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This is the year for the Fightin' Phils

Philadelphia is a city marred by defeat. A city tortured by failure. A city that hasn’t won a major championship since 1983. Right now the basketball and hockey teams are in disarray and pulling up the rear in their respective leagues. The baseball team hasn’t made the postseason since 1993. The only bright spot has been the football team, which has been a powerhouse in the NFL for the better part of the past decade, but has produced a great big donut in the championship category. The city is a dismal affair of pessimism and despair.

With every April comes a new spring, a new hope. This year, the Philadelphia Phillies are the reason for that hope. It’s been a while since Phillies fans had this kind of mood going into the season. To give you a frame of reference, the last time Philadelphia had a realistic chance to win the division, Darren Daulton was the most popular player and had not yet gone completely insane.

Everyone is head over heels for this team. And why not? With the best starting pitching in the division, the returning National League MVP and the best middle infield in the Majors, the Phillies have all the tools to take the city on a wild ride to the NL pennant. But hold on. Before we get too excited, let’s remember that this is still Philadelphia, and I personally will not breathe a sigh of relief until a playoff berth (at least) is secured.

The Fightin’ Phils come into the season with a combination of huge weapons and huge questions.

Enough cannot be said about returning MVP Ryan Howard. Last year, the first baseman belted 58 home runs and drove in 149 runs, both highs for the Majors. Chase Utley is the consensus top second-baseman in the Bigs. Utley hit 32 homers and had 102 runs batted in, both MLB highs for his position. He also scored 131 runs, good for second among all players. Jimmy Rollins is the emotional leader of the team, and he can put his teammates on his back and carry them if they are struggling. The past two years, Rollins has been huge in the second half of the season.

Last season, these three players missed a combined nine games. If they can stay healthy again, the Phillies will have no problem running away with the division.

The Achilles’ heel of the Phillies the past few years has been starting pitching. This year the situation is quite the opposite. Brett Myers has shown flashes of ace-caliber stuff and led last year’s staff in wins (12), ERA (3.91), starts (31) and strikeouts (189). General Manager Pat Gillick went out and got Myers some help at the top of the rotation by stealing perennial workhorse Freddy Garcia from the Chicago White Sox for a couple of prospects and a bag of balls. Cole Hamels is the 22-year-old phenom who catapulted himself through the minors and into the Phils’ starting rotation. Hamels tired toward the end of the season, but gave Phillies fans a feeling in their guts that they had not felt since seeing a young pitcher by the name of Curt Schilling on the hill.

Okay, okay. I know I said I wasn’t going to get too excited. Let’s take a deep breath, clean ourselves up and look at this team as objectively as possible.

Pat Burrell may be the most important player on the team. If he can play at the level he’s capable of playing at, everything else will open up. If Burrell hits well in the five hole behind Howard, then opposing pitchers will have to pitch to the reigning MVP. However, if he cannot protect Howard, then the Big Guy will see nothing. Unfortunately, “Pat the Bat” has never performed well with runners in scoring position, and fluttered below the Mendoza line last year in 2-out/runners-in-scoring-position situations. There are way too many “if’s” surrounding the fifth spot in the lineup to pencil the Phillies into the playoffs just yet.

As I mentioned, the Phillies have the best starting pitching in the division. However, there are six guys competing for five spots, with last year’s opening day starter, Jon Lieber, likely making an unwilling move to the bullpen. One of the big positives of last year’s squad was the improved chemistry following the trade of Bobby Abreu. The chemistry in the clubhouse will not be as pleasant with a veteran like Lieber unhappy with his role. And why should he be happy? He’s being replaced by Adam Eaton, primarily because of the age differential (Eaton is only 29). Lieber has gone from #1 to trade bait or a bullpen slot.

Another question for the rotation is Jamie Moyer, who went 5-2 in eight starts as a Phillie last season. Moyer has a deceptive delivery and changes speeds very well. He has excellent control of all of his pitches, and they all look the same because he rarely reaches 85 mph. There’s only one problem: he’s 44- years-old. How long can the body last? Twenty-five starts? Twenty? Less?

For all of its flaws, the starting pitching still has to get a B-plus at worst. The bullpen, on the other hand, deserves a D-minus. The pen is anchored by 39-year-old closer, Tom “Flash” Gordon. He had some issues with durability last year, but still ended up with 34 saves and a respectable 3.34 ERA. Numbers like this are an ambitious goal for Gordon this year, as he really looked tired toward the end of the season. If he makes it to the All-Star break without going on the disabled list, I’ll be more than surprised.

The best pitcher out of the bullpen last year was Geoff Geary, with a team-high 81 appearances and a team-low 2.96 ERA. Allow me to reiterate that Geoff Geary was the best pitcher in the Phillies bullpen last year. Until 2005, Geary had bounced back and forth between the Majors and AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He has only recently established himself as a Major League-caliber player, yet he is the Phils’ most reliable arm in the pen.

Pitching woes aside, the Phillies have other problems. Utley has just signed a big contract extension, and players who get a big payday usually do one of three things. The first is that the player will continue to put up good numbers (Jim Thome, 2003 & 2006). The second option is that he will go off and have a huge year, maybe even win an MVP award (Vladimir Guerrero, 2004). Unfortunately, the third is that he will try to do too much and end up hurting his team (do I even have to say his name?). Hopefully Utley can avoid these pitfalls and opt for one of the first two.

Howard will really be under the national spotlight all season long. The reigning MVP and Home Run King will be under a lot of pressure this season. A 35-homer, 110-RBI season will simply not cut it. The fans, as well as Howard himself, will be satisfied with nothing less than 45 and 125. If Burrell cannot protect the Big Guy by hitting well in the five-slot, Howard will become frustrated with his lack of opportunities. One of the biggest improvements he has shown over the past two seasons has been his patience at the plate, but a pure slugger can only watch so many off-speed pitches before he gets antsy.

Finally, the Phillies are not a lock to make the playoffs because of the man calling the shots: Charlie Manuel. He may be on the hottest of seats in the Majors. Philadelphia fans have not been quiet about their displeasure with Uncle Charlie, and many called for his termination during a rough patch last season. If this team is healthy and is not performing up to snuff, Manuel will be the scapegoat.

The fact that this team is a favorite to win the NL East despite all of these flaws speaks volumes about the quality of the division. The Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals are non-factors. The Florida Marlins don’t look good on paper, but can’t be discounted because they always seem to get hot when it matters. The reigning division champion New York Mets are in shambles after the loss of aging ace Pedro Martinez to surgery that will keep him out until July. They failed to make a big offseason move for a starter, and have left themselves in a vulnerable position. Because of how weak the East and the National League as a whole is this season, the Phillies have a great chance of making the playoffs.

I’m going to go with a 90-72 record and a National League East crown for the Philadelphia Phillies this year. They are simply too good to not win this division. So much for not getting my hopes up.


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