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Lee doesn't guarantee a championship

Somewhere, Mets owner Fred Wilpon is thinking that Bernie Madoff is the least of his problems, and retired Braves manager Bobby Cox is telling his wife that he can't wait to take that April cruise after all.

The Phillies were the reasonably prohibitive favorites to win the National League East and now they are the ridiculously prohibitive favorites. That much is a given, as we all go about the business of picking up our jaws off of the floor and preparing for the return of Cliff Lee to the starting rotation.

What is there to say, after "wow"?

It is hard to spin this as anything but the story of the year in baseball in 2011, this rotation for the ages, this return of Lee a year after he was spurned by the Phillies and traded away to the far left side of the continent. The assembled rotation — Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels — will be the talk of the sport. The Phillies' quest for another world championship will be as well-chronicled as it will be expected.

That this is historic goes without saying.

That history is not their friend, though, seems odd.

But the last five teams who had at least four starters win at least 15 games — which is now one of the presumptions for the 2011 Phillies — were the 1993 Braves, the 1998 Braves, the 2001 Mariners, the 2003 Yankees and the 2004 Cardinals. The Yankees won the fewest games of the bunch (101) and the Mariners won the most (an astounding 116).

None of them won the World Series.

Since 1990, there have been six other teams who had at least four full-time starters with an earned run average below 3.50 — which, again, is what most people around here are expecting now that Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has pulled off another in a series of stunners.

But none of those six won the World Series, either.

In the humbling business that is major league baseball, there is nothing approaching a guarantee in October. Not to spoil the celebration or anything — and the truth is, this Phillies team is going to win a ton of games between now and then, and this acquisition of Lee really does signal an organizational commitment to winning that (measured in dollars) is unprecedented in the history of this city, in any sport — but we won't know until we all assemble, 10 months from now, for the postseason reckoning.

In the quest for balanced excellence, would it have made more sense to sign the righthanded power bat wielded by Jayson Werth? It is a fair question — or at least it was a fair question, until we discovered that the Washington Nationals were out of their minds.

In a sport where the bullpen tends to mean more than it ever has — and where the yearly output of bullpen pitchers has never been less predictable — would it have made more sense to stockpile some cash in the anticipation of making the kind of in-season move that often proves to be the difference? Again, it is a more than fair question. If the Phillies turn out to be financially paralyzed from here on, they have made a mistake.

Finally, will it be difficult to corral the egos of four pitchers, each of whom would be the undisputed No. 1 starter in many, many major league cities — especially when one of them will have to be told at some point that he will be a bit of an afterthought in the postseason? This excess of creative tension might not end up being an issue at all, but it also might end up being a test of manager Charlie Manuel's considerable people skills.

All of that said, if there was no worthy righthanded bat on the market, and no creative or sensible way to acquire one, then this makes for an astounding alternative strategy. Yes, yes, the hole in the middle of the lineup remains. But there are many ways to kill a cockroach, and the Phillies have chosen the biggest hammer in the drawer, and it is all we will talk about all summer as the Phillies cruise through the National League East.

That much, we know.