Though feared, Phillies wary of trouble spots

Bodley: Phillies not immune to trouble spots

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Charlie Manuel had just settled into an oversized leather chair on Sunday afternoon when his cell phone started ringing. It was Brad Lidge.

"Yes, I'm just as excited," the Phillies' manager told his closer. "This is the best rotation I've ever been around. It's going to be fun and should take some pressure off you guys."

Manuel quickly changed the subject, asking Lidge about his workouts, his physical status and how his holiday season went.

"He kind of pumped me up, too," Manuel said later. "He told me, 'Charlie, I've been working out and playing soft toss like you talked about. My [surgically repaired] knee feels better. Believe me -- I'm going to be more ready than in the past three years.'"

Manuel praised Lidge for finishing strong in 2010, mentioning that the closer converted 22 of his final 24 save opportunities and 17 of his last 18.

Manuel, who will turn 67 on Tuesday, spent much of his holiday break on the phone, checking in with his players as he prepares for a seventh season as the Phillies' skipper.

After the Phillies added Cliff Lee in December to a starting rotation featuring 2010 National League Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt, anything short of the World Series will be a disappointment.

Since 2007, the Phillies have won four consecutive NL East titles, two pennants and a World Series. They had the best record in the Major Leagues last season, and since Manuel took over in 2005, their 544-428 record is the best in the NL.

But even with one of the most feared four-man rotations in history, the Phillies will find repeating to be no cinch. Just because Philadelphia will be favored to return to the World Series -- which the club won in 2008 and lost in '09 -- doesn't mean it will happen.

Start with the loss of right fielder Jayson Werth, who signed a lucrative free-agent contract with the Washington Nationals in December. For the Phillies, Werth batted fifth and served as a much-needed right-hand bat in a predominately left-handed-hitting lineup. Werth's defense will be just as difficult to replace.

The Phillies' offense concerns me, especially for a team built around its offense before 2010. Ryan Howard lacked the power last season that has always been his trademark. His .505 slugging percentage and 31 homers were the lowest of his career. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez had subpar years.

Philadelphia's 720 runs scored were second to offensive leader Cincinnati's 790.

"Our pitching, especially in the second half of the season, was one of the reasons we won," said Manuel. "But we have a better offense than 720 runs. I think we're very capable of scoring 800-850 runs."

In losing to the San Francisco Giants in the NL Championship Series, the Phillies batted just .216 over six games and were 8-for-45 with runners in scoring position. As was the case many times during the regular season, they just weren't able to get key hits.

Howard, who struck out 12 times against the Giants and did not homer in the postseason, returned to Citizens Bank Park prior to Christmas and worked out in the batting cage with hitting coach Greg Gross.

"He's coming down here early to work with [coach] Sam Perlozzo on his defense, and we plan to do some work with his hitting," Manuel said of Howard. "I am convinced he can produce more than he did last year. After he sprained his ankle in August, I felt like that was his back side and he wasn't using his legs at the end of the season. He just didn't get the balance and rhythm to get a good push off the back side, which is where the power lies."

Mention right field to Manuel, and he frowns.

It's obviously the biggest negative facing the Phillies.

"If we can get enough offense out of Ben Francisco, [rookie] Domonic Brown and Ross Gload -- and maybe even John Mayberry -- we should be all right," Manuel said.

But what about the loss of Werth's defense?

"If Francisco and Brown get enough playing time, they might play better defense than we realize," Manuel answered.

Brown is the best prospect the Phillies have, but the weeks he spent with the club at the end of the regular season indicate that he may not yet be ready for the Major Leagues. Manuel plans to force-feed Brown during Spring Training, almost like a cram course.

"He's going to see a lot of baseball," Manuel said.

Pausing, he added: "I agree that going in, there are a lot of ifs with our offense. Guys have to bounce back, but those are good ifs. The talent is there; it's just a matter of us getting back to where we used to be."

Regardless, repeating even with the awesome rotation the Phillies have gets more difficult each year.

From the moment Spring Training opens, Manuel preaches avoiding complacency.

"We cannot do it just because we are supposed to and expected to," Manuel said. "Staying focused for 162 games is difficult. There are a lot of distractions in the Major Leagues.

"It comes down to how much the players want it and how much they want to put into it. The fans play a major part in this [with 123 consecutive sellouts at Citizens Bank Park], because of the energy they bring to the ballpark. They demand our players to play well and expect us to win. It's up to me and the staff not to let them get complacent. It's not a matter of having to win; it's a matter of wanting to win. That's our attitude."

The weeks since the Phillies were eliminated by eventual World Series winner San Francisco in the NLCS have done little to soothe Manuel's disappointment.

"I've been searching for reasons why we came up short," Manuel said. "I've never been an excuse guy and never will be. But when I look back, we ended the season by winning 27 of our last 35 games, and I think teams always hit a cold spell during a long season.

"We swept Cincinnati in the Division Series, then had to sit back a week before we played the Giants. Against them, we just didn't hit very many balls hard. That layoff bothered us, especially our offense. I don't think it came from not being ready physically. From a mental aspect, it hurt us.

"The bottom line was we just didn't hit during the series. The Giants' pitching, of course, had something to do with that."

Manuel started laughing.

"Lee, Halladay, Oswalt, Hamels," Manuel said, twice.

"How can I not be excited?"

There was no need to answer the question.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.