Clearwater Countdown: Will the Phils Repeat?

Phillies pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater Saturday! In honor of the start of Spring Training is doing our top-10 countdown of issues to be settled before Opening Day.

This one will actually be settled a lot later -- think November.

No. 1:

Will the Phillies repeat as champs and will Chase Utley declare "World F'n Champions" once again?

The answer to the first part is they should and as for the second part of the question -- let's worry about winning first.

Will they repeat? -- the question of debate for every Phillies phan. After we waited 25 years for a champion -- waiting only a year for another would be really nice.

The pressure to repeat can actually be harder than winning in the first place. The Phils will have a target on their backs in every city -- teams will be marketing that the World Champs are coming to town.

Luckily most of those actual World Champs will return. As of now the Phillies are returning 22 out of 25 players from last season's postseason run (23 if you include suspended pitcher J.C. Romero). The only two guys that are gone really are outfielders So Taguchi and Pat Burrell.

They will need to stay focused and play fundamental baseball to win again but with this core they have proved that is what they are capable of achieving. Consistency is a rare thing in modern baseball but the Phils have secured their core players to continue winning. (Great job by GM Ruben Amaro Jr.)

The first step for the Charlie Manuel-led Phillies will be winning the NL East.

The last time the Phightins won the NL East three straight seasons was 1976-78 when Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton held down the fort. Now, its up to Utley and Cole Hamels to carry flag for the Phightins.

The New York Mets have collapsed two straight years allowing the Phils come from behind to the win the East.

This season the Mets have addressed their biggest on-field problem area by entirely retooling their joke of a bullpen. They are going to be better than last season so 92 wins might not be enough for the Phils to win the division crown.

Both NL East teams could easily break the 90-win milestone. This would get both teams into the playoffs if the trend on the NL Wild Card team having 90 or fewer wins continues. (Houston in 2004 was the last NL Wild Card with more than 90 wins)

But, how many wins will the Division winner have? 96 wins might be what it takes and the Phillies have hopefully made the upgrades needed to add four wins to their 2008 total.

The question is if the Phillies have improved with the few moves they have made.

The pitching staff last year was the major key to success last season -- expect the same thing this year.

If they remain healthy better numbers can be expected from returning starters Hamels, Brett Myers and Joe Blanton. Jamie Moyer can't be expected to win 16 games again but 13 or so wins shouldn't be hard to fathom for Father Time Moyer.

The bullpen isn't as stable. You can't expect for Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin and Brad Lidge to be the same pitchers they were last season but if they get close to the same performance than things should be fine.

A major change for the Phillies is actually in the pen where the sixth and seventh spots are up for grabs.

Gone are old-timers like Rudy Seanez and Tom Gordon. In will be a converted starter J.A. Happ, Chan Ho Park or Kyle Kendrick in long relief and possibly a young gun Mike Zagurski, Sergio Escanola or Joe Bisenius for spot situations.

But, let's not forget the position players.

Raul Ibanez could be an upgrade over Pat Burrell as the regular left fielder. He has been more consistent in recent years than Burrell but for his career his power numbers are actually worse.

Ibanez averages fewer homers and RBI (two areas the Phillies have Ryan Howard for) but hits for a better average and about the same overall slugging percentage as Pat the Bat.

The big upgrade for Ibanez is his .985 career fielding percentage in left compared to Burrell's .976.

Defense wins championships and Ibanez should help sure up the Phils in left.

The Phillies also will need to stay healthy. Jimmy Rollins was injured early in the year last season and never really recovered. If he even hits just slightly better this season it will really help get the team started.

Last season the Phillies scored 799 runs. With J-Roll rolling at all cylinders they should be able to break 800 this season.

You would think that the Phillies would be favored to win it all returning so much talent but they aren't.

The strangest thing is that the Mets and Chicago Cubs enter the season as the betting favorites in the NL to win the World Series at 8:1 odds. The Phils come in third at 14:1 odds.

Well if the Phils win the East they will likely be the favorite come playoff time so these future bets mean nothing.

Here at the pick is 96 wins, an NL East title and don't be surprised to hear from Mr. Utley again -- "World F'n Champions."

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