When the stunning news broke late on the night of Dec. 13, the Phillies' offseason immediately became a winter celebration of Cliff Lee's return.
In the eyes of the team's fans, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had erased his biggest mistake by signing Lee as a free agent.
The loss of Lee alone in a trade with Seattle the year before was enough to make the average fan cringe, but the fact the three minor-leaguers obtained for Lee struggled mightily through their first seasons in the Phillies organization compounded the negative perception.
A year later, there are signs that the Lee trade with Seattle might also work in the Phillies' favor.
"The Cliff Lee deal, when it's all said and done, we're going to get major-league players out of that deal," assistant general manager Chuck LaMar said. "It might take longer than people wanted it to, but if we can keep Tyson Gillies on the field and healthy, there is the potential that all three of those guys will help us."
Gillies, still sidelined by a lingering hamstring issue that is expected to keep him out another two to four weeks, remains the biggest concern among the three players obtained for Lee.
The greatest reason for optimism, on the other hand, is Phillippe Aumont, the 6-foot-7 righthander who once ranked 83d among Baseball America's top prospects. After going a combined 3-11 with a 5.68 ERA last year at double-A Reading and single-A Clearwater, Aumont returned for spring training this year with renewed confidence.
"I showed up [for spring training] in early January, and I came in with a different mind-set," Aumont said. "Last year was a little different. It was a different environment, and I guess it affected some stuff. It shouldn't have, but I guess it happened. Now, I've moved on, and I'm ready to go this year."
LaMar said Aumont's transformation was visible from the moment the former first-round draft pick arrived in Clearwater.
"He was easily the most improved player in this year's camp," LaMar said. "He was coming off a successful stint pitching for the Canadian team in the World Cup, and we told him before he left last year that he was going to move back to the bullpen, which he wanted to do. You could tell a weight had been lifted. He felt that was the most efficient way to get to the major leagues."
A man named Jack Curtis also helped Aumont with his mental approach. Curtis was hired by the Phillies as a mental skills coach after previously working with Seattle, the team that drafted Aumont. Curtis also has ties to the late Harvey Dorfman, the man who mentored Phillies ace Roy Halladay on his mental approach.
"He helped me a lot," Aumont said. "We talked a lot about being positive and having a positive mind-set. I feel like that carried into spring training, and that helped me a lot."
Aumont's new approach has also carried into the season at Reading, the same place he started a year ago before being demoted to Clearwater. Through four games, the 22-year-old pitcher had not allowed a hit, walked one, and struck out eight in 52/3 innings. He also had a save.
"I had some success in 2009 with the Mariners coming out of the bullpen, and I was comfortable with the transition there," Aumont said. "Don't get me wrong. Last year when they told me I was going to be a starter again, I had some excitement. I thought it was going to be a little easier than expected. But going back to the 'pen is going to be much better."
LaMar is excited because he now sees the same Aumont he saw when the pitcher was in high school in Quebec. Like almost every Canadian kid, Aumont loved hockey, but he never played in organized leagues because the cost was too prohibitive. During his struggles last year, he said he wondered a few times if the NHL would have been a better pursuit.
"I probably love hockey as much as I love baseball," Aumont said. "I played a lot of hockey when I was younger. I never played organized. It's an expensive sport. You have to change skates and equipment every year, and it gets expensive for parents. Plus, the programs are really expensive, too."
Aumont believes if he had played organized hockey he might have been able to make it to the NHL.
"I believe if I had played organized that I'd be close to the NHL if not in the NHL," he said. "I'm not saying that in a cocky way or anything. I just feel if I would have got the coaching and the technique of how to skate, I would have had a chance."
Fellow minor-league reliever Scott Mathieson agreed.
"He has like a 103-m.p.h. slap shot," Mathieson said. "He's unbelievable at hockey."
The Phillies, of course, are happy things worked out the way they did. With Aumont back on track and J.C. Ramirez, another acquisition in the deal with Seattle, throwing seven innings of one-run ball for Reading in his 2011 debut, there is reason to believe the Lee trade with Seattle will be a good one after all.
Aumont said he has not met the man he was traded for after the 2009 season, but he hopes to do that some day.
"I think it would be fun to talk to him," Aumont said. "Hopefully I'll get to meet him this year."
He meant in Philadelphia, another sign that Aumont is a new man.
The IronPigs opened the season with a win, marking the first time they have been over .500 in the four-year history of the franchise. Veteran big-leaguer Ronnie Belliard went into Saturday's game hitting a team-high .407 and lefty Mike Zagurski had seven strikeouts and a save in 31/3 scoreless innings.
Just a few months after being added to the 40-man roster in the winter, first baseman Matt Rizzotti was removed from that roster at the end of spring training and sent to Reading after finishing last season with triple-A Lehigh Valley. Any team could have claimed him after he was removed from the 40-man roster, but nobody did.
"I told him to go play like he's capable of playing, and he'll get back to triple A," Phillies assistant general manager Chuck LaMar said. "We like Matt, but he needs to continue to work on his defense, and in certain counts he has to be able to produce with more power. He needs to be good enough at first base to stay in the game if he goes up as a pinch-hitter, and if he's sitting on the bench he has to have some kind of extra-base power. That's the two things we challenged him to improve on."
Rizzotti is off to a sensational start, hitting .485 with eight doubles, two home runs, and six RBIs in his first nine games.
Pitcher Brody Colvin was removed from a game last Sunday with "a slight pull in his lower back," LaMar said.
"Everything checked out OK with the back specialist," LaMar said. "We just didn't want him to alter his delivery and start changing things."
Joe Savery, a 2007 first-round pick, went into Saturday with a .594 average as he tries to make the transition from pitcher to first baseman. He had at least two hits in seven of the Threshers' first nine games.
Ten of the Blue Claws' 13 position players were hitting below .200 going into Saturday, but 10 of their 12 pitchers had an ERA below 2.00.
- Bob Brookover