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Inside the Phillies: Rotation a one-year phenomenon?

Euphoria is still in the cold winter air. The nicknames are pouring in: Phab Phour, R2-C2, The Phour Aces, The Phour Tops.

The Phillies have built one of the best starting rotations of all time, but how long will it last? (Staff File Photos)
The Phillies have built one of the best starting rotations of all time, but how long will it last? (Staff File Photos)Read more

Euphoria is still in the cold winter air.

The nicknames are pouring in: Phab Phour, R2-C2, The Phour Aces, The Phour Tops.

The anticipation for the start of a season has never been greater for a franchise smack in the middle of its golden age.

We interrupt this Phillies starting rotation celebration with a cold dose of reality: It's entirely possible it could be a one-and-done situation.

It is remarkable that Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and his cast of capable assistants have brought back Cliff Lee to join a rotation that includes two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, 2005 NLCS MVP Roy Oswalt, and 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP Cole Hamels.

What would be even more remarkable is keeping that cast together in 2012.

As diligent as the Phillies were in bringing back Lee, it was possible only because the 32-year-old Arkansas native had fallen so deeply in love with the team and the city during his three-month stay here in 2009.

That, in itself, is amazing given how short Lee's stay in Philadelphia was and the fact that he ended up back in the World Series with the Texas Rangers in 2010. At last check, Arlington, Texas, is a lot closer to Benton, Ark., than Philadelphia.

Add in the fact that the New York Yankees, with their bottomless pockets, were bidding for Lee's services and you still have to shake your head six days after the news broke.

For Lee, it wasn't about location, location, location, or money, money, money. It was about the Phillies, Phillies, Phillies. For those of us old enough to remember Frank Lucchesi, Nick Leyva, Erik Plantenberg, and Ricky Otero, it will take a lot longer than a week for that to sink in.

More to the point, it is not something the Phillies or their fans should take for granted, and that's one big reason that keeping this rotation together for more than one season will be a challenge.

The fact that Lee was willing to take a back-loaded contract that will pay him $11 million in 2011 made the deal and the dream rotation possible. It kept the Phillies' payroll at around $160 million for 19 players with some additions and probable subtractions still to come.

All indications from Amaro and team president David Montgomery during Lee's introductory news conference Wednesday were that the Phillies' payroll was about at its breaking point.

"We're no longer flexible," Amaro said in a joking manner about a serious matter. "We've reached our flex point."

The Phillies will try to dump the $17 million remaining on the final two years of righthander Joe Blanton's contract to free up some salary space, but even if they succeed in that venture, the payroll likely will remain north of $160 million for 2011.

If that's the breaking point, then the Phillies will have a serious payroll problem in 2012. Even if you subtract Blanton, if the Phillies want to keep the four starters intact and retain closer Brad Lidge, the payroll will be at $127 million for only 10 players.

Three players not included in that group are Hamels, shortstop Jimmy Rollins and reliever Ryan Madson. Hamels will be eligible for salary arbitration after the 2011 season, and it's possible the Phillies will try to sign him to a long-term deal before then. It's also possible Hamels will wait to become a free agent in the hope of cashing in with a team like the Yankees.

Rollins and Madson are free agents after next season. You can say that they should just let Rollins walk after consecutive declining seasons, but the Phillies do not have a shortstop in their system ready to take his place; he remains arguably the best defensive shortstop in the National League.

If you want to keep Hamels, Rollins and Madson, you're probably talking about at least an additional $30 million to the payroll for 2012.

"The reality is we will have some decisions to make," Montgomery said.

One of those decisions could be to exercise the $2 million buyout on the final year of Oswalt's contract. He is scheduled to make $16 million in 2011 and in 2012. Another option could be to let Lidge walk for a $1.5 million buyout rather than pay him $12.5 million in 2012. In that case, the Phillies would need a closer, and perhaps they would pay Madson a little less money to assume the role.

Some difficult decisions lie ahead for the Phillies, but for now, euphoria is in the air.

"This was an opportunity to give our fans and our organization as strong an opportunity as we can to reach our goal in 2011," Montgomery said. "The puzzle beyond that is a challenge, but we have a good man working on it and a good organization working on it. We'll try to put that puzzle together when we get to 2012."