PHILADELPHIA -- Many Phillies fans anticipated a parade -- maybe multiple parades if everything worked out perfectly -- the moment Cliff Lee returned to Philadelphia.
Lee imagined them, too. His triumphant return in December 2010, after being traded to the Mariners in December 2009, started with plenty of promise. Lee helped create one of the most heralded rotations in baseball history, pacing the Phillies to a franchise-record 102 victories. But then the Phils lost in five games to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series, and almost nothing has gone right since. Philadelphia finished 81-81 in 2012 and 73-89 in '13, with Lee's name circulating in trade rumors the past two Trade Deadlines and offseasons.
"I signed back with the Phillies because I wanted to come here and win, and that's what I intend on doing," Lee said.
Lee can only do so much, but he gets a chance to start the 2014 season properly by pitching well Monday on Opening Day against the Rangers in Arlington.
"There's no other way to look at it than, yes," Lee said when asked if the Phils are good enough to win. "You've got to be confident and expect to win. I feel like as a group we're thinking that way. There's no other option. So that's how we've got to see it."
It is Lee's second Opening Day start. There is no question he deserved it.
Even if Cole Hamels had been healthy, Lee had the better season between the two last year. He went 14-8 with a 2.87 ERA in 31 starts, leading baseball with a 6.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 1.3 walks-per-nine-innings average.
One-hundred-million-dollar contracts seem to be handed out like Halloween candy these days, but Lee, 35, has lived up to the five-year, $120 million contract he signed in 2010, when he shocked the baseball community, rejecting more lucrative offers from the Yankees and Rangers to return to Philadelphia. He took less cash because he believed he could team up with Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Hamels and dominate the NL like Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine in the 1990s.
And they did, but it lasted just one year. Halladay struggled the past two seasons before retiring in December. Oswalt left the organization following the 2011 season, never to return. Only Hamels and Lee remain.
But if Hamels rejoins the rotation in late April -- he is behind schedule because of inflammation in his left shoulder -- and Lee and newcomer A.J. Burnett perform as they have in the past, the Phillies should have one of the more formidable trios in baseball.
Maybe the Phils can get off to a hot start and be buyers, not sellers, at the Trade Deadline.
Lee said he isn't worried about a slow start putting him back on the trade block.
"I think that's looking at it in a negative way," he said. "I think we're positive. We're expecting to win and plan on doing everything we can to ensure that, so that's how I'm looking at it. What happens in the next couple of months, we'll just have to wait and see. As of now, I'm expecting to prepare for a full season, go into Texas and win the first game, then win the next one."
The Phillies have not fared well this spring, which hasn't eased the minds of concerned Phils fans. Scouts have issued far-from-glowing reports, too. But Lee doesn't believe Spring Training records and statistics predict future success or failure.
"For me, every year is a different year," Lee said. "What happened last year doesn't matter. The Red Sox, they won the World Series last year, but I think if they think about last year all year, they aren't going to have a good year. That applies to us. We had a bad year, but if we sit there and harp on it and think about it, it's going to be hard to get on the good side of that. I think it hurts you both ways if you sit there and look at the past. We all have a fresh start."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com.