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Phillies vs. Giants: Which Rotation is Most Impressive?

The crown jewel of the 2010 Hot Stove has chosen his city, and it wasn’t New York.

SP Cliff Lee chose surroundings and talent over money, signing a five-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Former Texas Rangers starting pitcher Cliff Lee, the most sought-out free agent in the market this offseason, had his choice of teams to join for 2011. Many pundits believed the all-world SP had two options: A) return to the Rangers, the team he willed to an AL championship, for another run at the World Series; or B) take a ridiculous amount of money to play for the New York Yankees, simultaneously cementing himself as a mercenary, and proving to the rest of the baseball world that a franchise can buy a championship at will. When Lee made his decision, however, the two teams fighting for his services were both left at the altar.

The Philadelphia Phillies, the team he played for when they lost to the Yankees in the 2009 World Series, was his ultimate choice. Coming off a disappointing loss to the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants in the 2010 NLCS, the Phillies were apparently willing to make a big splash in free agency. Despite the fact that Philadelphia was in no one’s radar to make a move for Lee, the Phillies seemingly swept in and signed him to a five-year, $120 million deal. Lee ended up spurning the Yankees’ superior six-year offer, leaving a reported $30 million on the table to play for a city that could offer better treatment for his leukemia-ridden son, and also, no doubt, to please his wife.

With the addition of Lee, the storyline was simple and straight-forward: the Philadelphia Phillies boasted, perhaps, the greatest pitching rotation in the history of Major League Baseball. Lee’s playoff exploits have been well-documented, and only adds to a pitching staff that already boasted all-stars like Roy “Doc” Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Lee, Halladay and Oswalt were practically living legends when they played for the Cleveland Indians, Toronto Blue Jays and Houston Astros, respectively. The combined talents, it seemed, reeked of the Miami Heat’s Big 3 – a giant talent like Lee joining an already stellar lineup, joining forces with Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels to win a championship. With all four starters projected to win at least 15 games with a sub-3.50 ERA, many are saying this rotation could top the 1971 Baltimore Orioles, who many experts believe to be the greatest all-around pitching rotation in history.

The Phillies’ Halladay, Oswalt, Hamels and Lee could have a season of historic proportions in 2011 …

Yet, with all the praise, pomp and circumstance heaped upon this vaunted Phillies rotation, there is one city who would most likely beg to differ.

The 2010 San Francisco Giants broke through to their first World Series championship in 56 years on timely hitting and clutch pitching. While the Phillies, who had the best record in the NL in 2010, boasted the most heralded pitching rotation to go along with a potent offensive attack, the Giants had aces of their own. Two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum headed a pitching rotation that had hit their stride at exactly the right time. While Lincecum is the most decorated pitcher, Matt Cain is probably the rotation’s steadiest hurler, while Jonathan Sanchez may have the best raw talent of the four. Madison Bumgarner, a rookie in 2010, proved his worth in the postseason, and might have the highest ceiling of the four.

Despite their obvious pitching talent, many thought that the Giants, who had a virtual no-name offense, would not be able to match the Phillies run-for-run, and would be a speed bump on their way to a dream World Series matchup against the Yankees. Instead, the Giants came out on top. With clutch hits from Cody Ross, Aubrey Huff and Juan Uribe, the pitching staff, aided by closers Javier Lopez and Brian Wilson, kept the Phillies offense in check, ending the series in 6 games. They kept up their hot pitching and out-of-nowhere offense in the World Series, beating the revered Cliff Lee in Games 1 and 5 to win it all.

… But could Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner and Sanchez end up as the better one down the road?

All told, the Giants’ staff matched the Phillies’ current Four Aces pitch-for-pitch where it mattered most – in the postseason. Their record against what is arguably the best pitching staff of all time? 4-2, with an astonishingly impressive 2.62 ERA. On the flipside, the Four Aces compiled an Earned Run Average that is nearly double the Giants – a 4.45 ERA. And, lest we forget, the Giants went up against superior lineups, in the Phillies and the Rangers. Philadelphia had the 12th-ranked offense in 2010, with a .262 BA, while the Rangers boasted the season’s top-ranked offense, with a team BA of .276. By comparison, the Giants had the 16th-ranked offense, with a .257 BA. When broken down this postseason, the Giants seem to be the better pitching staff head-to-head.

Then, there is the fact that, compared to the Phillies’ current pitching staff, the Giants are younger, fresher, and, arguably, less prone to break down throughout the regular season. Comparatively, the top five pitchers for San Francisco are much younger than the top five in Philadelphia: Giants pitchers average 26.6 years old, while Phillies pitchers average 30.8 years old. Taking out Barry Zito and Joe Blanton, respectively, the average age difference rises from 4.2 to 5.75 (25.75 years old to 31.0 years old). That’s five seasons worth of fresher arms, on average. And, considering the potential ceiling each of these Giants pitchers have, they may end up a better pitching staff, historically, than the Four Aces. And, what’s more – these are all homegrown pitchers.

Then again, we’ll just have to see who comes out on top in the 2011 season. Not to rain on anyone’s parade, but … I’m just sayin’.

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