The Philadelphia Phillies waited 14 years to get to the playoffs, and their stint in the postseason seemingly ended before it even began, as they were swept in three games by the Colorado Rockies in the National League Division Series. Thus, the Phillies’ storybook finish–in which they overcame a seven-game deficit to the New York Mets in the final 17 days of the regular season to win the NL East–ended against a team in the midst of a hot streak for the ages. The Rockies had won 14 of their last 15 games to capture the NL wild card, then went
on to sweep Arizona in the National League Championship Series after dispatching the Phillies. Ultimately, Colorado had 21 wins in 22 games before being swept by Boston in the World Series.

“It was just a case of us running into a team that was red hot, actually beyond red hot,” Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard said. “It was bad timing on our part. We played the wrong team at the wrong time. That’s why I didn’t sit around and mope all winter. I knew we had a great team. We just drew the wrong team in the first round.”

Getting a taste of the postseason–for the first time since losing to Toronto in the 1993 World Series–has whetted the Phillies’ appetite. They want to experience October baseball again. “Absolutely,” Howard said. “We definitely walked away from last season feeling like we had some unfinished business. We were happy to be in the playoffs but our ultimate goal was to win it all and that didn’t happen. It’s been a long time since Philadelphia fans have had a championship to celebrate. It’s been too long. That’s why we’d like nothing better than to bring home a World Series title. It would mean so much to the organization, the fans and the entire city.”

The Phillies haven’t won the World Series since 1980. The last Philadelphia team to win a major professional sports title was the 76ers, who captured the NBA
championship in the 1982-83 season. Thus, many of the Phillies can be spotted in their clubhouse this spring wearing T-shirts that read Winning Starts Now. “The playoffs were too short,” left-hander Cole Hamels said. “That’s why we’re thinking about more than just defending our division title. We want more than that. We had a great season last year but it wasn’t enough.”

The Mets’ off-season acquisition of left-hander Johan Santana seems to have tipped the scales back toward New York in the NL East. The Phillies, meanwhile, made a flurry of moves in the offseason, but whether they have improved the team or not is open to debate. The Phillies’ biggest winter move came early, when they traded with Houston to acquire closer Brad Lidge. That deal enabled the Phillies to move right-hander Brett Myers–who shifted to closer early last season when Tom Gordon was injured–back to the starting rotation, where he joins holdovers Hamels (5.2 SNLVAR last season), left-hander Jamie Moyer (3.2), and Kyle Kendrick (3.2). After posting only 0.7 SNLVAR last season, right-hander Adam Eaton is being forced to win his job back this spring. Lidge underwent knee surgery this past week, a procedure that will cause him to miss the opener and possibly the first month of the season. Thus, Gordon will fill in until Lidge is healthy.

The Phillies were only 12th in the 16-team senior circuit in runs allowed last season, with an average of 5.07 a game. They were first in runs scored, though, averaging 5.50, which is what really fueled their 89-73 finish. Despite having such a good offense last season, the Phillies will have two new starters in their lineup. Defense-first third baseman Pedro Feliz was signed as a free agent from San Francisco to man the hot corner, where last season’s troika of Greg Dobbs, Wes Helms, and Abraham Nuñez split time. After watching center fielder Aaron Rowand bolt to the Giants as a free agent, the Phillies signed Geoff Jenkins from Milwaukee to platoon with holdover Jayson Werth in right, while shifting right fielder Shane Victorino to center.

The Phillies definitely figure to lose something offensively in the outfield, as Rowand’s 52.0 VORP was fourth on the team last season, behind only the big three of second baseman Chase Utley (68.8), shortstop Jimmy Rollins (66.1), and Howard (53.6). Utley finished eighth overall in the NL in VORP, while Rollins was ninth, Howard was 12th, and Rowand 13th; no other NL team had more than two players in the top 15.

Howard admits he was a bit leery at first about General Manager Pat Gillick making so many changes to a division-winning club. However, now that the Phillies have assembled at spring training, Howard has a better feeling. “Our team is a little different than a lot of teams because chemistry is really
important here,” Howard said. “We have a good group of guys who are very close. It’s a little bit of a crazy atmosphere in our clubhouse. We love to joke around and have a good time, though we know how to get serious once we take the field. I really wondered if the chemistry might get disrupted, but the new guys are fitting right in.”

Whether the new acquisitions can play well enough to help the Phillies win
back-to-back division titles for the first time since winning three in a row from 1976-78 remains to be seen. However, like all managers at this time of year, Charlie Manuel is optimistic: “Last year raised expectations on this team. That’s fine. We have high expectations of ourselves. Last year showed that anything is possible and our guys believe in themselves. They fully expect to go out and win the division again.”

Athletics GM Billy Beane has developed a growing fascination with soccer in recent years, particularly on the international level. Thus, it was not a
surprise that Jürgen Klinsmann, the first player ever to score at least three goals in three different World Cups, visited Beane at the Athletics’ spring training camp in Phoenix this past week. Klinsmann coached Germany to a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup. He now lives in Southern California, and many soccer observers expect him to coach the United States in the 2010 World Cup.

“I’m here trying to pick his brain,” Klinsmann told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I’ve read about the approach Billy has with this team and the way they’ve put things together based on different information, so I’m taking the opportunity to see how he does it.”

Beane has been trying to find statistical models that can help soccer teams evaluate talent, much the way the Athletics have used stats to aid in player acquisitions. Beane has talked to high-ranking international soccer officials about combining resources to find inequities in the market that might be exploited. The Athletics’ ownership group also controls the San Jose Earthquakes of Major League Soccer. While Beane is signed as the Athletics’ GM through 2014, he is expected to eventually take on a key role with the Earthquakes.,/p>

Beane downplays his soccer knowledge, but said, “There’s a metric for every business that corresponds to winning. There’s no silver bullet–you’re just trying to increase your probabilities” of winning.

