Phils need Lee to be the rule, not the exception
'Age just a number' to southpaw, and performance has thus far backed that up
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Cliff Lee is the beacon of hope around here. He's the shining example that you can delve deep into the wrong side of 30 but still come out on the right side of league average output.
Lee is baseball's understated ace, aging like a fine wine or at least certainly better than an opened package of Philadelphia Cream Cheese.
His starts aren't events in the way Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander or Jose Fernandez bewitch the audience, but the stats are electric, all the same. Lee is in a class all his own in terms of strikeout-to-walk ratio combined with groundball-to-flyball rate, and he's churned out 200-inning output every season since 2005 except for one -- the 2007 campaign in which the Indians sent him back to the Minors to learn how to become a 22-win Cy Young Award-winning standout in '08.
Lee turned 35 last summer. Yet he does not have "regression" listed in his daily planner.
"To me," he said, "age is just a number. It's just a matter of preparing your body the right way and doing everything you can to get ready. Things can happen, obviously. But if you prepare yourself, then whatever happens is out of your control."
Sure, age is just a number, as Lee said. But Lee has been the exception to every rule about what that number truly entails in a game designed for boys, and the Phillies, as a whole, are aging and expensive.
It's not just that the Phillies are old; it's that they've been old for quite a while. The average age of their lineup has been a valid point of concern since at least 2011, the season when a championship culture gave way to one of unmet expectations.
Now the Phillies head into 2014 with a franchise-record payroll that will push right up against the $189 million luxury tax threshold, and what that will buy them is an open question, given all the "ifs" in play. The Phils' list of significant offseason additions includes A.J. Burnett (37), Marlon Byrd (36), Roberto Hernandez (33), Wil Nieves (36) and Bobby Abreu (40). They will field a lineup in which five regulars -- Byrd, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins -- are in their age-34 season or older.
From a historical perspective, two of the previous four teams to have five regulars of that age -- the 1985 Angels and the 2002 Giants -- won 90-plus games, with the Giants reaching the World Series. So what the Phillies are attempting to accomplish here is not totally without past precedent.
Still, this is a ballclub even more dependent on durability than the industry standard, which is why the Phillies went into this spring with a finite focus on the physical side of the game.
"It's something we really tried to work on doing pretty consistently with our organizational meetings this year," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "We tried to re-emphasize that it's important to prepare, that you have to be dedicated to prepare for your craft to have success.
"I think guys have to be motivated to do that. I'm very pleased with the ways guys have reported to camp, because you often hear stories about guys coming in out of shape or not dedicated. We don't have that here."
Of course, Cole Hamels' bout with biceps tendinitis that has him a couple weeks behind (he threw off flat ground Sunday and is expected to progress to bullpen sessions on Tuesday) was an early alarm bell, particularly given the statistical step backward that Hamels took last season. Hamels turned 30 over the winter, and the Phillies can only hope his slight setback, which at this point is considered minor, is not the first domino to fall in a physical fallout from their average roster age.
Hamels spoke Sunday about how good it felt to begin weight training again after getting shut down from the practice in mid-November, when the soreness first started.
"The lifting process builds your muscles up so you can maintain," he said. "You're building for a season, for the marathon."
Surviving that marathon is equal parts fortitude and fate. The Phillies can't do anything about the latter element, because good intentions alone aren't necessarily enough for a guy in his 30s to maintain a championship-caliber level. But as far as the former is concerned, the Phillies continue, out of necessity, an exploration of how to get peak performance out of past-their-peak players. It's why they will have a full-time chiropractor with them on the road with them for the first time this season, several years after Hamels' public pleading encouraged them to bring one aboard on a part-time basis.
"It's something that I think is needed in this sport as you get older and have older teams," Hamels said. "If you want to have the quality players to put on the field, you know their body is going to break down at a certain point in time, and you have to have guys to maintain it so that they can stay at an elite level for a long period of time."
The Phillies' ability to field an elite roster in the NL East this season is entirely dependent on their core players denying Father Time throughout the course of a 162-game grind. Certainly, manager Ryne Sandberg's stressing of the fundamentals here in camp and his openness to new ideas about lineup construction (potentially moving Rollins out of the leadoff spot or spelling Howard against lefties) can help move the needle. But only so much.
When it comes down to it, the only way this Phillies team is going to have a season in line with its payroll is if Lee's ageless output is more rule than exception.
"Every year, you should feel urgency that this is the year to get it done," Lee said. "That definitely intensifies as you get closer to the end of your career. I don't know how many more seasons I'm going to play. They're running out. So hopefully this is the year."
It will only be the year if Lee is far from the only guy outperforming his age.