FORT MYERS, Fla. -- At the beginning of spring training in 2011, Roy Halladay, Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels sat shoulder-to-shoulder and held a news conference. In the back of the room, leaning against a wall next to a trash can, the man who brought together these pitchers for the Philadelphia Phillies couldn't help but grin.
"When you have the opportunity to have that kind of rotation," Ruben Amaro Jr. said the other day, pausing as the smile crept back across his face, "that's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime situation."
Or maybe twice in a lifetime?
Six years later, Amaro has gone from the front office to the field, from Phillies general manager to Boston Red Sox's first-base coach. And when he walks through the front door of the clubhouse here each morning, Amaro's eyes go right to the side-by-side lockers on the far wall that belong to David Price, Rick Porcello and Chris Sale, the most accomplished collection of pitching teammates since the Philly Foursome.
Between them, Boston's new big three -- apologies to Celtics greats Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, too, for that matter) for co-opting the nickname -- has two Cy Young Awards, eight top-five Cy Young finishes, 10 All-Star selections, two 20-win seasons and two ERA titles. Compare that to Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels, who entered the 2011 season with three Cys, 14 top-five Cy finishes, 13 All-Star selections, six 20-win seasons and three ERA titles, and it's no wonder Amaro has been feeling a sense of déjà vu.
The addition of Sale in a December blockbuster trade with the Chicago White Sox gives the Red Sox baseball's latest ace-filled staff, but it doesn't guarantee a championship.
"When you're talking about [Rick] Porcello, Chris Sale, David Price, they're very similar with what you saw out of [Roy] Halladay, Cliff [Lee], Cole [Hamels]. They all demanded a lot from themselves. And when you have that sort of thing, I think position players also know this is an opportunity that we should not let pass. We didn't finish the job [in 2011], but on a day-in, day-out basis, we had a chance to win a baseball game." Ruben Amaro Jr., Red Sox first-base coach and former Phillies GM
Halladay, Lee and Hamels did their parts in 2011, posting ERAs of 2.79 or lower. The rotation sported a best-in-the-majors 2.86 ERA, and the Phillies won a franchise-record 102 games. They nevertheless fell to the St. Louis Cardinals in the Division Series when Chris Carpenter outdueled Halladay 1-0 in Game 5.
Other recent star-studded rotations met a similar fate. In 2014, the Detroit Tigers rolled out Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Price -- Cy Young winners, all -- and were swept out of the Division Series by the Baltimore Orioles. Backed by Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, the "Moneyball" Oakland A’s never won a series despite reaching the postseason four years in a row from 2000 to 2003. And the Hall of Fame trio of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz -- the gold standard by which all great rotations are measured -- won just one World Series in seven seasons together as starters.
So, although the combination of Price, Porcello and Sale figures to maximize the Red Sox's chances of reaching the postseason, winning the franchise's fourth World Series title in 16 years will be considerably more challenging.
"I'm looking forward to watching all of us go out and pitch," Porcello said. "It's going to be exciting, knowing that we have the talent we have in the rotation, to have an opportunity every night to throw the ball well and give us a chance to win. That being said, we have to do it on the field. You don't win any games on paper."
The absence of a 2011 World Series ring on Amaro's finger is proof of that.
Pushing one another
Kyle Kendrick has seen this super-rotation phenomenon before.
A 32-year-old right-hander who swung between long-relief and spot-starting roles for the 2011 Phillies, Kendrick is in camp with the Red Sox as a non-roster invitee. To hear him tell it, Halladay and Lee were more than aces. They were "alpha pitchers," workhorses who embraced the pressure that comes with fronting a rotation. They had an attitude, a swagger. They were there to stop losing streaks, extend winning streaks and set an example for young pitchers with their work ethic and accountability.
When Lee signed a five-year, $120 million contract to return to the Phillies after a year away, Kendrick marveled at his hyper-competitiveness with his fellow aces, especially Halladay.
"I remember them pushing each other every start," Kendrick said. "Halladay was at the top [of the rotation] and then Cliff. Cole was younger, but still, he was one of the best pitchers in the league, too. Cliff would be on the bench going, 'Oh, Roy did this? I've got to go out and do this [better] tomorrow night.' Cliff went on a streak that year, I think he had three shutouts in a row [in June]. It made him better. It made everybody better."
The relationship between the Red Sox's aces bears watching.