The YankeesRed Sox rivalry never takes a break, even when one of the teams isn’t directly involved. Red Sox GM Theo Epstein took a shot at the Yankees this past week during a radio interview on WEEI-AM in Boston when asked about his team’s season-opening series with Oakland in Tokyo on March 25-26. Esptein said the Red Sox need to “keep the Brown-and-Mussina approach from infiltrating our clubhouse,” when they travel to Japan.

When the Yankees opened the 2004 season with a two-game series against Tampa Bay in Tokyo, veteran pitchers Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina complained about the effect the long trip had on the team’s preparations for the season. “Kevin Brown and Mike Mussina spent the whole time bitching about it,” Epstein said. “And by the time the Yankees team got back from the trip they were all using it as a crutch.” Told of the comments, Mussina said to the Newark Star-Ledger, “Yeah. We used it as an excuse for winning the division.”

Epstein’s point, though, was that he didn’t want his team taking a negative attitude toward making the journey to the Far East. “The research that we’ve done on the Japan trip from the teams that have previously gone is one or two bad apples can spoil the lot,” he said. Perhaps the fact that players on both teams will receive $40,000 for taking part in the series will keep the apples from turning sour.

The Rockies continue to break new ground when it comes to signing players with
limited major league service time. This past week, they signed closer Manny Corpas to a four-year guaranteed contract that also includes two club option years. Corpas will earn a minimum of $8 million during the life of the contract and a maximum of $22 million in the biggest pact ever signed by a reliever with less than two years of service time.

The signing of Corpas comes less than two months after the Rockies inked shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who had just finished his rookie season, to a six-year guarantee that includes an option year and is worth $31 million. That is the largest ever for a player with less than two years service. The Rockies also signed left-hander Jeff Francis to a four-year deal following the 2006 season, and gave right-hander Aaron Cook a three-year extension, which runs through the 2011 season, in December.

“For them to sign on shows they know the team is going to be special, and they want to be part of it,” Rockies owner Charlie Monfort told the Rocky Mountain News.

AL rumors and rumblings: Hank Steinbrenner says the Yankees will eventually sign GM Brian Cashman to a contract extension this year. However, some believe Cashman may bolt at the end of the season if he feels Steinbrenner is taking too much control of player personnel matters. … The three-year contract extension manager Terry Francona signed with the Red Sox last Sunday guarantees him $11.25 million and could be worth $20 million if Boston exercises both option years in 2012 and 2013. The DodgersJoe Torre remains the highest-paid manager as he signed a three-year, $13 million deal in the offseason, but Francona is in the next tier, along with the CardinalsTony La Russa, the Tigers‘ Jim Leyland, and the CubsLou Piniella. … The Red Sox have interest in free agent right-hander Freddy Garcia, who likely won’t be recovered enough from shoulder surgery to pitch until July. The Yankees and Mets have also shown interest. … It seems the on-again, off-again trade talks between Baltimore and the Cubs are back on, with the Orioles likely sending second baseman Brian Roberts to Chicago for shortstop Ronny Cedeño and pitching prospects Sean Gallagher and Donald Veal. … The Orioles have already cleared the salaries of Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada since the end of last season, putting them in position to make a big pitch for hometown boy Mark Teixeira if the first baseman leaves Atlanta as a free agent at the end of the season. … Tampa Bay would only sign Barry Bonds as a free agent if it sustains an injury to one of its right fielder/designated hitter trio of Rocco Baldelli, Cliff Floyd, and Jonny Gomes. … Matt Klontak, hired as the Orioles’ director of baseball operations this past week, is expected to eventually replace Andy MacPhail as president in Baltimore. … Toronto’s signing of outfielder Shannon Stewart this past week means that outfielder Reed Johnson is now expendable and could be traded this spring.

Detroit is still trying to accommodate displaced third baseman Brandon Inge‘s request for a trade, and the Dodgers are emerging as a possible landing spot. … The White Sox reportedly have interest in trading for Oakland second baseman
Mark Ellis. … White Sox outfielder Jerry Owens says he can steal 65 bases this
season, a bold prediction considering he isn’t assured a spot in the starting lineup. … While Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis are competing for the Angels‘ starting shortstop job, there are indications the two could wind up sharing the position. … Minnesota’s talks with closer Joe Nathan about a contract extension aren’t going well, which increases the chances that he could be traded before he becomes eligible for free agency at the end of the season. … Seattle is exploring a long-term contract extension with right-hander Felix Hernandez.

NL rumors and rumblings: Piniella is lobbying Cubs ownership to sign GM Jim Hendry to an extension, as his contract expires at the end of the season, but the fact that the club is for sale clouds the situation. … The Cubs continue to look for a right-handed hitting outfielder, with Boston’s Coco Crisp and Texas’ Marlon Byrd representing their top targets. … Piniella says he wants outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, signed as a free agent from Japan in the offseason, to steal 20-30 bases this season. … Though both the Reds (Alex Gonzalez) and Giants (Omar Vizquel) figure to be without their starting shortstops on Opening Day because of knee injuries, neither club is in the market for a replacement. Instead, both are looking at in-house options, with Jeff Keppinger in Cincinnati and Kevin Frandsen in San Francisco the most likely starters. … Florida has decided against moving its home series with the Mets from July 28-30 to San Juan, Puerto Rico. … Atlanta right-hander John Smoltz is taking a different approach to preparing for the season, preferring to pitch primarily in simulated and minor league games this spring so that he can work on his sinker and curveball while trying to transition from power pitcher to finesse pitcher.

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