Cliff Lee back in Red

It's hard to feel anything other than abject hopelessness and fear as a Reds fan, sitting on the sidelines as the Phillies signed Cliff Lee to a deal two years and $28M shorter than what the Yankees offered. Aren't there natural forces that prevent this kind of thing from happening? Why does the team that the Universe already afforded the rare chance to assemble  this same monster rotation last offseason, that already missed its chance to extend Lee, then shipped him off to Seattle, get him back for less guaranteed money than both 2010 AL finalists? Say what you will about the "Bankees" or the "Rangers with Candy," but big Junior Circuit money has often been useful for keeping talent from concentrating in the NL.

On hearing about the Lee's surrender at Amaro-mattox, my frostbitten brain made a knee-jerk connection to Lebron's Decision to go to South Beach. The Reds never had any skin in this game, but with a hasty mention of Lee's time in Cleveland and a facile comparison between Halladay-Lee-Oswalt and Wade-James-Bosh, you too can feel just as aggrieved as a Cavs fan. Make no mistake: the Phillies have a legitimate claim to having assembled the greatest rotation of all recorded history, including other kinds of rotation: the one the Earth does, med school, crop rotation. Based on trends in  FanGraph WAR - and, one would assume, CommonSenseThinkinAboutThings WAR - Dave Cameron sez:

If there’s a four-man rotation that has ever looked this dominant heading into a new year, I can’t find it. It is almost certainly in the discussion for the greatest four-man rotation of all time.

It's certainly an intriguing spectacle for the sport. And beyond reverting to rally cries of "that's not fair" and "do over," there's not much recourse.  Lee gives the Phillies undisputed supremacy in starting pitching, though it's clear that Jayson Werth's replacement is unlikely to fill what  could be a 4-5 WAR hole left by his departure to Washington.

The Reds figure to play the Phillies eight times next season. So there's a possibility all eight games will come against one of the BIg Four. Barring injuries, there's an 80% any given game will be against Halladay, Lee, Oswalt or Hamels and only a 4% (assuming independence) of seeing a non-Big Four starter twice. During the regular season, this translates to the Reds facing an ace in one or two additional games, rather than a Joe Blanton or Kyle Kendrick. During the playoffs, this possibility of not facing the three or four best of the best (depending on whether its a divisional series or NLCS) is nill.

If the Reds aim to stay competitive this year, their road to the World Series just got more likely to lead through Philadelphia again. And staying competitive means having to reckon with front-line starters on every club. The Reds were an elite offense last year, but their deficiencies were exposed in a short series. This could be potentially compounded by regression from Rolen and others, while being alleviated by improvements from Bruce and the young upstarts. But the bar has been raised for contending clubs. The Lee signing puts an exclamation point on the sentence that says the Reds need another bat if they hope to take a step beyond beating up on the middle of the pack. Though it's been fun having the extra lunch money.

One practical effect of the Lee signing is that the Phillies appear interested in lowering payroll by moving Joe Blanton  or Raul Ibanez. There's probably no interest by the Reds in either, but Ibanez becomes mildly interesting if the Phillies are willing to eat a good portion (how about all?) of his $11.5M salary next season. He hits righties well and isn't quite the butcher Gomes is out there.

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