When the Phillies made the blockbuster signing of one of the best righties in baseball, their rotation got better. When they made yet another blockbuster and jaw-dropping signing of one of the craftiest pitchers currently in the game the next year, their rotation improved that much more.
Finally, when the team sat by and watched their homegrown star develop into a full-blown ace and one of the best lefties in the game, well, that was when they knew they had something special.
Roy Halladay. Cliff Lee. Cole Hamels.
Just hearing those three names in unison, knowing that during any given series you could face not one or two but all three of them, is certainly something that would strike fear into any opponent.
The Big Three, as they are frequently called, proved to be exactly as advertised last year as all of them, on strong pitching performances all season long, finished in the top five of the NL Cy Young voting. Not surprisingly on the heels of the great years by these three, the Phillies finished the season with a franchise-best 102 wins and won their fourth consecutive division title.
The problem however was that this regular season success did not translate into the playoffs. While Cliff Lee did struggle a bit in his start, the loss by the Phillies in the NLDS was clearly not to blame all on the pitchers.
With a shaky offense effectively ending their 2011 playoff run, it is a wonder if their top three aces will be enough. Also, with just Hamels locked up long-term, Halladay's injury keeping him from qualifying for his vesting option and the team willing to consider trading Lee by placing him on waivers, it is only a matter of time before this triumvirate of aces is broken up.
The only question remaining then, is can the aces can still win a World Series while they are together in Philadelphia?
You Have to Score Runs to Win Games
As Cliff Lee learned earlier this year, even when you pitch your absolute best and even when you give up zero runs in 10 innings, it is still possible to see your team lose the game.
For pitchers, recording a performance like Lee's which truly was one of near perfection and downright dominance, is the goal of every outing. The problem is however that even if the pitcher goes the distance it doesn't get them anywhere if the offense is lulled to sleep.
For Lee, this was not the first nor the last time this season that one of his pitching gems was wasted. In fact, it is part of the reason why he has just four wins and enough no decisions to count on one hand that definitely should have gone into the win column.
Lee is not the only one, however, who has seen pitching gems wasted by a lack of scoring. All of the members of the starting staff have and all of their records have been affected by it as well.
Now records don't mean anything but individual awards are something all three of these aces have won. Hamels has a World Series MVP, Lee has a Cy Young and Halladay has two, one in each league. What these great records haven't given these players however is a World Series ring as a team.
If the Phillies hope to get another World Series, they are going to have to help out their aces. Yes, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley missed significant time this year and yes, they are a big part of their team's offensive run production but still, the Phils need to get themselves another power bat.
With Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino gone, the Phils lost two skill players who could provide both power and speed. Both also hit righty, with Victorino also being able to switch-hit.
Missing that right-handed bat in the middle of the line-up is something that the Phillies need to address and something they could fix with a free-agent signing.
In addition to another power bat, the Phillies just need guys who can score runs consistently. Too many times this season have there been players left on base and in scoring position with less than two outs. Plain and simple, they need to score these runs.
They have the starting staff to win division titles and playoff games, but they need to give them some run support if they hope to get that done.
What About the Bullpen?
Ah, the bullpen, something that fans and the starters alike have found themselves shuddering at the thought most times this season.
Once a point of consistency, filled with guys from top to bottom, long man to closer, that could and more often than not did get the job done, the pen is now a huge and glaring source of concern. With a handful of rookies and disappointing players, the not-well-assembled pen has cost this team games.
Don't believe me?
Ask Cole Hamels, who saw a sure-fire win slip through his hands when the most sure thing in the bullpen, Jonathan Papelbon, blew a ninth-inning save to cost him the win, not once but twice.
Ask Cliff Lee, who attempted to stay in games as long as possible so that he would have a chance to get wins, which have come at a premium for him this year.
Ask Roy Halladay, who like Hamels' has seen leads vanquish when the bullpen enters the game.
Heck, even ask Kyle Kendrick, who despite a successful season watched yet another solid performance turn to dust as Antonio Bastardo gave up a grand slam after Kendrick pitched to a 0-0 tie.
All of the guys that have started this season, from Halladay to Joe Blanton, had to at least once watch the bullpen blow a win for them. The Phillies as a team also had to watch the bullpen time and time again turn a win into a loss.
Take, for example, the last game of a very pivotal series full of playoff implications against the Atlanta Braves. Once again, Hamels pitched a great game. He worked his way in and out of trouble but ultimately only gave up one run in seven innings.
