Philadelphia Phillies preview

There must be something special going on when a team can steal a top free agent from the New York Yankees without outbidding them. YANKEES

Lefthander Cliff Lee could have had another year and $18 million more guaranteed if he consented to spend the bulk of his 30s in the Bronx. Instead, he opted to return to the team that he helped reach the 2009 World Series, even though the Philadelphia Phillies then traded him to the Seattle Mariners as a precursor to acquiring Roy Halladay from the Blue Jays

“It’s plenty of money,” Lee says. “When you hit a certain point, enough is enough. It’s a matter of where you’re comfortable, where you’re happy, where your family is most comfortable (and) what team gives you the best chance to win. At this point it’s about trying to win championships.”

Not only are Lee and Halladay a potent 1-2 punch, but also the Phillies sport Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton in baseball’s best rotation. “This pitching rotation is going to be something that is historic, I believe,” Lee says.

All that pitching excellence will help ease the decline in a Phillies lineup that isn’t getting any younger. Even if top prospect Domonic Brown steps into the void left by Jayson Werth’s departure in right field, Philadelphia will feature a lineup of seven regulars with an average age of 32.9 years.

First baseman Ryan Howard, whose numbers declined as he battled an ankle issue in the second half of 2010, dropped to 31 homers after averaging 49.5 the previous four years. Second baseman Chase Utley missed 47 games because of a thumb injury that cut into his offensive output. And shortstop Jimmy Rollins, a far cry from the 2007 NL MVP model, missed nearly half the season with calf and hamstring injuries.

“He’s not going downhill,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel says of Rollins. “We need him to stay healthy. We need his offense and basestealing. We need his defense. We need his presence. He carries that much weight with us.”

Both Utley and Rollins will play the 2011 season at age 32; they’re younger than third baseman Placido Polanco (35) and left fielder Raul Ibanez (38). Closer Brad Lidge is 34, and Halladay and Oswalt will turn 34 during the season. Lee will be 33 in August.

Make no mistake, the veteran Phillies expect to be in the playoffs for the fifth consecutive season. But is Philadelphia’s chance of domination dwindling?

“I’ve heard people say some remarks about our guys that are getting older,” Manuel says. “Yeah, they’re getting older, but they’re 30, 31, 32. Baseball-wise, that is right in the prime of your career.”

And it isn’t as if Halladay is showing any signs of decline. The ex-Blue Jay was better than ever in his first year after moving to the NL, tossing a perfect game at Florida on May 29 and throwing the second no-hitter in postseason history in his playoff debut against the Reds.

Lidge had his usual rough patch at midseason last year, but he fixed things fast enough to shave nearly four and a half runs off his career-worst ERA in 2009. He also converted 27 of his 32 save chances.

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