.

“Throwing a cutter now has made his repertoire that much better,” Lee said of Hamels. “He’s got more command. When I was here (in 2009), he was having a rough year. He’s just matured. He’s gained experience. With Halladay being added to the team, (Cole’s) got a chance to see the best and pick up some things from him.”

To be sure, there are other viable Cy Young candidates across the NL. Clayton Kershaw is well on his way to winning the strikeout title, while Cincinnati’s Johnny Cueto and San Francisco’s Ryan Vogelsong rank 1-2 in ERA, ahead of Hamels and Halladay.

Still, Cueto and Vogelsong are more than 50 innings behind Hamels and Halladay, and there’s something to be said for every-fifth-day reliability from Opening Day onward. And if the Philly rotation indeed posts the majors’ best ERA in nearly two decades, then it’s hard to imagine the Cy Young Award going to someone who pitches for another club.

After all, the Phillies entered Sunday leading all major league rotations in innings, complete games, shutouts, strikeouts, WHIP and (we can only assume) efforts at world peace.

So, yeah, Lee is glad he came back.

“I’m happy,” Lee said. “Everything’s played out the way I expected. We’ve won from the beginning. We’re still winning. We’ve got a good team. The management’s not content. They continue to improve, with adding (Hunter) Pence. He’s made us that much better. It’s good to know that they’re going to try to improve, even though we’ve been winning.”

BELTRAN: WHERE’S THE IMPACT?

There should be no illusions about the Giants’ trade for Carlos Beltran: He is going to be a free agent after this season. He is represented by Scott Boras. He doesn’t carry draft-pick compensation. He is a two-to-three-month rental in the truest sense.

For Giants fans to be comfortable with giving up pitching prospect Zack Wheeler, Beltran must produce big, and he must do so quickly.

That hasn’t happened yet.

Beltran is batting .244 in 11 games as a Giant. He has yet to hit a home run. He has yet to produce an extra-base hit with a runner on base. And now he has a sprained right wrist, clouding the immediate horizon of what has always been a short-term proposition.

X-rays of the wrist were negative, but reasons for concern persist. Beltran spoke of a “sharp pain” and weakness on the top of his right hand — the sort of things that can sap a hitter’s power even if there’s no structural damage.

This is an impatient time of year for most contending clubs — and their fans. The Giants are no exception, as a small minority of fans began booing Beltran over the weekend. Asked about the jeers, Beltran smiled and quipped, “Nothing compared to New York.”

A PEEK AHEAD AT THE GIANTS’ FUTURE

The Giants’ rotation, while younger than the Phillies’, may undergo significant changes more quickly. Vogelsong, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez are all on track to become free agents following the 2012 season.

Vogelsong could have an intriguing salary arbitration case after this year. He’s been one of the best starters in baseball this season, but the rest of his major league track record is much less impressive (and largely as a relief pitcher). Fortunately for Vogelsong, platform years tend to carry the greatest weight in the arbitration process.

Barry Zito’s contract — on which two years and $46 million remain after this year — didn’t prevent the Giants from winning the 2010 World Series. But the investment in Zito, which soured quickly, could make it harder for the Giants to afford their current talent.