The Phillies Big Three

Jon Lieber: Not an ace.

Baseball GMs worth their salt cling to the premise that pitching wins championships. That may be a cliché but its a cliché for a reason. Since the dawn of baseball time, the name of the game has been the same: assemble three aces and collect your postseason hardware.

In 1994 the Phillies watched the Atlanta Braves move into the NL East and finish ahead of them every single season since, wining 11 flags in a row behind Hall-of-Fame starting pitching.

In Philadelphia, year after year, the song remains the same: the Phillies need an ace.

Sadly, this is something the Phillies have long been unable to fix. Won't they ever learn? Will they ever find an ace who could lead a true Big Three?

World Series winners are built around a Big Three.

In 2001, the Arizona Diamondbacks shocked the baseball world when they won the World Series in just their 4th year of existence by beating the game's most storied and touted franchise, the New York Yankees. The lion's share of credit goes to Arizona's Big Three of Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Miguel Batista.

But before they can talk about a Big Three, the Phillies need an ace.

In 2003, the novel Marlins won their second championship in just 11 seasons behind Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano and Dontrelle Willis. Fans of older franchises like the Cubs and Phillies wrung their hands in anguish. What did the Marlins do in 10 years that we couldn't do in 100?

The answer, of course, is pitch.

Still, the Phillies never seemed to figure it out.

Ed Wade's epitaph as Phillies GM begins and ends with a lack of starting pitching. Think he wouldn't have rather held on to Schilling?

Repeat: the Phillies need an ace.

When Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Tim Wakefield and Bronson Arroyo broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004, Phillies fans gnashed their teeth wondering what might have been with Schilling still in Philly.

But even with Schilling in 2004, the Phillies relied heavily on Eric Milton, an unhappy Kevin Millwood and an erratic Brett Myers. If Schilling were on the 2004 Phillies, the Yankees would have won the World Series again. The Phillies would have had an ace in Schilling, but not a true Big Three.

Pitching proved decisive again in 2005 as the White Sox won behind their dominant Big Four: Mark Buehrle, John Garland, Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras.

To have any chance at all, you need to have a Big Three, but truthfully, even three horses isn't enough anymore. These days, against lineups like the Yankees and Red Sox, the ante has been upped to a Big Four.

The most intoxicated moron from South Philly may not know his way home, but he knows the Phillies need starting pitching.

So will the Phillies ever learn?

Where is our answer to the White Sox Big Four?

A quick glance at the Phillies depth chart reveals a starting rotation in turmoil, not what you expect from a true Wild Card contender.

For now, the Phillies top guns are Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, and Ryan Madson.

Frankly, that won't cut it against Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Andy Pettitte in the Wild Card race, but for the next half-season, they might develop into the competitive core of the Phillies 2007 staff.

Where did this season go wrong?

Top-down, the Phillies starting rotation has been a huge disappointment.

Jon Lieber won 17 games last year and began the current campaign as the Phillies ace, but literally and figuratively, Jon Lieber came up lame.

There's no way Pat Gillick can consider him an ace next spring, though a healthy Lieber would make a decent number three or an excellent number four. To think any more of Lieber would be to indulge in sheer optimism, something Gillick can ill afford. Lieber is not on a par with the White Sox' Jose Contreras or John Garland, but he'd be a strong four if healthy.

As many expected, Brett Myers surpassed Lieber and became the Phillies de-facto ace this season. If the reports in the papers are true, Myers probably just lost his chance to lead the Phillies staff. Character matters to Gillick and Myers just continues to disappoint.

On the mound, despite a few meltdowns, Myers has excelled with tremendous stuff, showing strong desire and steady growth. Off the mound is a different story. Myers troubles have always been mental, and the reason he isn't the leader of the Phillies staff is because he isn't emotionally ready and may never be. If there is any truth to the recent story that Myers assaulted his wife in Boston, Gillick should rule out the idea that Myers can be an ace in 2007. Myers may dazzle in the second half and, more importantly, maintain poise on and off the field, but that won't mean he's ready to set the tone for the team as an ace.

Always feisty and often quick to lose focus, Myers and his teammates would be better off behind a more consistent presence at the top of the rotation, a character guy who has been a playoff-winning ace before. Coming into the season, Gillick's hope was that Lieber would be that calm, steady, go-to guy ahead of Myers, but once again, the Phillies find themselves right back where they started.

Repeat: the Phillies need an ace.

Behind failed aces Lieber and Myers, Cory Lidle was supposed to be the Phillies number three, a solid veteran who keeps you in games.

Unfortunately that simply hasn't happened. Lidle demonstrates mental toughness but with a 4-6 record and an ERA of 5.00, he hasn't managed even a half-way decent season at the half-way point. At number three, Lidle threw gasoline on the fire that Lieber set and Myers couldn't put out. Lidle needs to step it up in the second half or risk falling out of the Phillies plans.

Coming out of spring training, the combination of Ryan Madson and Gavin Floyd were supposed to round out the starting rotation, but Gavin turned bright green on the mound as soon as the starting bell rang and Madson suffered a handful of meltdown losses which marred his record and cost the Phillies several games. Madson, for all of his struggles, still has the Phillies' best record at 7-4. He opened the season as the fifth starter, but at this point you have to consider Madson ahead of Lidle on the depth chart.

In short, the 2006 Lieber-Lidle fire spread to the whole starting pitcher staff. Somehow, the bullpen was spared. Unfortunately, they may be worn out from firefighting. In the aftermath of the fire, the bottom of the rotation is made up of Cole Hamels and emergency AA call-up Scott Mathieson, raw rookies barely in their 20s, saplings among the ashes. Matheison will depart as soon as Lieber comes off the disabled list.

Hamels, on the other hand, looks every bit like a legend waiting to happen.

For now Cole is too green to be carrying a team. If Hamels can use the second half to fine-tune his game, he could emerge as one of the elite pitchers in the National League. Looking ahead with Hamels, the Phillies could have a piece of a legitimate Big Three for 2007, but it all depends on Gillick dealing for a proven ace. Myers and Lieber just don't fit the bill.

Repeat: the Phillies need an ace.

In the meantime, if the stories are true, Myers future under Gillick is in doubt. If Gillick wants to sign an ace, perhaps Myers can be part of a multi-player deal to land a truly impressive name.

Repeat: the Phillies need an ace.

Year after year, like a broken record, smart and stupid Philadelphians alike have harped on the lack-of-an-ace theme. No doubt the search for pitching is Gillick's mandate and top priority. Without an ace and without a Big Three, the Phillies simply cannot hope to win. Not this year. Not next year. Not any year. Pat Gillick should be willing to give up as much as necessary to get an ace without getting swindled or creating another giant hole in the lineup. With the exception of Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Aaron Rowand, no one should be considered untouchable.

Ideally, we could get Johann Santana for David Bell, Charlie Manuel, Chris Coste and couple of corn dogs, but that isn't likely to happen.

But whatever it takes, I'll say it again, the Phillies need an ace.

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