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Best. Rotation. Ever?

After a six week dance with New York and Texas, Cliff Lee has apparently decided to spurn them both and sign with the Mystery Team Philadelphia Phillies. If the Jayson Werth deal was a shocker, this one breaks the Richter Scale. It is perhaps the most surprising, and one of the most interesting, free agent signings in baseball history.

Once we get financial terms, we’ll be able to break down the costs and benefits of the signing. Until then, though, there’s one question staring us in the face – is the best rotation we’ve ever seen?

Roy Halladay is the best pitcher in baseball. Cliff Lee is in the mix of guys right behind him for #2. Hamels and Oswalt aren’t quite in that class, but we’re still talking about All-Star caliber starting pitchers. Over the last three years, here are their WAR totals and where that ranks among starting pitchers:

Roy Halladay: +21.5 (#1)
Cliff Lee: +20.9 (#2)
Cole Hamels +11.9 (#16)
Roy Oswalt: +11.2 (#21)

Total: 65.5

All four of them could be legitimate #1 starters on a playoff contender, and now they might all be teammates. I’m not sure we’ve ever seen anything like this.

The obvious parallels are to the great Braves rotations from the 1990s, but it is actually hard to find a group from those teams that compares to this one. The 1993 to 1995 version of their staff is one option, giving us this breakdown:

Greg Maddux: +23.1
Tom Glavine: +11.6
John Smoltz: +11.0
Steve Avery: +10.3

It’s nearly identical at spots #1, #3, and #4, but this Phillies roster would have a significant edge in the #2 spot, where Cliff Lee’s last three years best the early career version of Tom Glavine, even if you adjust for the fact that those totals are depressed by the 1994 strike. What if we fast forward a few years to when Smoltz and Glavine had really hit their stride? Here’s their 1996 to 1998 totals.

Greg Maddux: +23.7
John Smoltz: +20.6
Tom Glavine: +13.9
Denny Neagle: +8.6 and Steve Avery: +2.4

Avery pitched in 1996, and then was essentially replaced by Neagle for 1997 and 1998. They combined for +11 WAR over that three year span. So, that five-man/four-slot rotation was on par with how the Phillies foursome have performed over the last three years. However, that rotation never took the hill for Atlanta in 1999, as Denny Neagle was traded to Cincinnati after the 1998 season. By the time the Braves had four established high-caliber arms, they found it necessary to ship one off.

That was part of what made that Braves run so spectacular. They kept swapping out guys behind The Big Three and getting high-level performances even with all the changes. There were times where they got equivalent production to what we might expect from Philly’s rotation in 2011, but they never had four guys who had established themselves at this level going into a season.

If there’s a four-man rotation that has ever looked this dominant heading into a new year, I can’t find it. It is almost certainly in the discussion for the greatest four-man rotation of all time.

There is one big asterisk on all this, though: as those great Braves teams show, a ridiculously great rotation is not enough to start planning a parade. The Phillies are certainly contenders, but they’re going to need more than just their Big Four to win it all. It will be interesting to see what the rest of their off-season looks like now that Lee is back in Philadelphia.