PRESEASON PREVIEW: Philadelphia Phillies

Last spring, many Phillies players and coaches came to camp sporting t-shirts that read "Now is the time." Oops. That didn't work out too well. The 2004 campaign was an injury and slump filled disappointment to say the least. The pitching staff was hit hard by injuries, including the loss of closer Billy Wagner and three of the five starters. Plus, young Brett Myers and Pat Burrell both struggled under the strong arm rule of manager Larry Bowa.

With Charlie Manuel and a new coaching staff in place, there is plenty of optimism even though the off-season was relatively quiet.

ADDITIONS: Terry Adams (free agent), Aaron Fultz (waivers from Minnesota), Jon Lieber (free agent), Kenny Lofton (trade with Yankees), Edwin Moreno (waivers from Texas), Jose Offerman (free agent) and Shane Victorino (Rule 5 Draft from Los Angeles).

LOSSES: Lou Collier (non-tendered), Michel Hernandez (non-tendered), Roberto Hernandez (free agency), Todd Jones (free agency), Kevin Millwood (free agency), Eric Milton (free agency), Felix Rodriguez (traded to Yankees).

PROJECTED LINEUP:

1: Jimmy Rollins

2: Kenny Lofton

3: Bobby Abreu

4: Jim Thome

5: Pat Burrell

6: Chase Utley

7: Mike Lieberthal

8: David Bell

Jimmy Rollins has finally gotten the knack of hitting leadoff. He could become one of the more dangerous leadoff men in the league if he remembers what he learned last season. With Rollins getting on base more, there is plenty of fire power to drive him in if all of the cylinders are clicking.

One potential problem is that the lineup is heavily left-handed. Lofton, Abreu, Thome and Utley all hit from the left side and Rollins is a switch-hitter. The Phillies might toy with hitting Burrell fourth if he can return to his 2002 form and flip-flopping Bell and Lofton would also help to break up some of the left-handed routine. Look for new manager Charlie Manuel to experiment with various lineups this spring.

The clubhouse attitude has been so bad for the past couple seasons, there is a theory that it was putting a drag on the Phillies offense. Burrell and Lieberthal were thought to be the most bothered by the strict confines of the Larry Bowa administration and both could return to former glory.

David Bell – and to a lesser extent, Mike Lieberthal – has to show that he can stay healthy. After a disastrous 2003 season filled with injuries, Bell had only minor problems last season and should be okay. Lofton has lost a little of his game, but can still be dangerous and the Phillies are hoping that he can give them at least one strong season in Philly.

BENCH:

C Todd Pratt

IF Placido Polanco

IF Tomas Perez

OF Jason Michaels

OF Shane Victorino

OF Marlon Byrd

The Phillies toyed with the idea of letting Pratt go via free agency. When they really looked around though, he was the best option and they quickly brought him back to serve as Mike Lieberthal's back-up, a job that Pratt is comfortable with.

Polanco will be one of the most expensive utility players around, but he could come in handy. The Phillies will open with young Chase Utley getting his first chance to play everyday at second base and the oft injured Bell is at third. Polanco can play both of those positions and there is some talk that he'll work on playing the outfield this spring. Look for Polanco to get more at bats than the normal utility player would get. Meanwhile, Perez has been steady as a back-up and spectacular in the clubhouse. He was one of the few players who still managed to have any fun while Bowa was in town.

The utility outfielders will be interesting. The Phillies really like Victorino, who they snagged from L.A. in the Rule 5 Draft last December. They'll do everything they can to keep him on the roster. Jason Michaels is insurance for Burrell slumping and could also spell Lofton in center. A guy who is really fighting for a job is Marlon Byrd. After a strong rookie season in 2003, he stumbled horribly last season and has been replaced by Lofton. Byrd has talent and will fight for a spot on the bench and perhaps more if Lofton runs into any problems. Dealing Byrd is also still a possibility for the Phillies.

ROTATION:

RH Jon Lieber

LH Randy Wolf

RH Vicente Padilla

RH Corey Lidle

RH Brett Myers

If the Phillies are to win, they need to have a healthy pitching staff. Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla both spent long stretches on the DL in '04. Wolf underwent off-season foot surgery, but is reportedly doing well in his rehab and should be ready for the season.

Lidle is the perfect pitcher for Citizens Bank Park; He keeps the ball down in the strike zone and isn't intimidated by the homerun reputation of the place. Lieber also fits that bill and is being looked at to lead a very questionable staff.

