CLEARWATER, FLA. (AP) - Cliff Lee didn't hesitate, raising his hand right away when a reporter asked which of the Philadelphia Phillies' aces is the best hitter.
"That's me," Lee said with a smile.
Cole Hamels quickly chimed in.
"I'm going to compete against him," said Hamels, who's been used as a pinch-hitter in the past. "I think Joe (Blanton) is the only one with a home run."
Not true. Roy Oswalt put his hands up to point out that he also has gone deep in his career.
"Oh, I forgot, I forgot," Hamels said. "Yours wasn't in the World Series, sorry."
The one guy left out of the conversation was Roy Halladay, who does his best work on the mound. Then again, that's what all of these guys are paid to do. And, they each do it very well.
The Phillies have assembled _ on paper _ a starting rotation that's being compared to some of the all-time best in the majors. Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels would be the No. 1 guy on most staffs. Blanton is probably the best fifth starter around.
After pitchers and catchers held their first workout of spring training on Monday, the Fab Five took the stage for a joint news conference. Lee put all the hype into perspective.
"I think we haven't thrown a single pitch as a group yet, so it's kind of early to say we're one of the best rotations in the history of the game," Lee said. "Obviously, we're a very talented group, and there is potential for all of that. But it's just that, it's potential."
Only two clubs have ever had four 20-game winners in a season. The Baltimore Orioles had Dave McNally (21), Mike Cuellar (20), Pat Dobson (20) and Jim Palmer (20) in 1971. The Chicago White Sox had Red Faber (23), Lefty Williams (22), Eddie Cicotte (21) and Dickey Kerr (21) in 1920.
The Atlanta Braves ruled the NL East with dominant pitching for more than a decade, beginning in the early 1990s. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz were the top three starters, and are likely headed to the Hall of Fame. Steve Avery, Denny Neagle and Kevin Millwood were the most notable of Atlanta's fourth starters.
In 1998, the Braves became just the ninth team and first since 1930 to have five 15-game winners. Glavine (20), Maddux (18), Smoltz (17), Millwood (17) and Neagle (16) combined for 88 of Atlanta's 106 wins.
"I think the best rotation I can remember is the Braves back with Glavine, Smoltz, Avery and Maddux," Lee said. "I don't even remember who the fifth guy was, but those four were pretty dang good."
If Blanton isn't traded away to cut payroll, the Phillies have a chance to match that. Halladay won 21 games last year, threw a perfect game, a no-hitter in his first career postseason start and earned his second career Cy Young Award. Lee won the AL Cy Young award in '08. Oswalt has an NLCS MVP award in his trophy case and he's been a 20-game winner twice. Hamels was MVP of the NLCS and World Series in '08. Blanton has a 16-win season on his resume.
The Phillies already had an outstanding rotation before stunning the baseball world with the acquisition of Lee last December. Lee helped Philadelphia reach the 2009 World Series after coming over in a midseason trade with Cleveland only to be dealt to Seattle on the same day the Phillies acquired Halladay from Toronto in December 2010. Lee was later traded to Texas and helped the Rangers win their first AL pennant before hitting the free-agent market.
The New York Yankees and Rangers were considered the front-runners for Lee's services, but the Phillies slipped in and gave him a $120 million, five-year contract. Lee turned down more than $30 million more from the Yankees to return to Philadelphia.
"I felt like this was the best chance to win world championships. That's what it's all about," Lee said. "Obviously, I played here in the past and enjoyed myself here and thought we had a really good team at that time. Since then, they've made a couple of additions that I think have made the team that much better. I felt like if I ever got an opportunity to come back and be a part of what's going on here, I would take advantage of it, and that's why."
The personal accomplishments and accolades are nice. But the primary goal for everyone is winning a ring. Hamels was the staff ace and Blanton was the fourth starter when the Phillies won the franchise's second World Series title three years ago.
Lee has been on the losing end of the World Series two straight years. Oswalt came close with Houston in 2005. Halladay had his first taste of the postseason last year when the Phillies lost to the eventual-champion San Francisco Giants in six games in the NLCS.
"A lot of us are to the point in our career where you feel like the biggest thing left for you to do is win a championship, whether you've already done it or you haven't," Halladay said. "That was my only goal going into last year was to try and win a World Series. So, coming close and coming up short is definitely hard. It's disappointing. That's why I still want to play this game. I want to be part of a world championship team."
For the record, Hamels has the highest career batting average among the starters. He's hitting .160 (50-312). Oswalt is right behind him at .157 (96-613). Lee has the most postseason hits with four.