Cliff Lee is back with the Phillies.

by Clark Groome

In Philadelphia we only pelt Santa Claus with snowballs; we don’t spit on the opposing ace pitcher’s wife. That act, by fans in New York, may well be why left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee decided to return to the Philadelphia Phillies at a reported $100 million to $120 million for five years.

His return, which apparently brings him less money – $30 million over five years (the lower income here won’t limit his kids to one Happy Meal a week, so worry not) – than he would have gotten from the Yankees, raises lots of questions.

At this point it no longer makes any sense to rehash the controversy about his being traded away after being an integral part of the Phillies’ 2009 run to the World Series. I won’t mention that if he had been resigned after that season, his salary would have been significantly less than it is now.

The questions that need to be addressed now have to do with what effect his reacquisition has on the rest of the team.

Adding $20-plus million dollars to the Phils’ payroll, which is supposedly around $145 million before Lee, makes you wonder if someone will be traded or released to help pay for the deal. The most oft-mentioned names are Raul Ibañez and Joe Blanton.

Ibañez’s career is winding down so his trade value would probably not be great. Also, losing both veteran corner outfielders, after Jason Werth wasn’t picked up in right, would cause both defensive and offensive problems that would be hard to solve by inexpensive free agents or kids in the Phils’ farm system. Also, he has the reputation of being one of the best guys in the clubhouse. That would be missed, both by his teammates and the media.

Joe Blanton has been a workhorse, a reliable pitcher who’s an innings eater and a good guy around his teammates. He could well be the fifth starter. Would he accept that? Sure. Will it happen? That’s one of the questions to be answered. [As of this writing, Joe Blanton is rumored to be on his way to the Red Sox in a trade deal.]

If Blanton stays, what role would Kyle Kendrick play? He had an up-and- down 2010 but was the odds-on favorite to be the 2011 fifth starter. If Blanton remains, could Kendrick be moved to the bullpen? If not, is he trade bait for a left-handed reliever?

How will Lee’s homecoming impact the Phillies’ resigning free-agent reliever Chad Durbin?

Who will play right field? The smart money at this point is on a platoon of Ben Francisco and Ross Gload. My gut tells me that Francisco just might be the guy if given a regular gig.

Those are some of the key questions facing the Phillies front office in the new year. There is one other question that is being raised all over the Internet, on TV and in the papers: “Is the Phillies four-man rotation of (alphabetically) Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Lee, and Roy Oswalt the best in baseball history? More knowledgeable people than I make a case that it is. It certainly is the best rotation now. It’s also the strongest in Phils’ history.

As a testament to the their predictability, the devotees and callers on local sports talk radio have already crowned the 2011 Phillies World Series champs. In fact that happened less than an hour after the reports were out that Lee had been resigned. That’s a dangerous prediction. For evidence, look at the season just past.

Don’t get me wrong. Cliff Lee’s return to Philadelphia is stunning news. It’s clearly a good sign. It’s also continuing proof that General Manager Ruben Amaro is endlessly full of surprises. Talk among the pundits, and those hearty talk radio folk, is that he is the greatest Phillies GM ever. How quickly that changes since it was only after losing Jason Werth and being mostly silent at the winter meetings last week that many were ready to echo the remarks hurled at the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall last weeks during some riots in London, “Off with [his] head.

That judgment was too harsh and premature. So is the judgment that Lee’s resigning, as terrific as it is, is the solution to all the Phillies’ needs for the upcoming season. The bullpen and the outfield corners need attention. Once the season starts, the incredible starting rotation Amaro has assembled needs to stay healthy. With those caveats, let me steal from the Philadelphia Daily News’ back page of December 14 and wish you all a “Merry Cliffmas.”