Besides the question of injuries, Brett Myers is possibly the most important member of the staff. He and former pitching coach Joe Kerrigan sparred publicly during Kerrigan's time in Philly and Myers complained as recently as during the Phillies winter media tour that Kerrigan tinkered with his mechanics too often. New pitching coach Rich Dubee will work with Myers to get back to the form that saw him win 14 games in 2003.

If anyone stumbles (are you listening, Brett Myers) young Gavin Floyd is waiting in the wings. The Phillies number one pitching prospect was given a late season audition thanks to injuries and for some reason, Kerrigan tinkered with his mechanics too. Still, Floyd was impressive although the Phillies would like to give him a little more time at AAA Scranton Wilkes-Barre before he returns to the majors.

BULLPEN:

Closer Billy Wagner

Setup Tim Worrell

Middle Rheal Cormier / Aaron Fultz

Middle Ryan Madson

Middle Terry Adams / Edwin Moreno / Geoff Geary

Long Amaury Telemaco

Billy Wagner's injuries last season caused a bullpen shuffle. The Phillies hope to avoid that and figure to have a strong, veteran staff to fill the bullpen. There is no reason to believe that Wagner won't return to his usual form in '05 and should once again be one of the more successful closers in baseball. Plus, he has veterans like Tim Worrell and Terry Adams on hand to set him up.

Adams isn't guaranteed a spot on the roster. The Phillies like Moreno, who they took on waivers from Texas, and youngster Geoff Geary has shown occasional promise. Odds are though that Adams will be a part of the bullpen and will offer some insurance should Worrell or Wagner suffer injuries.

One potential battle will be between Cormier and Fultz. The two lefties have different amounts of success in the past and Cormier is the clear favorite. Like Adams, it's expected that he'll win a job with the club, but the Phillies wouldn't mind finding a way to keep a second lefty around and that's where Fultz comes in.

Madson was the best surprise of the 2004 season. A converted starter, Madson was almost unhittable at times out of the bullpen. He quickly went from being a long reliever to filling a setup role when Wagner was out and Worrell stepped in to close. In fact, the only time that Madson struggled was when the Phillies took him out of the pen for a start against the White Sox. It went horribly and Madson quickly returned to the bullpen where he immediately rebounded.

Telemaco is decent, although not spectacular. The truth is that he has been better than the Phillies figured that he might be, which is why they changed their minds about bringing him back for the upcoming season. Originally, the plan was to non-tender him (which they did) and look for someone else to fill that role. When there weren't better options, Telemaco was quickly re-signed.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK:

Centerfield. The Phillies were never really in the market for Carlos Beltran, but they took a shot at signing Steve Finley, who turned them down. They then turned to trying to deal for Scott Podsednik (Milwaukee) and Carl Crawford (Tampa Bay), but were unsuccessful in both attempts. That's where Lofton came in.

Actually, the Phillies had tried to get Lofton before and failed. Reliever Felix Rodriguez was used as bait and the Yankees bit, sending Lofton to the City of Brotherly Love. The question is, can Lofton still be effective? Lofton turns 38 in May and his production dropped a little last season after a good year in 2003. One thing in Lofton's favor is that he's playing for Manuel, who he knows from his time in the Indians organization.

If Lofton struggles, Jason Michaels and Marlon Byrd would be waiting in the wings. Michaels is a nice player, but lacks the range to be playing in center field every day. It's likely though that he will play there against some lefties, to get Lofton's left-handed bat out of the lineup. The Phillies insist that they haven't given up on Byrd, but they sure were trying their best to trade him over the winter. Again, a new manager and coaches could have a very positive effect on Byrd.

BREAKOUT PLAYER:

Chase Utley was spectacular in limited duty last year. He provided key hits at almost every turn coming off the bench. Now, the second base job is his and Phillies' fans are excited about watching him play. There have been a lot of comparisons to Jeff Kent and the Phillies believe that Utley could be even better than Kent when all is said and done.

PROJECTION:

While other teams in the division made more news this off-season, the Phillies believe that their first move – firing manager Larry Bowa – will turn out to be their best. Manuel is the "anti-Bowa" and the players have immediately fallen in love with him. The simple truth is that Bowa lost his players early on, but in Manuel, many players are talking about how they want to play for him and how much respect they have for him. A new approach could provide more production, giving the Phillies a much needed boost. The Mets have made massive, important moves this winter and Atlanta can never be counted out. The Marlins have done their share of work to get better, so the division should be a dogfight. Unfortunately though, the Phillies may be looking at finishing in the middle of the pack, unless players like Burrell, Lieberthal and Myers bounce back to have huge seasons.


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