If you are wondering who the leader is in the Phillies clubhouse, look no further than last night's edition of the "Daily News Live."
Without question, the leader is the guy that is most in tune with the needs and makeup of this team. He is the engine and the fuel... he is Jimmy Rollins.
For those of you that missed DNL, Jimmy Rollins made his customary annual prediction: announcing that the Phillies will win *112 games (the asterisk is there because Jimmy made it clear that 112 wins includes the postseason). As boisterous and cocky as his proclamation may sound, I applaud Jimmy for doing something that needed to be done, that is, igniting the fire that desperately needed to be lit.
With Chase Utley and Pedro Feliz both expected to be on the mend in early spring, recovering from off-season hip and back surgery, the Phillies will need to be focused and determined in April and May, months that typically been unkind to the Phils in recent years, if they stand any chance of helping Jimmy make good on his prediction and lead the Phillies back into the playoffs.
Key reserves will undoubtedly be asked to play big roles in the early going. Wins and losses in the early months might prove to be extremely important in 2009 and I expect that a lot of those wins will be the gritty, drag-'em-out variety.
Every team that comes into Philadelphia will no longer be playing the Phillies; they will be playing the defending World Champions and it's no secret that teams will be gunning for what they've got.
As the defending World Champions, the Phillies will likely enter the 2009 season as the odds-on favorites to win their division and possibly the National League, but history is certainly not in their favor. You have to go back to 1976 (Cincinnati Reds) to find a back-to-back World Series winner in the National League.
Winning once is hard but winning twice is damn near impossible.
The hangover that affects many teams in seasons following a league championship is well known but rarely overcome. The hard fall from grace that the Rockies, Giants, and Diamondbacks have recently endured serves as a reminder of just how difficult it is to stay on top.
But there is always hope in Philadelphia, and for this Phillies team and their fans, hope always seems to come from the All-Star MVP shortstop who is not afraid of sticking his neck out for his team.
Rollins has twice promised and twice delivered on bold statements (his playful predictions of an NL East championship and 100-win season proved to be true in consecutive seasons).
Some teams might not appreciate those kinds of remarks but Rollins knows that his team is behind him 100 percent, no matter what claim he makes.
No matter what it takes, they've got his back.
It might seem ridiculous but 112 wins is not too far fetched but if that is going to happen, it's going to be because of their pitching, and there is certainly room for improvement.
Last year's squad won 101 games (including the postseason) without a bona fide No. 5 starter and without a reliable No. 4 starter until July (when Big Joe Blanton joined the squad).
Because of the depth that has been added this off-season, this year's team should have a better chance of wining games on the back end of their rotation. It remains to be seen whether their No. 5 starter will be Chan Ho Park, J.A. Happ, Kyle Kendrick, or Carlos Carrasco but any of those guys should be better than what they started out with in 2008 (Adam Eaton and his 5.80 ERA).
Believe it or not, there is also room for improvement at the front end of the rotation. Aside from having great numbers, Cole Hamels ended up with a 14-10 record; a record that is not indicative of the season that Hamels really had. With regard to run support, Hamels ranked 92 out of the 108 pitchers that logged 140 innings or more in 2008 (a bit strange considering the Phillies boasted one of the highest run-producing teams in baseball). It is not unreasonable to think that Hamels can add four wins to his win total.
Brett Myers also proved to be inconsistent; a mid-season demotion to the minor leagues was required for him to find his groove. No one expects Myers to struggle as much as he did in 2008.
Aside from the pitching staff, it was not a career year for any of the big-name Phillies hitters; Howard, Rollins, and Utley have all had better years than they showed in 2008. If those three guys put together the type of season that they're capable of, 112 wins is possible without the asterisk.
But it won't come easy....
This team could have justifiably coasted through the off season but Rollins has made it clear: there is work to be done and it doesn't start in April. It starts in the weight room in January and it starts with the decisions that these guys are making right now, in the off-season, to activate and elevate their talent.
The fire never seems to start without a spark.