Phillies aim to prove last year was aberration
For a team that finished 17 games out of first place, the Philadelphia Phillies are quite confident they can regain the NL East crown they relinquished to Washington after a five-year run.
''The Nationals had a great year last year, but we had a lot of injuries,'' slugger Ryan Howard said. ''Call us old if you want to. If you want to sweep us under the rug, just don't be surprised.''
The Phillies' streak of five consecutive division titles ended in 2012 with an 81-81 finish. Injuries were a major factor for the decline. Howard and Chase Utley, the team's Nos. 3-4 hitters, combined to miss 160 games to start the season. Ace Roy Halladay was out for a two-month stretch in the middle.
While the facts say the Phillies are trending downward - they've taken one step back each season since winning the 2008 World Series - players insist they have plenty left to contend now that they're healthy.
''We're a complete team now,'' former NL MVP Jimmy Rollins said. ''We're not going out there with role players. We're going out there with everyday players, every game.''
Rollins makes a valid point. After Howard and Utley both returned, the Phillies went 44-34. They even made a late run toward a playoff berth, pulling within three games of the second wild-card spot with 11 games left before finishing 4-7.
Howard had an excellent spring and seems fully recovered from his Achilles' injury. Utley, who has battled chronic knee problems, played exhibition games for the first time since 2010 and will start the season in the lineup instead of on the disabled list.
''We're very close to being a championship team, but when the time comes and we have to step between the lines, we have to play the best baseball we can for 173 games,'' Hamels said, adding an 11-win postseason run in his calculations.
''We have to look at it that way. If we don't take that approach then we're selling ourselves short. That's the attitude we're giving and you can feel it in the clubhouse and I can see the work ethic that we have with the type of players that we have,'' he said.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. didn't make a big splash in the offseason for change. Still, he filled important holes with talented players. Seven-time All-Star Michael Young was acquired from Texas to play third base. Center fielder Ben Revere came over from Minnesota in a trade. Right fielder Delmon Young, setup man Mike Adams and starter John Lannan were free-agent signings.
Manager Charlie Manuel raved about the new guys in the spring.
''Michael Young is going to be a real good player for us,'' Manuel said. ''Not only is he going to hit, he's going to hit for a high average and he's going to show some power in the National League and he has a chance to hit more homers than people think. He's definitely going to be a big offensive player for us and his defense won't be lacking.''
''Ben is a better offensive player than I thought he was,'' Manuel said. ''He can run, he can bunt better than Vic. He doesn't have the pop Victorino had but he's faster than Victorino. Ben is going to play within himself more and he's going to be a big-time team player.''
The additions of both Youngs and Revere along with the emergence of former top prospect Domonic Brown gives the Phillies a chance to have a dynamic offense. They'll need Hamels and Lee to be elite starters, especially if Halladay is just average. The bullpen led by closer Jonathan Papelbon is deep. Adams solves the team's eighth-inning woes, and there are several young arms with potential.
''We have talent in our bullpen and as the season goes on, you're going to see guys blossom,'' Manuel said.
If the Phillies don't win, the rebuilding could start even before the season ends. Manuel, Halladay, Utley and All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz are in the final year of their contracts. Ruiz will miss the first 25 games because of a suspension for violating baseball's substance-abuse policy.
No doubt there's a sense of urgency to win now.
''I don't think there's anybody in there that's thinking `I got two or three years left to do this, so I got time,''' Halladay said. ''I think we all want to do it now. Hopefully that's the goal. I think all the guys that are getting older realize you have less chances to do it. I would think the urgency would still be the same.''
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