Manuel sees need for relief help

Relief help a top priority for Manuel, Phillies

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- If this is the team Phillies manager Charlie Manuel guides on Opening Day, he'll hope the club scores enough runs and he'll cross his fingers when he goes to the bullpen -- just like last year.

As the Winter Meetings passed the three-quarter point at the Dolphin Hotel on Wednesday, the Phillies hadn't made a trade, and they didn't appear close to completing one.

The speculated discussions with the Brewers and White Sox had been laid to rest by late Wednesday afternoon, leaving Manuel with unanswered questions. He's two relievers short, has the task of rehabilitating Pat Burrell and must hope for a return to form, literally, from Jon Lieber.

"We need to improve our team," Manuel said. "I think the pitching part is more important than the hitting part. Down the stretch the last two years, I think that's really cost us."

Manuel estimated that the Phillies lost eight to 10 games down the stretch from the sixth to eighth innings last season. While righty Geoff Geary emerged as a reliable option, lefties Aaron Fultz and Arthur Rhodes were largely unreliable.

Geary returns from that group, and is expected to be joined by Ryan Madson, Matt Smith and possibly Fabio Castro. Free agent Octavio Dotel is a late-inning option as closer Tom Gordon's setup man, but is believed to be seeking more than the Phillies are willing to spend.

Brett Myers and Cole Hamels will anchor the top two spots in the rotation, with the ace to be determined. Jamie Moyer, despite his age, is a near guarantee to log 200 quality innings, and the Phillies will hope for the same from Adam Eaton. It's a better rotation in that Moyer and Hamels will start the season as two of its members, as opposed to Gavin Floyd and Madson.

That leaves Lieber, who suffered through the toughest full season of his career in 2006, posting a 4.93 ERA and a 9-11 record. Though he improved in August and September, questions about his conditioning surfaced. The 35-year-old veteran rose to a listed 236 pounds last season. He's entering the final year of a three-year, $21 million contract and will be counted on heavily this season.

"I think at times Jon's conditioning [was poor]," Manuel said. "We need him to improve."

Lieber's in-season workout regimen consists mainly of the treadmill and pool, a lower-impact exercise that is easier on his knees. The Phillies have devised a more strenuous program to help him keep weight off.

"We've talked to him two or three times, and he's on a program," Manuel said. "We've got to get a solid season out of him. Lieber is going to play a role in how many games we're going to win in our club, because he's still one of our main pitchers. We need for Jon to step up and have a Lieber year."

Manuel believes he can fix Burrell again like he did in 2004, when he helped rebuild his swing. Burrell's stats in 2006 are eerily similar to 2004, so the Phillies are hoping for something closer to 2005, when he crossed the 30-homer plateau and was second in the National League in RBIs.

"Two years ago, he had a very solid year, because he did better with guys in scoring position and in the clutch," Manuel said. "But I look at him and what's wrong with somebody being a .270 or .280 guy with 35 homers and 120 RBIs? That's a pretty good player. That's more than an average Major League player. I want Pat swinging the bat. He takes a lot of called strike threes, and that shows that the ball gets up on him quick. Those are things he can definitely improve on."

Should Burrell reinvent himself as a threat and Lieber return to a productive member of the rotation, Manuel feels the Phillies will have filled two major holes -- protection for Ryan Howard and a deep rotation.

The relievers, who Manuel feels must come from outside the organization, are pending.

"I feel like I don't know if we'll get something done here [at the Meetings]," he said. "It might lead into getting something done before the winter is over -- before December or mid-January is over."

Ken Mandel is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.