Wait, Cliff Lee signed with ... the Phillies? For only five years?
That kind of came out of nowhere, huh? (Not that anyone saw Jayson Werth coming to Washington for seven years, of course.)
Still, the news that broke early this morning was quite a punch to the gut. For the Yankees, who assumed their money would trump all else. For the Rangers, who thought they had a good chance of keeping Lee. And, of course, for the Nationals, who never honestly believed they were going to land the top prize on the free agent market but also never thought they'd lose out to their NL East nemesis.
It's one thing to lose the Cliff Lee Derby. It's quite another to lose it to those reviled Phillies, who have ruled this division for four years now and show no signs of surrendering their place anytime soon.
Honestly, how are the Nationals (or the Braves, Marlins or Mets) supposed to compete with a rotation of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels? Any one of those four pitchers would start Opening Day for probably 20 other major-league clubs. Never mind the All-Star lineup of Jimmy Rollins, Placido Polanco, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz and top prospect Domonic Brown, which suddenly needs only to score three runs a game to ensure victory.
The Phillies just became the runaway pick of every baseball writer in America to win the 2011 World Series.
Now, I suppose you could argue it makes no difference to a Nationals team that isn't going to be ready to contend next year anyway. Might as well let Philly have its day in the sun, again. But here's why the Nats should be particularly discouraged this morning: All four of those Phillies starters are signed through 2012, with Halladay and Lee signed beyond that.
Those dreams of a 2012 pennant race in D.C. -- with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and maybe even Bryce Harper leading the way -- just became a lot tougher to visualize.
Not saying it can't or won't happen. But even if all the pieces fall into place, the Nationals will still have to overcome a Philly club that is well-positioned to continue to win for several more years. The addition of another wild-card team (which MLB could institute in time for the 2012 season) might help, but a broken-up Phillies roster would help more.
One other thought as it relates to this morning's stunning news: Joe Blanton suddenly is trade bait, and there's already been speculation about the Nats' interest in acquiring the veteran right-hander. All I can say to that is: Buyer beware.
Blanton isn't exactly the ace the Nationals have been looking for. He's at best an overpaid innings-eater who is under contract for each of the next two seasons at $8.5 million a pop. That's $8.5 million for a guy who last year went 9-6 with a 4.82 ERA in 29 starts. In other words, he's Jason Marquis, and the Nats already have one of those who's only signed for one more year at $7.5 million.
Do the Nationals need more pitching to have a chance of competing with this dominant Phillies roster? Absolutely. But acquiring the guy who is no longer good enough to crack that Phillies rotation doesn't seem like a wise strategy.