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Pieces are in place for the Phils to contend
Those words have been stamped in big, bold, red letters on the 2003 Phillies as they prepare to try to close Veterans Stadium in style by reaching the postseason.
General manager Ed Wade transformed a club that finished 80-82 last season into a legitimate contender with a series of stunning offseason moves.
The touchstone was the free-agent signing of elite slugger Jim Thome to a club record six-year, $85 million package. Thome immediately became the poster boy for the new era of optimism and hope.
Cleveland's all-time home run king yearns to reach the playoffs again. That was paramount in his final decision and the fact that he chose Philadelphia to be his baseball home for the rest of his career spoke volumes.
Thome recognized the Phillies have a nucleus of accomplished young players and the Phillies' renaissance and revival will be enhanced by the move to the state-of-the-art new ballpark next April.
Thome, who crashed a Cleveland-record 52 homers last season, is the very definition of power hitter. His presence gives the Phillies their best everyday lineup since the 1980 World Series championship club.
An enthusiastic Mike Schmidt pointed out early in spring training that the Phillies, with the exception of rookie center fielder Marlon Byrd, have a potential All-Star at every position.
There's even been speculation that the Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Thome could emerge as the best middle of the order in club history.
''On paper, I'd agree with that,'' manager Larry Bowa said. ''The potential is certainly there. It's still a matter of doing it on the field.''
Schmidt and Thome think Burrell is destined to become a 50 home run man. Perhaps even this season.
''I think Pat is somewhere in the 65 to 70 percent range when it comes to potential,'' Schmidt said. ''His numbers need to be right there with Alex Rodriguez. That's Pat Burrell numbers.''
The supporting cast is comprised of the good soldiers Bowa adores.
New third baseman David Bell, second baseman Placido Polanco, catcher Mike Lieberthal and outfielder Ricky Ledee, who had a monster spring, are all consummate professionals. They know there are no shortcuts to success and they understand how to play the game.
Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, a two-time All-Star, will be a key man in many regards. The club's leadoff man must increase his sorry .306 on-base percentage and regain the base-running passion that helped him lead the league in steals his rookie season.
He and Byrd, a gifted but very raw talent, took private hitting lessons from Tony Gwynn. Both insist they'll prove they earned their diplomas with marked improvement.
The Phillies lost a numbing 54 games last season when they scored three or fewer runs. That should no longer be an issue.
''This team is going to put up a lot of crooked numbers,'' Opening Day starter Kevin Millwood said. ''That gives you a lot of confidence when you take the mound.''
Bowa is confident he has a pitching staff that will be able to protect those leads.
''It always comes down to pitching,'' Bowa said.
Millwood, an 18-game winner acquired from Atlanta in exchange for minor league catcher Johnny Estrada, is the top-of-the-rotation ace any legitimate contender must have. He has played on division winners in each of his six major-league seasons.
''I'd like to keep that streak going,'' Millwood said. ''It will be different being the chaser instead of the chased. It should be a lot of fun.''
Randy Wolf and Vicente Padilla (14-11, 3.28 ERA in 2002) are poised and ready to take it to the next level. Wolf's 3.20 ERA was sixth best in the National League a year ago, but he only won 11 games, because of the second-worst run support.
New pitching coach Joe Kerrigan, whose meticulous preparation and guidance will reap many rewards, said Padilla's pure stuff equals that of the incomparable Pedro Martinez. A scintillating first half earned Padilla All-Star status, but he faltered down the stretch and was eventually shut down because of a tired arm.
The rest of the rotation could be dicey. Brett Myers and Brandon Duckworth have electric stuff, but are still very much works in progress.
And Duckworth, who is having problems with his elbow, hasn't pitched since March 9 and is likely to start the season on the disabled list.
Reliable, strike-throwing machine Joe Roa will take Duckworth's place in the rotation for now and will probably start the April 4 home opener.
Bowa said the most vulnerable area on any team is middle relief. The Phillies were buried by an 8-18 start last year because the bullpen surrendered 14 leads before gaining equilibrium.
Philadelphia's setup crew (Carlos Silva, Hector Mercado, Rheal Cormier and Dan Plesac) eventually became a strength, once Terry Adams was dropped from the rotation to become part of the bridge that got the ball to ageless closer Jose Mesa, who set a club record with 45 saves but blew a major-league-high nine rescues.
Kerrigan has convinced Mesa to trust his nasty curve again, which could increase his effectiveness.
Tyler Houston, who heads an upgraded bench and provides insurance at every position, said he should be listed as Lloyd's of London in the media guide.
Defensively, the Phillies again should be among the best in the game.
''That's one of our strengths,'' Bowa said. ''We catch the ball and make the routine plays.''
This team was built to contend.
''I expect to win,'' Bowa said. ''The players expect to win. I'll keep saying this and you'll probably get tired of hearing it, but if we do what we're capable of, we'll have a lot of fun this season. We have as good a team as anybody in this division.''
There will be considerable pressure on Bowa to get the job done.
Every shortcoming he lamented last season has been addressed. The team has added a thunder stick, an ace and focused professionals who have been through the playoff wars.
The ill will generated by Scott Rolen and the laid-back approaches of Travis Lee and Marlon Anderson are ancient history.
''I see a bunch of guys that really care about each other,'' Thome said. ''Guys that root for each other. That's important.''
''It's all up to us now,'' Wolf said.