The Phillies had a 7-1 lead with just two innings remaining. They put in Jeremy Horst who has probably been one of the slight bright spots for the pen this year. He gave up a walk and then 3B Kevin Frandsen committed a costly error.
Still, when Horst was pulled and Papelbon put in, the Phils still had a lead and one that their highly-paid closer should have been able to hold down.
As Chipper Jones hit a walk-off home run, the Phillies could only wonder "what if" as the Braves celebrated the improbable comeback win.
Mark my words, if the Phillies do not complete their gargantuan quest to reach a .500 mark and even more likely to make the playoffs, they will remember this game as a key reason as to why.
The Team is Rebuilding
Unfortunately for the three aces, their assembling has not brought about the glory and postseason success that many hoped for. Because of this and because of the offensive struggles, Ruben Amaro was forced to sell this season, further breaking up a core that had already lost some of its key players.
With this, tons of no-names and second level players have filled out the roster all season. Names like Erik Kratz, Kevin Frandsen and recently Tyler Cloyd have gone from Ironpigs to Phillies, the Domonic Brown experiment has continued and to mixed results, and of course, major league veterans Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix and Juan Pierre have been used frequently throughout the season.
It isn't the fault of the pitching that so many offensive players got injured or just didn't come through in the clutch but it is something that has affected them. With young guys and new names on the team, this is not a roster that is built for a World Series run. It is one that although Amaro won't say it, is rebuilding.
Can the Aces Still Win a World Series in Philadelphia?
There are a lot of things in place working against the potential for the Phillies' aces to win another World Series within a five year window.
First off, they are running out of time.
As I mentioned earlier, only Hamels has a contract that will keep in him in Phillies pinstripes for another five years. He is locked up until 2018 with a team option for 2019. The move to sign him to this deal showed what his role would be in the Phillies' plan. They want him as their ace, even if it means moving on from the other two stellar pitchers on the team.
Halladay's contract is up in 2013 but when it was first signed, the vesting option for 2014 seemed all but a foregone conclusion. With his injury, however, it does appear that it will be very difficult for him to meet the innings requirements for him to get the extra year.
That said, he isn't getting any younger and even if this season is just a fluke, the Phillies would not be making a smart move by inking Halladay to another long-term deal.
Unless Halladay is so determined to finish his career as a Phillie that he will sign for less money and fewer years, then it is very likely the team could be saying goodbye to him at the end of next season.
The Phillies have Lee until at least 2015 but if they repeat their performance from this year, he could be gone in a move to get solid trade pieces in return.
Assuming Halladay does not in fact qualify for his option that would mean the aces would have to win the World Series this or next year, neither of which seems particular likely.
In addition to the time running down, there are also the elements of placing a team capable of playing solid offense behind them.
Part of the problem with this, however, is that these three pitchers are occupying quite a large sum of available contract money the Phillies have to work with.
Add to this the monster salaries due to Utley, Howard and Papelbon and the money they are likely now going to have to pay Carlos Ruiz to keep him a Phillie, then it doesn't leave the Phils too many options in the free-agent market.
They did cut money by trading Pence, Victorino and Blanton and could save even more money by giving entry-level contracts to Kratz and Frandsen next season.
Still, it is going to be tough to get another star on the available money they have to spend and the vast amount of positions, especially in the bullpen, they need to fill.
Then, of course, there are the other teams that need to be considered.
For the most part, the Phils have remained stagnant since 2008. Sure they have had incredible regular seasons but in terms of the playoffs, they have gotten worse by the round with each year.
On the inverse, teams like Washington and Atlanta have gotten much better and that is just to speak for two of the teams in the Phillies' own division.
Over the next couple of years it is going to become increasingly difficult for the Phils just to win the NL East not to mention deal with the rest of the National and American league.
The Yankees are still there, the Orioles, Rangers, Tigers, Angels and Athletics just to name a few have improved vastly and then there are the Dodgers, Reds, Cardinals and Giants among others that the Phils would have to deal with to get out of the NLCS.
Essentially, it is not going to be easy.
So looking at all of these factors, it does not seem that the aces will all be smiling in a picture taken as the three of them lift the World Series trophy. While I do think it is possible for the Phils to go on a bit of a miracle run in 2013, to close out their five-year window with another title, I just don't know if it is probable.
Still, the team has always had fight and these three pitchers are some of the most determined players in all of baseball. Lee and Halladay want that World Series Championship more than anyone and Hamels no doubt wants to etch his name as part of one of the best rotations of all-time.
If all of the pieces fall into place, it could happen. But then again in baseball, anything can happen.