All aboard the Cole train
The silver lining in the dark cloud that was the Phillies' 2012 season was Cole Hamels signing a six-year extension for $144 million.
Hamels, who has won NL and World Series MVP awards, had an easy out. He could have noted the Phillies have an aging core and the most glorious run in the franchise's 130-year history is over.
"But I think this team is still an elite team," Hamels said. "I think we can be an elite team for many years. I love it here. There were so many reasons to stay."
If Hamels went the free-agent route, he would be a richer man. Zack Greinke signed with the Dodgers for $147 million. Greinke has a playoff line of 1-1 with a 6.48 ERA.
"There's little doubt about that," a NL scout said. "Hamels left $30 [million], maybe $40 million on the table. But he signed a huge contract and if he's happy in Philadelphia, that's great for him. Expect a big year from him."
Hamels won a career-high 17 games last season. He'll most likely be the team's stopper. The 29-year-old will make the first season-opening start of his career next week.
"I want to do as well as I can do this season," Hamels said. "I want to win every game I can and get back to the playoffs."
The Phillies will need a very strong year from Hamels, especially if there are issues with Roy Halladay.
"The Phillies need 45 wins from Hamels, Halladay and Lee," MLB analyst Mitch Williams said. "If Halladay has trouble, someone else has to pick up the slack and I wouldn't be surprised if it's Cole. He's very impressive."
According to Las Vegas oddsmakers, Hamels only Clayton Kershaw and Stephen Strasburg have a greater chance to score the NL Cy Young Award.
"That stuff doesn't mean that much to me,"Hamels said. "I just want to win, get to the playoffs and get back to the World Series."
Hamels has morphed considerably. As a rookie in 2006, Hamels mentioned how much he would like to win a Cy Young Award and pitch a no-hitter. Hamels has evolved as a person and as a hurler.
"He's a tremendous pitcher," Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano said. "It's huge for any team to have an ace like him in their rotation."
Welcome back, Big Piece
There were question marks after Roy Halladay, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard's names before spring training commenced. You can change the punctuation after the Big Piece's name to an exclamation point.
Howard stroked a team-high seven home runs and 16 RBIs in spring training, while sporting a robust .328 average.
"When I was getting started down here I felt good," he said. "I'm finally recovered from the injury. It wasn't easy coming back and playing last year. I was not 100 percent but I did my best."
While playing on one leg last season, Howard drove in 56 runs in 71 games. That's very impressive considering the circumstances. Howard, who has four more years left on his contract, believes he can once again be an elite power hitter.
"I see no reason why I won't be productive," Howard said. "I don't see a reason why I won't have the best year of my career. I feel that good."
Is Howard doing anything special?
"I can't say that I'm doing anything different," Howard said. "I'm just doing what I do."
Flying under the radar
There was something missing from Bright House Field this spring. The palpable buzz that was part of the Clearwater experience since the Phillies won the World Series in 2008 was gone.
The Phillies are believed to be on a downward slide, according to most pundits. Most scribes are picking the Nationals. Not one of the seven Sports Illustrated writers predicts that the Phillies will make the playoffs.
"I don't care what anyone says," Cliff Lee said. "Feel free to overlook this team. That's fine with us."
A big reason that prognosticators aren't picking the Phillies as a playoff team is the uncertain status of Roy Halladay. Who knows what kind of season the once brilliant starter will have?
Carlos Ruiz is one of five Phillies who have been around since the organization's greatest era commenced in 2007. Chooch relishes being overlooked.
"That's fine with me," Ruiz said. "I think it's good. But when you look at some of the hitters and pitchers we have, I find it strange."
The Red Sox's charismatic Ryan Dempster thinks it's silly to write off the Phillies.
"Don't count out a champion," Dempster said. "But maybe it'll be a good thing for them to not [be the focal point]. But on the other side of that, they always dealt well with pressure. If they stay healthy, they have some very talented players."
Bullpen could be strength
There are a number of reasons the Phillies failed to make the playoffs in 2012. The biggest reason for the lack of meaningful baseball in October was a bad bullpen.
The Phillies' relievers blew 13 leads in the eighth inning. They lost seven games in which they were one out from getting the ball to Jonathan Papelbon. The Phillies lost 20 games in which they had the lead or were tied in the eighth.
It wasn't surprising that Ruben Amaro signed the best set-up man available when he inked Mike Adams.
"I'm well aware of what happened [with the Phillies] last year," Adams said. "You need to have someone help close out the game. You can't blow leads and waste a strong effort from a starter."
Charlie Manuel had little faith in a 'pen that was at a deficit thanks to the injured Jose Contreras and the disaster that was Chad Qualls. Phillies starters often threw one inning too many. That's why Adams and veteran Chad Durbin were added.
"I think the bullpen will be a strength this year," Durbin said.
Looking at the starting rotation
Cole Hamels: Hamels is coming off the best season of his career and he could be better. One of the best changeups in the game, a very good fastball, a plus curve and a terrific cutter.
Roy Halladay: His velocity is down. He has had trouble throwing first-ball strikes and not as many batters are swinging and missing at his fastball. Otherwise, all is great with Doc.
Cliff Lee: He hasn't had the best spring, but he will continue to attack the plate. He will throw strikes with each of his plus pitches. He's the ultimate competitor.
Kyle Kendrick: It's the first time since 2008 that Kendrick enters as a starter. He has looked good this spring, particularly off-speed stuff.
John Lannan: The Blue Jays crushed him in his last start. As fifth starters go, Lannan is decent. He has also pitched well at times. Who will show up next week?
Projecting the lineup
Charlie Manuel hasn't chiseled his lineup in stone and don't expect a revelation until Monday. Here's a breakdown:
1. Jimmy Rollins: Best numbers are out of the leadoff spot. That's where he's most comfortable.
2. Ben Revere: The speedy center fielder could bat in a variety of spots — lead-off, seven and/or eight hole. He doesn't strike out.
3. Chase Utley: He's made it through the entire spring without breaking down. Good sign. Magic number is 130 games.
4. Ryan Howard: After Howard returned last July, the Phillies played .600 ball. Thirty-five homers and 130 RBIs? Not out of the question.
5. Michael Young: He typically hits for high average and has gap power. Huge upgrade over Placido Polanco.
6. Dom Brown: Brown earned his right-field gig with a tremendous spring. He has the tools and now the maturity.
7. John Mayberry/Laynce Nix: Can Mayberry become the player he was in 2011? Can Nix put up decent numbers after struggling in 2012?
8. Carlos Ruiz: When Ruiz returns, watch out. Best eight-hole hitter in the game.