So the Phillies have sewn up the 2011 National League East and the only drama to look forward to will be whether they win 105 or 110 games on their way to the pennant. The answer to that burning question will be in the starting rotation that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel decides to use.
If the Phillies keep fifth starter Joe Blanton and rotate their four aces equally, Manuel may leave a few wins on the table during his team's march to the playoffs. If the Phillies trade Blanton and skip the fifth starter liberally when the schedule allows for it, there will be a few extra wins for the taking.
(The following projection, of course, is based strictly on the notion that Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt are healthy for the entire 2011 season. All four made at least 32 starts last year, so this is not out of the realm of possibility.)
The first step is understanding that the Phillies will NOT be employing a strict four-man rotation next year. Those days are over, especially considering the amount of money Philadelphia has tied up in its front four. Frankly, it would be an unnecessary risk for a team that can afford to give 20+ starts to a fifth starter and still make the playoffs.
However, that doesn't mean the Phillies can't put Lee, Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt on a four-day rotation. Simply put, that means the ace of the rotation gets the ball every fifth day, regardless of how the schedule breaks. Everyone else falls in behind and a starter's spot in the rotation prioritizes how quickly he makes his start. Off-days are no longer seen as an opportunity for an extra day of rest - they are seen as a chance to skip the fifth starter.
In a strict five-man rotation with no interruptions, the first two starters (presumably Lee and Halladay) will get 33 starts and the back of the rotation starters will get 32 starts. However, if you look at the Phillies' schedule and use off-days to skip the fifth starter, you can end up with a breakdown something like this:
Fifth Starter: 26
The chance to take six starts out of the hands of an inferior pitcher, while maintaining a traditional rest schedule of at least four days between starts, is something that more teams should consider trying. For a team with four great starters like the Phillies, it's a chance to truly get the most bang for their considerable bucks.
It's also important to note that the Phillies should have a comfortable lead in the N.L. East by September 1, and therefore can consider going to a strict five-man rotation for the final month if they so desire. This will increase the number of appearances for the fifth starter, but it will give the big guys a little extra rest going into the playoffs.