Baseball: Phillies one of many teams fighting for NL supremacy
By Jay Cohen
Manny Ramirez’s arrival at spring training looked a little like a Hollywood premiere. As television cameras zoomed in, everyone from reporters to team employees clamored for time with the Los Angeles Dodgers’ dreadlocked slugger.
With a captive audience, Ramirez couldn’t resist.
“I’m baaaaack!” he said.
So are the World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies, the ever-hopeful Chicago Cubs and several other contenders looking for a big year in a wide-open National League. Only 12 1/2 games separated the division winners from the runners-up in the NL last year, and the Milwaukee Brewers nailed down the wild card on the final day of the season.
Just like when Ramirez is on the field, it’s hard to predict what comes next.
“You don’t take things for granted,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. “There are teams in our division that have the same aspirations we do. No cockiness. No false bravados, go out and play and earn it on the field and that’s how you do it.”
Chicago has won consecutive Central titles under the fiery Piniella and flamed out in the first round of the postseason each year.
It’s 101 years and counting since the Cubs’ last World Series winner in 1908.
“You keep going to the postseason, sooner or later you break the door down,” Piniella said, “and hopefully this is the year.”
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel got All-Star second baseman Chase Utley back from offseason right hip surgery sooner than expected, but his health could be key to Philly’s repeat hopes. Ace left-hander Cole Hamels also was bothered by elbow tightness during spring training, another situation worth watching for Phillies fans.
Utley’s team has chased down the New York Mets in September in each of the last two seasons to win the East.
“To go through that for two years in a row is very difficult,” center fielder Carlos Beltran said. “There’s no team in baseball that has done what we have done. It’s hard to let it go, but you have to. You have to do the best you can to let it go and be able to learn, of course. Learn to maybe not take anything for granted.”
The frustrated Mets addressed their most pressing need in the offseason, signing closer Francisco Rodriguez to a $37 million, three-year contract and acquiring J.J. Putz from Seattle to shore up their leaky bullpen.
East Rowan High School graduate Bobby Parnell (0-0 record, 5.40 ERA in six big league relief outings; 12-8 combined record as a starter at Double-A and Triple-A) has been impressive out of the bullpen this spring. He’s 1-0 with a 2.38 ERA in eight appearances.
A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:
The Phillies made one major addition after beating Tampa Bay in five games to win the World Series. Raul Ibanez agreed to a $31.5 million, three-year contract in December and will replace Pat Burrell in left field.
New York Mets
New York looked good in the first 145 games of the last two seasons: The final 17 were brutal in both years. The Mets led the East by seven games with 17 to play in 2007 before they went 5-12 down the stretch and missed the postseason. They blew a 3 1/2-game lead last year when they lost 10 of their last 17 games.
The biggest culprit in last year’s collapse was the bullpen, but there are still glaring questions about the corner outfielders and the back end of the rotation.
The Braves overhauled their rotation after finishing with a 72-90 record last year, their worst since 1990. John Smoltz and Mike Hampton are gone. Derek Lowe signed a $60 million, four-year deal after going 14-11 with a 3.24 ERA for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Right-hander Javier Vazquez was acquired in a trade with the Chicago White Sox and Kenshin Kawakami came over from Japan. The three newcomers and holdovers Jair Jurrjens and Tom Glavine should give Atlanta a solid rotation, with Tim Hudson (elbow ligament-replacement surgery) possibly returning in the second half.
Starting pitchers Ricky Nolasco, Josh Johnson and Chris Volstad all showed potential last year, and All-Stars Hanley Ramirez and Dan Uggla will supply plenty of pop in the infield. Cameron Maybin also looks ready to take over the everyday job in center field.
Adam Dunn agreed to a $20 million, two-year deal, but Washington has a glut of corner outfielders and first basemen. None of last year’s Nats hit more than 14 homers or drove in more than 61 runs.
For a team that won an NL-best 97 games last year, the Cubs were active in the offseason. New right fielder Milton Bradley gives them a potent switch hitter for the middle of their lineup. Utility infielder Aaron Miles and backup center fielder Joey Gathright will provide speed and versatility off the bench.
Kevin Gregg appears to have beaten out All-Star reliever Carlos Marmol for the role of closer. They should be able to replace Kerry Wood, but the Cubs could miss infielder Mark DeRosa.
Yovani Gallardo, who missed most of last season because of a knee injury, takes over as the team’s top starter. Questions extend into the bullpen, where career saves leader Trevor Hoffman was bothered by a strained right oblique muscle this spring.
St. Louis Cardinals
The key to the Cardinals’ hopes for a big season may be Chris Carpenter, who looked healthy this spring after battling shoulder and elbow injuries the past two years. St. Louis will be without Troy Glaus for the first part of the season after the third baseman had shoulder surgery in January, and Skip Schumaker is making the unusual transition from the outfield to second base. David Freese and Joe Mather are in the mix at third, and Brendan Ryan could start at second if Schumaker isn’t ready on opening day.
The Reds have the makings of a good young core with right-handers Edinson Volquez and Johnny Cueto, second baseman Brandon Phillips, first baseman Joey Votto and outfielder Jay Bruce. They could be among the league leaders in steals with the addition of Willy Taveras.
Houston got a boost in spring training when catcher Ivan Rodriguez agreed to a one-year, $1.5 million contract. Before Pudge signed, the biggest offseason acquisition was the return of Hampton.
Tom Gorzelanny, one of the Pirates’ top two starters at the beginning of last season, will start the season at Triple-A Indianapolis after a disappointing spring. At least left-hander Zach Duke has shown signs of snapping out of his funk.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The return of Ramirez should mean better numbers for Rafael Furcal, Matt Kemp and the rest of the lineup. The Dodgers signed Randy Wolf, and Jonathan Broxton has the stuff to make a smooth transition to full-time closer with Takashi Saito gone.
Jon Garland, who agreed to a one-year, $7.25 million contract in January, is hoping to make it a Big Three with Brandon Webb and Dan Haren. The bullpen is a concern with Chad Qualls at the back end.
San Francisco Giants
The Giants bolstered their bullpen by signing Jeremy Affeldt and Bob Howry in the offseason. Randy Johnson, the team’s No. 2 starter, needs just five wins to reach 300 for his career, and new shortstop Edgar Renteria is being counted on to add some offense.
The Rockies traded Matt Holliday and lost closer Brian Fuentes in free agency, leaving major holes. Two players they acquired from Oakland could help. Promising prospect Carlos Gonzalez was in the mix for a spot in the outfield, and former A’s closer Huston Street was competing with Manuel Corpas for the same role in Colorado.
San Diego Padres
Heath Bell takes over for Hoffman in the bullpen, and at least Jake Peavy is still around. He is guaranteed $59 million through 2012 and could hit the market again this summer.