CLEARWATER — When Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. was trying this offseason to lure back baseball's top free agent prize, ace left-hander Cliff Lee, he allowed himself to dream about what his potential rotation would look like.
"You do a lot of dreaming," Amaro said, smiling.
Amaro's dream staff came true, and the pitchers were introduced together for the first time Monday in a packed news conference at their spring training facility.
One by one, each donning a red Phillies jersey, the "Phantastic Four" entered and sat side by side: reigning NL Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt and lefty Cole Hamels, the 2008 World Series MVP who could end up being the No. 4 starter in a rotation tabbed with the potential of being among the best of all time. Sandwiched in between was the oft-forgotten No. 5, veteran righty Joe Blanton.
Manager Charlie Manuel said it's as if they can throw a No. 1 starter out there every night. But he said his team, which lost to the eventual World Series champion Giants in the NLCS last year, will have a big "target on our backs" and must earn everything it gets.
As Lee said, more than nicknames or hype, they're all most excited about the potential in the playoffs and the "ultimate" of winning the World Series. Any historical comparisons will have to wait.
"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's a potential for all of that. But it's just that — potential.
"I know there's a lot of hype and everyone expects this and expects that. But that's in October. And it's February right now. We've got a lot of work to do before now and then to give ourselves the best chance to do that. And it's really all we can do."
Lee, who was seated at the center of the table, was the center of attention. It was his signing in the offseason, spurning the Yankees and Rangers, that Manuel said gave the team a lift after the heartbreaking playoff loss to the Giants, ending its quest for a third consecutive pennant.
Lee, 32, who pitched for Philadelphia in 2009, acknowledged the Phillies came in late in the bidding, but he encouraged his agent to pursue talks, believing the club gave him the best chance to win the most championships over his five-year, $120 million deal.
Lee will combine with Halladay for an impressive one-two punch atop the rotation. Halladay, 33, though, will have a hard time topping his first season with the Phillies last year, when he won 21 games, threw a perfect game and tossed a no-hitter in the playoffs against the Reds.
"A big part for me is not having the best staff in history, but having the best chance to get to the postseason and the best chance to win a World Series," Halladay said. "I remember, five, six years ago, wanting to go to Oakland to pitch with (Mark) Mulder, (Barry) Zito, (Tim) Hudson; it's something every pitcher wants, to be a part of a good group like that."
Hamels, 27, one of the longest-tenured Phillies, said what helps is that each of the pitchers shares the same "values" and doesn't let ego get in the way. Oswalt, 33, a three-time All-Star and former NLCS MVP with Houston, said what he remembered about the great rotation there, which included Roger Clemens, was how much they prepared, and he sees the same thing with this group.
And there's Blanton, who took his place as the fifth guy in stride. When a reporter asked a question saying Hamels was the only one with a World Series ring, Blanton raised his hand, smiled and pointed out he had one, too, drawing laughs from the crowd.
"Hopefully the other lineup falls asleep and thinks they don't have to face these four guys," Blanton said. "And I can kind of slip right in. It's just great to be part of this rotation."
Amaro was asked what went through his mind when he finally saw all five starters together Monday. He smiled.
"I was thinking how nice it would be for them to be healthy for 162 games," Amaro said. "I'll be doing a lot of finger crossing and toe crossing."
And likely more dreaming.