This year's Phillies face a daunting task

Roy Oswalt is no longer a part of the Phillies' rotation and this spring has been one injury after another for the Phillies. Odds are that stretching their division titles to six straight will be tougher than it was to get to five straight.

A year ago, the Phillies flaunted what some were calling one of the best rotations in baseball history throughout spring training.

The rotation had its own press conference at the start of spring, and the five starting pitchers posed for magazine cover spreads throughout February and March.

While the Phillies still feature what arguably is the best pitching staff in baseball, their World Series dreams would appear to be a more difficult task in 2012.

Although Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels make the Phillies the favorites to claim their sixth consecutive National League East title, their chances of avoiding another early playoff exit will probably rest with the aging, injury-plagued infielders.

Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are slated to begin the season on the disabled list.

Howard, who had left Achilles surgery in October, probably will miss the first two months of the season, but should be healthy for at least the season's second half.

Utley's status is far more uncertain. He missed the first seven weeks of the 2011 season because of right knee tendonitis, but has been bothered by pain in both knees this spring.

Less than two weeks from Opening Day, Utley returned to camp after seeing a specialist about his knee condition. But both the player and the team have been noticeably tight-lipped about his availability for the upcoming season.

In the absences of Howard and Utley, the Phillies will rely on their remaining former All-Stars for consistent offensive production.

Long-time leadoff hitter and shortstop Jimmy Rollins re-signed as a free agent in the offseason and might enjoy the task of putting the team on his back, ala 2007, when he won league MVP honors.

Shane Victorino and Placido Polanco should help Rollins in igniting the lineup at the top, while Hunter Pence, entering his first full season in Philadelphia, will be relied on to add the power from the cleanup spot that's missing in the void left by Howard.

At first base, the Phils will turn to the trio of Ty Wigginton, Jim Thome and John Mayberry Jr. in Howard's absence. Thome, who hasn't played first base regularly since 2005, isn't likely to play more than once a week, but would be the team top's offensive threat at first. Mayberry will also see ample time in left field.

In Utley's absence, Freddy Galvis, a former shortstop prospect and sure-handed glove, will be asked to man second base.

Just as with the rotation, the Phillies have a mostly-veteran, battle-tested bullpen. The team plucked former Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon off the free agent market early to solidify a backend of the bullpen that also features power lefty Antonio Bastardo and veteran right-hander Jose Contreras, who has looked strong this spring coming off September elbow surgery.

The Phillies are again in position for a long run through October. But the path to a World Series would be much cleaner with a healthy Howard and Utley.

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