MANAGER CHARLIEMANUEL third season with Phillies
THE PHILLIES ledthe National League with 45 wins after the All-Star break, finished the seasonwith the most runs in the NL and the heart of their lethal order is back. Inthe off-season they swung a deal with the White Sox to get innings-eater FreddyGarcia, giving Philadelphia five solid starters (six, if Adam Eaton returns tothe preinjury form he showed with the Padres in 2005). Those are the reasonsfor shortstop and team leader Jimmy Rollins's unshakable faith in his team."For the first time since I've been here, I think we are the team to beatin the National League East," he said to fans in January during a stop onthe club's annual winter caravan through Phillies country. "I know we are.Finally. Now we've got the pitching."
Strong wordsfrom a player on a team that never seriously threatened the division-winningMets in 2006--and that is probably still closer, in depth and balance, toAtlanta than to New York. Philadelphia finished 12 games back, so you canimagine how those words were received in New York.
"What didthey win last year?" asks Mets centerfielder Carlos Beltran.
"Talk isvery cheap," says third baseman David Wright.
Nearly twomonths later, in the Phillies' lively spring clubhouse in Clearwater, Fla.,Rollins was even more certain that his team is better than the Mets. And herealizes that he's adding spice to what's already a hot rivalry. "Lastyear, when the Mets got Carlos Delgado, I knew we were undermanned," saysRollins, a 28-year-old All-Star, "but I don't feel that way this year. Iwouldn't have said what I said if I didn't believe it. When I'm asked aquestion, I answer with what I believe is the truth, and the truth is, I thinkwe're the better team.
"We've gotthe MVP of the league [Ryan Howard]; Chase Utley's a star; Pat Burrell's goingto knock in his runs. We improved our pitching. Got a good first or secondstarter in Freddy Garcia. Got good young pitching with Brett Myers and ColeHamels. People aren't blind. They can see we've got a good team. Here's thething about saying what I said--are the Mets or the Braves going to try anyharder to beat us than they already try? No. They're coming at us; we're comingat them."
Philadelphia'sone weakness is its shaky bullpen, and the worst-kept secret in the GrapefruitLeague is that a team can get one of Philly's starters--likely serviceable,sinkerballing righthander Jon Lieber, 36--if it dangles a good setup man infront of general manager Pat Gillick. After 39-year-old closer Tom Gordon, whohad 34 saves last year but missed a month with a right shoulder strain, anddurable setup man Geoff Geary, who had a 2.96 ERA in 81 appearances, there is along line of potential liabilities.
It will be up tothe starters to keep the pressure off the bullpen. The Phils, justifiably, areexcited to see how much their two young arms--Hamels, 23, who was 7--3 with a2.70 ERA in his last 12 starts, and Myers, 26, who dropped nearly 30 poundsover the winter--can improve on their 2006 performances. Those two join Garcia,Jamie Moyer, and Eaton or Lieber (most likely Eaton) to form a rotation that,barring injury, should have Philadelphia in contention come September."It's easily the best staff we've had since I've been here," saysBurrell, an eight-year veteran.
In theoff-season Rollins met up with former teammate Nick Punto, now with the Twins,who told Rollins he'd love playing on a team with five solid starters. "Doyou know how easy it is to hit when you don't have the pressure of alwaysplaying from behind?" Punto asked him.
"No,"Rollins replied, "but I'm excited to find out."
a modestproposal ...
BaseballProspectus recently outlined several potential acquisition targets for thePhillies should they choose to take advantage of their excess of startingpitching. They included outfielder Brad Wilkerson (Rangers) and third basemenMorgan Ensberg (Astros) and Chad Tracy (Diamondbacks). But general manager PatGillick would be better served by a wait-and-see approach. It's unknown how newPhils third baseman Wes Helms will respond to a full-time role, whetherrightfielder Shane Victorino will develop enough power to deserve an every-dayjob or if aging lefthanded starter Jamie Moyer (left) and injury-prone rightyAdam Eaton will hold up for a full season. If Gillick still has a surplus ofpitching at the July trading deadline, history suggests that he'll have notrouble landing a player the caliber of Ensberg or Tracy, and he might do quitea bit better.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2006 STATISTICS
Japanese PacificLeague stats
* New acquisition
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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On-base plusslugging percentage for leftfielder Pat Burrell in 242 at bats with runnersaboard last season, which seems counter to his reputation for not being atimely hitter. However, with runners in scoring position--a familiar situationwith Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard hitting in front of him afterthe club traded Bobby Abreu to the Yankees last July--Burrell's OPS dropped to.722.
Rollins is confident that the Phils finally have the pitching to help a robustlineup overtake the Mets.