Spring Training 2011 Question Of The Day: Philadelphia Phillies

CLEARWATER FL - FEBRUARY 19: Pitcher Cliff Lee #33 of the Philadelphia Phillies throws from the mound during a spring training workout February 19 2011 the Carpenter Complex at Bright House Field in Clearwater Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

The Philadelphia Phillies are dealing with some injuries, but their brilliant starting pitchers give them the edge over every other team in the National League. Are those starters good enough to combine for 80 wins, though?

There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at the Philadelphia Phillies.

Yes, the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies are probably still the best team in the National League, as predicted a month or two ago.

No, they are not perfect. A month or two ago, their lineup was supposed to feature one of the great second basemen of this era, and a hot prospect in right field.

Well, now Chase Utley's slated to open the season on the Disabled List, and so is the hot prospect. You can't blame Charlie Manuel for worrying about his offense. Even if Utley will probably be back at some point, and Domonic Brown is expected back in April. Managers are paid good money to worry.

Everything will probably work out in the end, though.

Leaving aside the injuries, then, the A-Number-One Question this spring is pretty obvious ...

How good can the Phillies' rotation be?

The answer is perhaps just as obvious ...

Really, really good.

So good, in fact, that after Cliff Lee shocked the world by signing with the Phillies this winter, at least a few wags openly discussed the possibility of four Philadelphia Phillies winning 20 games this season.

Granted, I don't think many serious observers believe that's more than a remote possibility, but I do think it's worth taking a moment to explore just how remote. 

There have a been a great number of fantastic rotations over the years. In Bill James's new book, Solid Fool's Gold, he comes up with a method for ranking rotations, and presents the 33 greatest (according to the method).

No. 7 on the list -- they're in chronological order -- are the 1920 Chicago White/Black Sox. There have been only two teams in major-league history with four 20-game winners, and this was the first.

The second (and the last) was the 1971 Orioles, with 20-game winners Jim Palmer, Pat Dobson, Dave McNally and Mike Cuellar. It's almost literally true that all four were 20-game winners. Palmer, Dobson and Cuellar won 20 on the nose, and McNally won 21.

For our purposes, what's interesting isn't that they combined for 81 wins. What's interesting is that they combined for 142 starts and 1081 innings. The very best case for the Phillies this season is, what? Maybe 130 starts and 900 innings? And I should mention, because it's worth mentioning, that the '71 Orioles led the American League in scoring. Those guys in the rotation were excellent pitchers -- granted, not quite as excellent as these Phillies -- who threw a ton of innings, but they still managed only 81 wins, just over the bar.

Of course, the greatest rotation of more recent seasons was the Atlanta Braves' in the 1990s. Bill James describes the 1997 squad as "the greatest starting rotation of the last forty years, if not the greatest of all time."

Care to guess how many 20-game winners they had?

One.

(And major bonus points if you knew that lone 20-game winner was Denny Neagle.)

Greg Maddux's first season with the Braves was 1993; his last was 2003. Leaving aside the two strike seasons (1994-1995), we've got nine seasons in which the Braves had great starting pitchers and any number of potential 20-game winners.

Care to guess how many they actually had, in all those years?

Seven. Seven in nine years. One of them was Denny Neagle. Another was Russ Ortiz.

That's right. In all those years, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz combined for five 20-win seasons. Three for Glavine, and one apiece for Maddux and Smoltz. Just once did the Braves have more than one 20-game winner; in '93, Maddux won 20, Glavine 22.

Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels constitute a truly formidable rotation. But history suggests that even absent injuries, the Phillies will finish the season with just one 20-game winner. Or none.

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