Because they all reached the big leagues so soon after getting drafted, it seems as though Price, Porcello and Sale have been around forever. But as Kendrick noted, they're actually younger than Halladay (34) and Lee (32) were when the 2011 season began. Sale turns 28 next month; Porcello is 28; at 31, Price is the group's elder statesman.
In particular, Price and Sale represent an interesting dynamic. They have been the two best left-handers in the American League during the past five seasons, with Sale posting a 3.04 ERA since becoming a starter in 2012 and Price on his tail with a 3.13 mark.
They are textbook alpha pitchers. Price led rotations in Tampa Bay for years before becoming a hired gun in Detroit and Toronto and signing a seven-year, $217 million contract with the Red Sox, the richest deal ever for a pitcher based on total value. Sale was the undisputed ace of a young, talented White Sox rotation.
As much as they say they admire one another, neither got to where he is without oozing enough professional pride to be motivated by the others' success.
"I've watched [Sale] for quite a few years now, and there's really nobody that's like him as a starter in baseball with that arm angle and his height and just how long his arms are," said Price, whose first season in Boston was marked by inconsistency and another postseason flop that dropped his playoff record as a starter to 0-8. "He can make some pretty weird swings from those hitters. He's funky. You can see how much of a problem he causes for hitters, just with his angle and his deception. When you add on 95, 96, 97 and his slider and changeup, it's fun."
Then there’s Porcello, a back-of-the-rotation pitcher for years in Detroit who finally fulfilled his ace potential last season by going 22-4 with a 3.15 ERA and winning the Cy Young Award. Manager John Farrell has not yet named an Opening Day starter, but Price and Sale cast their votes for Porcello, who proved that he, too, is capable of being a tone-setting alpha pitcher.
"When you get the guy that throws the first game [of a series] and he pitches well and the next guy pitches well, everyone can feel that," Porcello said. "You're excited to be the third guy, and the fourth guy and the fifth guy to go out there and carry that momentum. No one wants to be the guy that goes out there and gives it up and stops that roll that you're on. It's definitely a feeling of momentum."
Setting a tone
Like the Red Sox last season, the Phillies won from 2007 to 2010 by slugging opponents into submission. But after losing right fielder Jayson Werth in free agency, Amaro decided the best way to improve in 2011 was to bring back Lee.
The Red Sox applied a similar philosophy this winter. Rather than trying in vain to replace retired franchise icon David Ortiz, Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski reeled in Sale for a package of elite prospects, including Cuban sensation Yoan Moncada.
"To me, it was always a priority to try to get as much pitching as possible," Amaro said. "Offense is great, it's exciting, it's energetic, and [the Phillies] had a good offensive team. But if you're not pitching, it makes it tough to have success on a consistent basis. Having grown up in that organization, we had to battle Atlanta every single year, and you knew, if you had a quality rotation, that you had a chance every single night."
Indeed, Amaro had firsthand experience facing a super-rotation. As a player, he had to contend with facing Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz in three-game series against Atlanta, a prospect he called "daunting."
Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis was part of the New York Yankees team that vanquished the Braves' trio of aces in a World Series sweep in 1999. For that, though, Davis credits a uniquely relentless lineup that scored 900 runs in the regular season.
"When you get the guy that throws the first game [of a series] and he pitches well and the next guy pitches well, everyone can feel that. You're excited to be the third guy, and the fourth guy, and the fifth guy to go out there and carry that momentum. No one wants to be the guy that goes out there and gives it up and stops that roll that you're on."Rick Porcello
"That offense put constant pressure on whoever was out there pitching," Davis said. "That guy had to pitch to nine hitters, and that's what it takes to beat a group of starters like that. The beautiful thing about our pitching staff here is you've got guys that can stop losing streaks, because you know you've got Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, quality, quality, quality."
It also gives the rest of the team an air of invincibility. The 2011 Phillies were certain they would win the World Series right up until the moment they were knocked out of the playoffs.
Amaro believes the Red Sox's big three could spur a similar confidence.
"These are guys that not only have confidence but they have expectations for themselves," Amaro said. "When you're talking about Porcello, Chris Sale, David Price, they're very similar with what you saw out of Halladay, Cliff, Cole. They all demanded a lot from themselves. And when you have that sort of thing, I think position players also know this is an opportunity that we should not let pass.
"We didn't finish the job [in 2011], but on a day-in, day-out basis, we had a chance to win a baseball game. That's not all that dissimilar to what we have here this year."
History shows it takes more than a super-rotation to book a championship parade. But with three aces in the deck, the Red Sox like their odds.