02/20/07 4:10 PM ET
Phillies exuding confidence at camp
Anything less than an NL East title in 2007 is unacceptable
"Bottom line, we're the team to beat [in the National League East]," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said on Tuesday. "I can't say it any other way."
"Win, that's our message; we're going to win," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We want to win. We're here to win. We've got to win. Losing's not an option. We're going to get in, man."
Spring Training is the time when optimism typically reigns for the vast majority of the 30 Major League Baseball franchises. And Tuesday was the first day of the Phillies' full-squad workouts. But this was something more than the normal Spring Training burst of rose-colored predictions. The Phillies firmly believe that they are good and have valid reasons that this is their year.
Of course, coming into nearly every spring in the new millennium, the Phillies have been prominently mentioned as potential winners of the NL East.
This year is no different in terms of the general expectations. It is different in terms of this team's current depth of confidence.
"We're acting like a team that knows we're supposed to win, not a team that's going to guess our way through Spring Training," Rollins said.
But will this season be different in the standings? Is this the year when the Phils turn "almost" into "actually there?"
The external circumstances in the rest of the division are at least somewhat encouraging. The New York Mets won 97 games and the division in 2006, but they seem a little short in starting pitching. The Atlanta Braves, for the first time in 15 seasons, are regrouping instead of defending a division title. The Florida Marlins are indisputably talented but young, and are probably still a work in progress. The Washington Nationals cannot be projected as a factor in the division race.
And the Phillies? They have six starting pitchers who seem to be legitimate, and most teams are still searching for five. The arrival of the reliable veteran Freddy Garcia is key, and so is the development of the young and exceptionally talented lefty Cole Hamels.
This is part of the basis of the Phillies' confidence.
When Rollins was asked if this team had more "swagger" now, he responded: "Truthfully, if we would had some arms to have the swagger, we would have had it. You're only going to go as far as your arms can carry you."
The starting pitching is deep enough that Jon Leiber may be expendable. That would be highly convenient, provided that the Phillies could obtain bullpen help in a trade.
The Philadelphia lineup should be potent and then some. Ryan Howard needs no introduction. Chase Utley and Rollins are coming off seasons in which they reached the higher levels of performance. These are players whose talents are substantial, and who may not have peaked yet.
One question mark would be third base, where the leading candidates are Wes Helms and Abraham Nunez. Helms would offer more pop, but he is a distinctly below-average defensive player.
But beyond the tangible reasons for optimism, there are the intangible reasons. When the Phillies traded their most visible player, Bobby Abreu, to the Yankees last season, this was initially seen as the first step of a rebuilding process. Instead, it created an opportunity for a new and more outwardly motivated group of Phillies to lead by both word and example. Instead of a rebuilding club in the second half of 2006, this became a dramatically improved club.
Abreu is an ideal complementary player with a supremely talented team such as the Yankees. But his relatively laid-back personality would not allow him to be a traditional leader with the Phillies. Now the leadership role belongs to scrappier-type players such as Rollins and Utley. The new age Phillies' approach might be characterized by center fielder Aaron Rowand running into a wall.
This different approach allows Manuel to speak positively of his club, with terms such as the ones he used on Tuesday: Attitude, chemistry, makeup, hustle, energy; the manager likes his club in each of those categories.
Phillies officials estimated that Tuesday's crowd at the Bright House Networks Field complex was the largest for the first full workout at a Phillies camp since the 1980s.
"I think who we are, our identity, is what's gotten fans interested in us," Manuel said.
A skeptic might point out that Tuesday was also the first decent weather day in Florida in the past week. But let's say that the weather, combined with the new, scrappier, hardier Phillies was an effective combination in getting fans to the workout.
What would be ideal under these circumstances, particularly in light of an early schedule that is heavy on East Division opponents, would be a fast start. Manuel said that he stressed this point in his first talk to the entire team on Tuesday, underscoring the point that there was a difference between being ready to play and being ready to win. The message was heard.
"He definitely approached that quite a few times today," Rollins said with a smile. "The pitchers had to hear it twice, unfortunately. But he's coming out talking about winning from the beginning. 'Losing's not an option,' as Charlie said. And it really isn't."
From the Phillies' perspective, the overall picture is extremely bright. The upside is fully in view. The downside cannot be seen from here.
"The whole vibe is good, there's nothing negative, there's no guessing coming into this year," Rollins said.
You have heard that it would be "the Phillies' year" before. But you have never heard that view voiced with this much certainty. If action directly follows belief, the 2007 Phillies will be in great shape.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.