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February 28, 2011

On the Beat

Great Expectations in Phillies Camp

by John Perrotto

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CLEARWATER, Florida—Mike Schmidt thinks this year's Phillies team is the most talented in the franchise's 129-year existence. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins believes the Phillies are a lock to win 100 games and even suggests they should shoot for the major league record of 116 victories set by the 1906 Cubs and matched by the 2001 Mariners.

So, yes, expectations are high for the 2011 Phillies. They have put together a starting rotation that includes four No. 1 starters in right-handers Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt and lefties Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Since Pat Gillick retired as GM following the Phillies' World Series victory in 2008, his successor Ruben Amaro has pulled off trades for Halladay and Oswalt, then shocked the baseball world by signing Lee this past winter to a five-year, $120 million contract.

It's easy to forget that it was only four years ago when many in baseball felt the Phillies organization did not possess enough quality pitching to complement an impressive young lineup. The knock on manager Charlie Manuel, who had been a highly successful hitting coach with the Indians in the 1990s, was that he was too obsessed with offense.

"People used to say I was a hitter's manager," Manuel said with a smile last week. "Now, everybody says I'm a pitcher's manager. If you had the pitchers we had, you'd be a pitcher's manager, too."

One thing Manuel has been with the Phillies is a winning manager. He has compiled a 544-428 record in six seasons while winning two NL pennants.

However, Manuel is still a hitting guy at heart. He continually fretted about his team's offense last season, even though the Phillies averaged 4.95 runs a game, third in the NL and eighth in the major leagues. They did so with six of their eight regulars spending time on the disabled list.

At first blush, the Phillies appear more pitching-dependent than ever after effectively switching out right fielder Jayson Werth for Lee on the free-agent market. However, Manuel isn't ready to spend the summer winning by scores of 3-1 or 4-2.

"I think if our guys stay healthy this season and swing the bats the way they have in the past that we're going to have a better offense," Manuel said. "We had a lot of guys whose batting averages were lower than normal last season. I don't think that's going to happen again. I'm pretty sure we're going to hit better and score more runs."

Catcher Carlos Ruiz, who posted a career-best .304 TAv, and Werth were the only regulars to stay off the DL last season. The Phillies believe they are due better injury luck, even though over the weekend second baseman Chase Utley's right knee required an MRI, which showed only tendinitis.

"We hardly ever had our whole lineup together and we still scored a lot of runs," first baseman Ryan Howard said. "That's why I'm not very worried about our offense. If you get us all together and healthy, we've proven over the years that we're one of the best offenses in baseball. We also developed a lot of depth last season because so many guys were forced into playing more because of the injuries. We have a strong bench."

A key for the Phillies will be how rookie right fielder Domonic Brown acclimates to playing regularly in the major leagues. Ranked as the organization's top prospect by Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein, the left-handed hitting Brown had just a .230 TAv in 70 plate appearances in his major-league debut last year. He will likely at least be the large half of a platoon with either Ben Francisco or John Mayberry Jr.

"I actually felt a little nervous when I got to spring training, and that surprised me a little because I figured I'd be over the nerves after spending time in the big leagues last season," Brown said. "But now that the [exhibition] games have started, I've calmed down and I'm ready to prove that I belong in the big leagues. I really believe I can play at that level."

Manuel cautions that when he was the Indians' hitting coach such superstars as Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome needed time to adjust to major-league pitching.  Yet Manuel admits he is intrigued by Brown's potential.

"He's got everything it takes," Manuel said. "I think he's going to be good, real good."

While it will be tough for Brown to match Werth's .303 TAv of last season, a strong rookie season would help keep the Phillies' offense dangerous.

"Everyone talks about our pitching and I understand that, but it's unfair to ask those guys to carry the whole load," Howard said. "We can't relax as an offense because we've got great pitching. We need to be more consistent than we were last year and I think we will be. You still look at our lineup numbers one to eight and it's not a lineup a pitcher wants to face."

---

Rumors and rumblings:

Tigers manager Jim Leyland was one of the speakers at last Friday's memorial service for Bill Lajoie, the GM of Detroit's last World Series-winning team in 1984, who died in December. Besides being one of the classiest people in baseball, Lajoie's career path during his 57 years in the game was what struck Leyland: "He was a minor-league player, a minor-league manager, a scout, a scouting director, a farm director, an assistant general manager, a general manager and a special adviser to a general manager. I don't know if anyone in the history of baseball has had all of those jobs." … Pirates GM Neal Huntington said interest in catcher/outfielder Ryan Doumit has waned in recent weeks. The Pirates are willing to trade Doumit and his $5.1 million salary, as he no longer has a starting job now that Chris Snyder is set as the catcher and Garrett Jones and Matt Diaz will be platooning in right field. … Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar hit just four home runs in 567 plate appearances last season between the Braves and Toronto. However, Blue Jays manager John Farrell is intrigued by the power potential of Escobar, who hit 14 homers for the Braves in 2009: "He's a gap-to-gap guy now, but I really think he's going to turn some of the balls into the gaps into balls that go over the fence."

Hamels has been so impressive this spring that it led one Phillies insider to say: "If he pitches like this all year, he might be better than any of our starters. He's looking like he's going to the next level." … Shortstop Tim Beckham, selection No. 1 overall in the 2008 draft by Tampa Bay, has disappointed so far in professional baseball, but Rays manager Joe Maddon says it wouldn't be wise to write him off: "He's getting better offensively and defensively, and he is also getting stronger. He has a great personality that a lot of people can relate to, and I think that's going to serve him well in his career." … Baseball people rarely agree on anything, but it seems that everyone believes Joe Torre's appointment by Commissioner Bud Selig as Major League Baseball's executive vice president for baseball operations is a good move because of the respect for him throughout the game. … Some in the Cardinals' organization believe non-roster right-hander Brandon Dickson could wind up winning the spot in the rotation that opened because of Adam Wainwright's elbow injury. … The Nationals will likely have a young catcher available for trade late in spring training, as Wilson Ramos and Jesus Flores are competing to back up Ivan Rodriguez. … Rule 5 pick Pedro Beato has looked so good this spring that he will likely make the Mets' Opening Day pitching staff. … A happy retirement to Mariners outfielder Jody Gerut, one of the most erudite players I have met in 24 years of covering baseball.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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