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Expectations could not be higher for Phils in '11

Expectations could not be higher for Phils in '11

Expectations could not be higher for Phils in '11
PHILADELPHIA -- Cliff Lee answered every question imaginable in his Dec. 15 reintroductory news conference at Citizens Bank Park, including this one:

How do you feel about 2011 being "World Series or bust?"

"That's perfect," he said, not missing a beat. "I think every player going into Spring Training should have those expectations. That should be every team in baseball, in my opinion. That's what I expect. I mean, I've been close the past two years and haven't gotten a ring. That's what it's all about. I think this team is more than capable of doing that. That's what I expect. That's what everyone on this team should expect. I don't see it any other way. I don't see why you would think of it any other way."

Lee's unexpected return has raised expectations among Phillies fans and everybody around the game. The Phillies are projected to be the best team in the National League, and perhaps the best team in baseball.

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Everybody expects that because Lee, the top pitcher on the free-agent market, joins a team that finished 2010 with the best record in baseball. They expect that because Lee joins Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels in one of the best rotations baseball has seen in recent memory.

But no team is perfect and every team has questions entering Spring Training. Here are 10 of them:

1. Are the Phillies really this good?

If everybody stays healthy, they probably are. The Phillies have four pitchers -- Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels -- who legitimately have the ability to throw a shutout when they step on the mound. No other rotation in baseball has a foursome like that. Phillies players used to call Steve Carlton's starts "Win Day" because they always felt supremely confident when he pitched. Well, the Phillies have "Win Day" four out of every five days. If everybody stays healthy, there is no reason this team cannot win 100 or more games.

2. Can this be one of the best rotations is baseball history?

Look at their resumes. Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels have a combined three Cy Young Awards, 10 top-five Cy Young finishes, six 20-win seasons, 13 All-Star appearances, two NLCS MVP awards and one World Series MVP. Each pitcher is coming off a superb season. The Bill James Handbook 2011 projects the Phillies foursome to win 63 games, which is not unreasonable because win totals rely so much on run support and an effective bullpen. But if they are healthy and the Phillies score runs for them, each pitcher has the talent to win 20 games.

3. Isn't the offense a concern?

The Phillies offense had a strange 2010. Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez and Shane Victorino each had down years, whether it was a lack of performance, injuries or both. But the Phillies also finished second in the National League in scoring. This is one person's opinion, but the offense has taken a bad rap because of its no-show in the NLCS. They simply got cold at the worst possible time, which happens to good offenses every year in the postseason. But from July 22 through the end of the regular season, the Phillies ranked third in baseball by averaging 4.96 runs per game. The Phillies can score. The offense is not the albatross many think it is.

4. Who is going to replace Jayson Werth in right field?

It is going to be some combination of Ben Francisco, Domonic Brown, Ross Gload and John Mayberry Jr. They are not Werth, who has been one of the most productive right-handed bats in the game the past three seasons. But if Francisco and Mayberry can hit left-handed pitching like last season, and Brown blossoms like everybody thinks he will, the platoon could be productive. Of course, there are no guarantees there. But GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said he believes the difference in production between Werth and a platoon is negated by a full season of Halladay, Lee, Oswalt and Hamels.

5. Who is going to hit fifth behind Howard?

Better question: Does it really matter? Studies have shown the importance of protection behind a particular hitter is a myth. Sure, it would be nice to have a stud hitting behind Howard. But to believe Howard will never hit another home run if the Phillies don't have somebody like Werth hitting behind him is ludicrous. If Francisco proves he can hit left-handed pitching, he should provide Howard enough protection. If there are right-handers on the mound, Ibanez could help, too.

6. Is Rollins going to bounce back?

Do not bet against him. Rollins is in the final year of his contract, and he has had two consecutive subpar seasons. Rollins has said many times before he would like to leave the game as one of the best shortstops of his generation, if not all time. So Rollins has plenty of motivation to have a huge year. Rollins has changed his offseason workout routine to make sure he stays healthy, which has been a problem. If he stays healthy, he should produce -- and that means big things atop the Phillies' lineup.

7. Is the bullpen good enough?

It got much better with Lee in the rotation. Better starting pitching means less wear and tear on the bullpen. That means fresher arms for Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and Jose Contreras. Of course, there will be games when Halladay, Lee, Oswalt or Hamels can't get out of the fifth or sixth inning and the bullpen needs to produce. But the Phillies should have enough talent -- a bounce-back season from Danys Baez would help -- to hold leads and save games.

8. Will Howard and Utley get their power strokes back?

Howard had a .505 slugging percentage last season, which was the lowest of his career. Asked about that during the Winter Meetings in December, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel smiled. He thinks Howard will be fine. He said Howard's sprained left ankle, which put him on the disabled list, probably bothered him through the remainder of the season, which affected him at the plate. Utley had a .445 slugging percentage last season, his worst since his rookie season in 2003. The Phillies think Utley might have rushed back from his thumb injury, which could have affected his swing. We should have a better feel for that this year.

9. Who is going to be on the bench?

Gload and Francisco have spots in the outfield. If Brown has a good spring, he is a favorite to make the team. Brian Schneider returns as Carlos Ruiz's backup behind the plate. Wilson Valdez is a strong candidate to be the utility infielder, although the Phillies took utility man Michael Martinez in the Rule 5 Draft. He will get a look. Don't forget about Mayberry, either. The Phillies will give him a chance to make the team.

10. If the Phillies need to make a move midseason, do they have the financial flexibility to do it?

Amaro said in December they had no more flexibility to make any moves, but things always change midseason. The Phillies landed Oswalt in 2010, Lee in '09, Joe Blanton in '08, Kyle Lohse in '07 and Jamie Moyer in '06. They have added other players during the season, too. Until the Phillies have the opportunity to make a move and don't because of payroll restrictions, it is impossible to say they will be handcuffed come the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline or the Aug. 31 waiver Trade Deadline.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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