BY CHRIS DiFRANCESCO, Columnist
I had the opportunity this afternoon the chat with arguably the best and most respected baseball writer of the past few decades, ESPN’s Senior Baseball Writer Jayson Stark.
Prior to joining ESPN, Stark covered the Philadelphia Phillies for The Philadelphia Inquirer. He has written two baseball related books.
His first was titled The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History. His second and most recent book was called Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies, where he tells the tale of the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies from the perspective of a Phils fan.
I asked Stark six burning question that surround the Phillies as they getting closer to embarking on another run for a parade down broad street.
CHRIS DIFRANCESCO: Will the Phillies regret not keeping Cliff Lee? Does not keeping Lee hurt the overall outlook of this club?
JAYSON STARK: All depends on what you mean by “overall outlook.” In the short haul, how could it not hurt? Cliff Lee was Mr. October, the greatest midseason pitching acquisition of all time. And a rotation topped by him, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels could have been the best rotation in Phillies history. But if, by overall outlook, you mean this team’s ability to contend beyond 2010, then the test is how good the prospects they got for Lee from Seattle will turn out to be. And as upbeat as the Phillies are about Phillippe Aumont and Tyson Gillies in particular, other clubs have mixed opinions on all three players they got back.
CD: Are the Phillies still the class of both the NL East and the entire National League?
JS: On paper? In January? With everybody healthy? There’s no doubt about it. I don’t see any contender in the NL that has improved substantially enough to say it’s as good as this team. But remember, the Phillies have been very fortunate on the health front the last couple of years. They had six players play 150 games last year — something only one other NL team has been able to pull off in the last 20 years. So while they’ve improved their depth, if guys like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley start feeling the toll of all those games played and miss significant time, being the favorites on paper won’t mean a whole lot.
CD: What’s the most glaring problem the Phillies have heading into the 2010 season, if any?
JS: That’s easy. Pitching depth. A year ago, Kyle Kendrick was banished to Lehigh Valley for almost the whole season. This year, he’d be the No. 5 starter if the season started today. And there aren’t any real good options besides him for now, until Jamie Moyer gets healthy, assuming he ever gets healthy. So that’s a major issue. And we haven’t even gotten to the bullpen yet, where there’s almost no chance that Brad Lidge or J.C. Romero will be ready by opening day, there isn’t a veteran lefthanded reliever on the roster and they haven’t even remotely accomplished Ruben Amaro’s No. 1 goal of the offseason — improving the quality and depth of his relief pitching. If they don’t add at least a couple of free-agent pitchers between now and spring training, look out.
CD: Is Roy Halladay going to be better in the NL than he was in the AL? Will he be everything as advertised?
JS: I said from Day One last summer I’d rather have Halladay than Lee, and I haven’t changed my mind. Think how good Roy Halladay has been for so long. Now take him out of the AL East — where he had to make 35 starts over the last two years just against the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays alone — and move him to the NL East. It’s scary to think how good he can be. He’s your Cy Young favorite before he throws a pitch.
CD: In your opinion, it looks as if the signing of Halladay took some pressure off Cole Hamels! What can we expect from Hamels this season, will he finally come into his own and become the pitcher Philly craves of him?
JS: I actually thought he did come into his own two years ago. Didn’t he? Winning a World Series MVP award fits my definition of “coming into his own,” anyway. Cole just made people forget that with that stinker of a season last year. But his raw numbers were actually pretty good, considering he was never quite right from the day he showed up for spring training. And I’m hearing he’s on a mission to have a great year. This guy sets the bar really high for himself. So I’d be really surprised if he doesn’t hit the UP button on his elevator this season.
CD: Do Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley have the chance to be considered the greatest trio in franchise history?
JS: I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. I wonder sometimes how much longer they’ll all play together, considering that only Utley is signed beyond 2011. But Howard has already hit twice as many home runs as any first baseman in the history of the franchise. Utley really has no serious competition for greatest second baseman in Phillies history. And if Larry Bowa was the previous answer to that question at shortstop, I’ve heard Larry say several times that Jimmy is a better player than he was. So there’s barely even room to debate that question. Which doesn’t mean it will stop some of the old-timers from telling us how good Granny Hamner was!
Much thanks to Jayson Stark! If you would like to get updates from Jayson himself on news, or upcoming stories of his, you can follow him on Twitter @jaysonst, pick up his books, available wherever books are sold, or read his work on ESPN.com.