SO CHARLIE MANUEL and Rich Dubee are talking the other night and they're so happy that Cliff Lee is coming back that the Phillies' pitching coach gets a little carried away. "We could hit Lee fifth behind Ryan Howard," he said.
"Oh, no we can't," the manager replied.
Manuel laughed when he told the story yesterday, but he understands that there's more to baseball than assembling a quartet of starting pitchers that, on paper at least, could be one of the best ever. Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels are going to give up some runs and the Phillies will still have to score more on any given night to win.
The Phillies were held to three or fewer runs 75 times last season. They were shut out 11 times. And since the season ended, they lost their primary righthanded power threat, Jayson Werth, to free agency.
Not only that, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. admitted yesterday that the $120 million that Lee is guaranteed over the next 5 years has pretty much used up all his financial wiggle room.
Manuel insisted that the situation isn't as dire as it might appear.
He noted that, for all the attention given to their offensive inconsistency, they still finished second in the National League with 772 runs scored.
Fair enough. Offense was down across baseball last season, but that's still the lowest total since 2002 and a whopping 120 fewer than they scored in 2007.
The manager said a string of injuries that allowed him to field his regular lineup for only a handful of games is part of the reason. And he expects some of his stars to bounce back after subpar years in 2010.
"Chase Utley hit .275. I know he's a better hitter than that and he does, too. Ryan Howard is capable of having a better season," he said. "And Jimmy Rollins is a guy we need to come back and have a big season. If we get those guys, our core players, have the kind of years they're capable of, our offense still can be very good."
Still, there's no obvious replacement for Werth.
"We've got options. I do think [Ben] Francisco can hit and I think Domonic Brown has a lot of talent. When we get to spring training, Domonic is going to play a lot and we've got 6 weeks to try to really get on him and teach him as much baseball as we can. That's the only thing he really needs to learn, is to play more and get more experience and also [gain] more knowledge of the game," he said.
"We've got ways to fill our holes. I'm not afraid to send a young kid out there and give him a chance because I think we have the lineup that can protect him."
Francisco bats righthanded but Brown would make a lineup that already includes Utley, Howard and Raul Ibanez even more heavily lefthanded.
Still, Manuel insisted he's ready to go into the season with the players already on the roster. "I love offense but at the same time, but when you get into big moments of the season and big games, pitching definitely stands out more," he said.
Even though the payroll is maxed out, look for the Phillies to announce in the upcoming days that former St. Louis lefthander Dennys Reyes has been signed. Reyes agreed to a 1-year contract with an option that guarantees him $1.25 million last week at the winter meetings.
He's expected to take a physical today. Assuming he passes, the Phillies will have to make a move to be able to add him to the 40-man roster.
Cliff Lee and Jayson Werth, who signed a 7-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals, became friends while Phillies teammates. And, yes, they've talked on the phone since Lee made his decision to return to Philadelphia.
"I don't know if I can say exactly how that conversation went down, to be honest with you," he said with a grin. "I know once we both got on the free-agent market, we talked about trying to get on the same team. Obviously, it didn't happen. When he found out I was coming here, he wasn't the happiest person in the world. I'll put it that way."
Here are a couple of ways of looking at what the Phillies might be able to expect from their top four starters in 2011:
The Phillies were 22-11 when Roy Halladay started last season and 18-15 with Cole Hamels. The Astros and Phillies were 17-15 when Roy Oswalt started and the Mariners and Rangers were 16-18 with Lee on the mound. That's a .533 winning percentage which projects to 70 wins based on a total of 132 starts.
But that bottom line changes dramatically if the calculation is based on what each pitcher has done for the Phillies. The team was 10-1 in Oswalt's starts last season and 7-4 during Lee's tenure in 2009.
That would result in 91 wins plus whatever they would get from the 30 starts that would theoretically be filled by the fifth starters.