"You look at [the Astros] and say, 'That could have been us,'" Ryan Howard said of the team that edged the Phillies for the National League Wild Card and then went on to the World Series. "We could have been playing in the World Series. It was within our reach."
In saying this, Howard noticed new teammate Aaron Rowand, a member of the 2005 World Series champions, across the room and added, "That can be us."
In order for that to happen, the Phillies have to find a way to secure five more wins, a statement Pat Gillick said on the day he was hired as the team's general manager. And it starts with pitching.
The Phillies didn't make any changes at the top of their rotation, where Jon Lieber, Brett Myers and Cory Lidle return. The club replaced Vicente Padilla with Ryan Franklin, and it plans to shift Ryan Madson to the starting rotation, a move that has potential benefits but could also weaken the bullpen.
Despite the fact that Lieber, Myers and Lidle combined for 43 wins, it's been said that the team has no true ace.
"Ideally, we'd all like to have a No. 1 pitcher. We don't have that guy necessarily, but Jon or Brett can emerge to be that guy," said assistant general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. "They've all had great stretches for us last season."
Madson won 28 games and had a 3.34 ERA in his final two Minor League seasons as a starter, spanning 328 1/3 innings. The right-hander has a funky delivery and features three pitches, including an unfair changeup. Franklin, however, allowed 95 homers over the past three seasons, and he compiled a 5.10 ERA with the Mariners in 2005.
Gillick is confident in Franklin's ability to return to his 2003 form, and the GM is more concerned with adding a top-line starter, if possible.
"I like the pitchers we have in Jon Lieber and Brett Myers, but I think we still need a real power type of pitcher who can stop the bleeding or stop a losing streak," Gillick said, echoing a statement he made several times this offseason. "Is there someone out there? Sure, there are pitchers out there, but it's about what you need to give up to get. I'm talking to clubs all the time and evaluating this every day."
The soaring market for starting pitchers, as evidenced by the lucrative contracts given to veterans Kenny Rogers, Paul Byrd and Esteban Loaiza, hurt the Phillies' chances of securing a top-notch guy. Teams that had quality arms weren't dealing, even for a hitter of Bobby Abreu's ilk. The two-time All-Star was dangled for that No. 1 guy, but no matches were found.
Ultimately, the Phillies used Jason Michaels to secure the bullpen and "acquired" Madson for the rotation.
Tom Gordon takes over the closer role from Billy Wagner, who is now a member of the Mets. Gordon comes at about half the price Wagner received from New York, and he has been durable and reliable over the past three seasons in New York and Chicago.
"Tom Gordon hasn't been in [the closer] role because he pitched in front of Mariano Rivera for the past two seasons [in New York]," said Amaro. "He solidified that bullpen for them. He's pitched in pressure situations before and can close again. I see at least 40 saves."
This assumes that Arthur Rhodes can pitch the eighth inning enough times to get the ball to Gordon with a lead, that the offense will provide enough leads to protect and the starting pitching will toss seven quality innings more often than not.
Those challenges will play out over the course of 162 games. The important thing is that the Phillies come to the ballpark expecting to win, instead of hoping to win.
"There are probably some teams in our division that think we should be about .500," said manager Charlie Manuel. "But I look at us as better. On the field, we got a team that can catch the ball on the infield and a team that can produce runs. We basically have the same kind of rotation that we did at the end of last season, when we won some games. What we have to do is have some people step up.
"There's always somebody who steps up. I can look back at last year. We won 88 games and finished second, and that wasn't good enough. But I saw [Chase] Utley develop. Ryan Howard won the Rookie of the Year. I saw [Rob] Tejeda giving us five, six or seven innings; he stepped up. There always are guys who step up. [Aaron] Fultz pitched better for us. [Geoff] Geary pitched better. Can they repeat it? I don't know. That's what the game is all about. Can we win? I think we can. But we've got to play the best baseball."