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Hype is gone but expectations remain for Phillies and their aces

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The hype at last year's Phillies spring training centered around the five men of the starting rotation, who early in camp sat side-by-side-by-side-by-side-by-side in a press conference that welcomed a period of pitching dominance.

Last season, those heralded starters -- Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt and Joe Blanton (though Vance Worley filled in admirably when Blanton was hurt) -- led a rotation whose 2.86 ERA was the majors' best single-season team mark since 1985, as the Phillies won a franchise-record 102 games before being upset in a five-game NLDS by the Cardinals.

This year the Phillies lost Oswalt but are still the National League favorites because they remain the majors' most pitching-rich club in a period of depleted offenses.

But in the same media room underneath Bright House Field, the most newsworthy press conference this spring featured only Hamels. At 28, the lefthander has already been a starter for six seasons with 74 wins, two All-Star appearances and a World Series championship (for which he received series MVP honors) and is set to be a free agent at the end of this season.

This gathering was the lone occasion at which he'd discuss his contract situation. He avoided an arbitration hearing by agreeing to a one-year, $15-million contract but didn't yet agree to a long-term extension to keep him in Philadelphia. "We didn't really discuss one," he said, noting that negotiations would be happening this spring.

The proposition of retaining Hamels is uncertain and a reminder that the Phillies' window of opportunity is not indefinite.

Philadelphia has been about as successful as anyone in baseball the last five years, winning its division each season and making two World Series appearances with a title in 2008. The franchise did so by retaining homegrown stars such as Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins while adding Cy Young winners from outside the organization in Halladay and Lee.

In the process, the Phillies have racked up a huge payroll -- roughly $166 million in 2011 and slightly more in 2012 -- that has apparently stretched the club's limits even with 204 consecutive home sellouts; the club has reportedly been trying to trade Blanton's contract each of the past two offseasons to clear payroll.

Hamels' $15 million is an enormous salary that nevertheless only makes him the team's fifth-highest paid player and the rotation's third. He is one of 10 Phillies who will make $8.5 million or more in 2012; three of that group, Hamels, Blanton and centerfielder Shane Victorino, are all in the final year of their contracts.

Though Hamels has a ways to go to catch up to his fellow aces in terms of career wins and awards -- Halladay, 34, has 188 wins, eight All-Star appearances and two Cy Youngs; Lee, 33, has 119 wins, three All-Star appearances and one Cy Young -- Hamels has been an excellent starting pitcher since he was a rookie, meaning his statistics through his age-27 season stack up well against his teammates. In other words, Hamels could still be entering his prime while already having an impressive track record:

As his agent, John Boggs, told CSNPhilly.com in January, Hamels is an "elite pitcher" who'll be compensated accordingly. On Monday, though, Hamels said all the right things about his preseason preparation.

"I'm just going out and getting ready for this year -- that's my main focus," Hamels said, promising that he'd spend "every ounce of energy" on helping the club win while letting his agent handle the negotiations of a long-term extension.

Unlike some prominent players in the final year of their contracts, Hamels did not impose a deadline by which an extension must be agreed to or else he'd become a free agent. And he managed to praise the Phillies organization, their fans and the city of Philadelphia, though he did come short of any pledge that he'd be a Phillie for life.

"This is the only place where I've been," said Hamels, whom the Phillies selected in the first round in 2002, "and ultimately all I've ever wanted to do is play for a winning team. The Phillies want to be a winning team and they want to be a winning organization for a long time."

Asked whether he would prioritize years or dollars in his next contract, he answered choice C: fit. That suggests he'll seek a winning club where he feels comfortable but he deflected questions about whether he'd take a hometown discount.

With that chore out of the way, the focus does indeed return to baseball. Over the past two days, each of the pitchers has thrown bullpen sessions on a series of seven adjacent mounds between the practice fields named for Hall of Famers and Phillies legends Robin Roberts and Mike Schmidt.

It's the start of a camp with considerably less external fanfare than last year, even if there is no less internal enthusiasm.

"I feel the same way," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I'm excited about our team. I'm excited about our pitching staff. I've been ready for a long time."

Success in the playoffs still primarily hinges on the Big Three of Halladay, Lee and Hamels, but a sixth straight division title may be increasingly dependent on the Other Two, Worley and Blanton, winning a lot of regular-season games. (And the Phillies reportedly shopped Blanton last week in an effort to make room for Yankees starter A.J. Burnett, who was later shipped to the Pirates.)

That's because while Halladay, Lee and Hamels can start nearly every postseason game, they can only start 60 percent of the Phillies' regular-season games in a year when three of the four other teams in the division are legitimate playoff contenders. Thanks to unbalanced scheduling, Philadelphia will play 18 games apiece against the Braves, Marlins and Nationals; Atlanta missed a second straight wild-card appearance by one game last year, while Miami (Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell) and Washington (Gio Gonzalez and Edwin Jackson) made major offseason upgrades.

At the same time the Phillies won't be able to outslug the competition in quite the same way they have in the past. The team's best power threat, Howard, will probably miss the beginning of the season while recovering from an Achilles injury. The club lacks a proven leftfielder, which is traditionally an offensive-minded position. And on Sunday Manuel acknowledged that the club would take it easy on Utley and Placido Polanco in spring training -- and one can guess, though it was not said, that they'll be given periodic rest during the season too.

And there's already been a little regression. Since the current core of players took over in 2005, the Phillies offense hadn't ranked worse than second in the NL until last year, scoring an average of 837 runs per season from 2005-2009, before dipping to 772 in 2010 (which still ranked second given the league-wide scoring problems) and then to just 713 in 2011, which ranked only seventh.

Pitching will need to prevail, and there's no reason it shouldn't. For his career Blanton has been about a league-average pitcher -- his lifetime 99 ERA+ is one percent shy of that standard -- who is perfectly suited to being a contending club's No. 5 starter, except for the burden of an outsized contract. And Worley (11-3, 3.01 ERA in 131 2/3 innings) was a rookie revelation who outpitched Oswalt last year.

"Right now I think we're pretty comfortable with our rotation," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said.

And he should be. He has assembled, on paper, what is the best team in the National League for 2012. What happens after that, however, is less certain.

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