Actually, Cliff Lee Did Sign With the Yankees

Exactly one year ago today, I wrote about the trade that brought Roy Halladay to Philadelphia. I argued that trading a franchise player is difficult but sometimes necessary; for a franchise to remain healthy, it must at times redefine itself in catastrophic ways. For Toronto, the Halladay trade was like a forest fire. It caused harm, but also cleared the way for rebirth. It would allow the ecosystem that surrounds the Blue Jays to evolve and regenerate.

But I was focusing on the wrong ecosystem. History has recently proven that I should have been thinking about the team that acquired Halladay, not the one that traded him. It was the Phillies all along. Their place in the enclosed world order of baseball –itself a sort of ecosystem, defined as much by fan and media perception as by success on the field of play* – has changed as much as any team’s in the last five years.

Somehow, the Phillies have become the Yankees. And not the current Yankees whom they just bested in the Lee sweepstakes either, but the Yankees of a decade ago who were not only loaded with homegrown talent, but seemed to operate in their own fantastical marketplace – unencumbered by competing interests, financial limitations, karma, and gravity.

Ted observed that the Philadelphia starting rotation is the kind you achieve in video game franchise modes after seasons of simulating and savvy maneuvering. This seems accurate. But to me what they most resemble is a rock supergroup. Whether or not the music sucks, they are sure to sell a million records.

For the Phillies, this amounts to a luxury. Say all four have bad years. Even at their worst, they are still four relatively good pitchers. If one gets hurt, the rotation is still among the best in baseball. And if the offense struggles for an extended period like it did last year, then at least there are the Traveling Philburies (couldn’t help myself) to fall back on.  With the return of Cliff Lee, the departure of Jayson Werth has been rendered trivial. The Phillies can play below expectations and suffer a rash of injuries but still win. This is what it means to be the new Yankees.

Still one can’t help but wonder how the quality of their coworkers will affect these four pitchers. God knows Kris Kristofferson didn’t do his best work with the Highwaymen. And great pitchers, like great songwriters, are lonesome figures. They thrive on the pressure of our expectations. What happens to the psychology of an ace – say Lee – when that burden is considerably lightened? Will he still be able to muster the same easy brilliance? Or will complacency be his downfall?

*For instance, despite a World Series victory, nobody is putting the Giants at the top of any baseball franchise food chain.

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