Phils set to start quest for 3rd straight pennant
Before leaving Yankee Stadium last fall, the Philadelphia Phillies already set their sights on this season: Two out of three is their goal.
The Phillies fell two victories short of becoming the first NL team in 33 years to win consecutive World Series titles, losing to the New York Yankees in six games.
Now they'll try to become the first NL team in 66 years to win three straight pennants. The St. Louis Cardinals were the last to do it in 1942-44. The Cardinals won the World Series in '42 and '44.
There's plenty of reasons for optimism in Philadelphia, and it isn't just because pitchers and catchers report for spring training on Wednesday. The Phillies have mostly the same team returning with few holes to fill.
They added Roy Halladay, a former AL Cy Young Award winner, to the top of the rotation. But Philadelphia traded Cliff Lee, another former AL Cy Young Award winner who had a dominant postseason.
The 32-year-old Halladay is a six-time All-Star and considered by many to be the best pitcher in the majors. The right-hander went 17-10 with a 2.79 ERA for Toronto last season, leading the majors with four shutouts and nine complete games.
Signing free-agent infielder Placido Polanco to replace third baseman Pedro Feliz was the Phillies' other major offseason move. Polanco, a Gold Glove winner at second base for Detroit last season, hasn't played third regularly since 2002 with St. Louis and the Phillies.
Polanco, a career .303 hitter, is an upgrade offensively because he's a better contact hitter and fits nicely into the No. 2 spot in Philadelphia's already potent lineup. That allows manager Charlie Manuel to drop Shane Victorino to sixth or seventh, which will bolster the bottom of the order.
The rest of the starting position players are the same from last year. The Phillies feature five All-Stars - first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley and outfielders Raul Ibanez, Jayson Werth and Victorino. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins is a former MVP and catcher Carlos Ruiz is a defensive standout with a knack for getting clutch hits in the postseason.
Four-fifths of the starting rotation is set with Halladay followed by Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ. Forty-seven year-old Jamie Moyer, coming off surgeries on his knee and for a sports hernia, and Kyle Kendrick will compete for the fifth spot.
Barring injuries, there's also only opening in the bullpen. Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Chad Durbin and newcomers Danys Baez and Jose Contreras hold the first six spots. Lidge will try to rebound following a disastrous season in which he blew 11 saves. Romero is returning from an injury-plagued season.
The bench is set with catcher Brian Schneider, infielders Juan Castro and Greg Dobbs and outfielders Ben Francisco and Ross Gload. Schneider, Castro and Gload are an upgrade over Paul Bako, Eric Bruntlett and Matt Stairs.
The keys for the Phillies will be the bullpen and whether Hamels can pitch like he did in 2008. Lidge's problems and Romero's absence last year had a trickle down effect because other relievers had to be used in different roles. Madson had some success filling in as a closer, but he's best suited for setting up. The Phillies didn't re-sign Chan Ho Park, who was outstanding in the bullpen. They're counting on Baez for flexibility because he has experience at closer and are hoping Contreras can fill in for Park.
Hamels, the 2008 NLCS and World Series MVP, is coming off a disappointing season in which he struggled with consistency. If Hamels regains his old form, the Phillies will one of the most formidable 1-2 combination in the majors.