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MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

At full health, the Phillies will make NL East competitive

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MLB.com Columnist

Matthew Leach

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- There was a case to be made for blowing the whole thing up. The Phillies began selling off veteran pieces for prospects last summer, and it wouldn't have been unreasonable to finish the job.

They could have dealt Cliff Lee for prospects and payroll flexibility. They could have looked for takers for Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz and the rest. It would have been entirely logical to admit they had reached the end of one era, and to start building the next championship Phillies team.

But in the bright light (and stiff wind) of early March, it's understandable that Philadelphia chose another path. Yes, the Phils lost, 11-6, to the Blue Jays on Saturday afternoon. But Ryan Howard went deep, again. Ruiz and his understudy Erik Kratz did as well. Michael Young played a nice third base. And despite an unbecoming line, Lee pitched pretty well.

Viewed through a red, white and blue lens, you can see how the next championship Phillies team might, just might, be the 2013 team. A lot has to go right, but nobody wins a title without a lot going right.

The odds are against them. The Phillies finished seven games out of a playoff spot and 17 behind the division champion Nationals last year. Two of baseball's five or six best teams are in their division. The offense will be relying heavily on players who are well into their 30s and whose numbers have declined in recent years. The bullpen, though it has some very interesting arms, is unproven.

But it's Spring Training, and everybody's optimistic in Spring Training. All of the things that could go wrong, haven't yet. Howard and Chase Utley are healthy and hitting. Domonic Brown is showing signs that he might finally convert his potential into performance.

And of course, there's the hallmark, the sine qua non if the Phillies are going to go anywhere: that starting rotation. If Philadelphia contends in 2013, it will do so on the backs, and arms, of Roy Halladay, Lee and Cole Hamels -- three men with a combined three Cy Young awards and 14 All-Star selections.

Halladay's outing on Friday stoked optimism that he's ready to rebound after a frustrating and disappointing 2012. Hamels has been superb in two starts already this spring. And Lee, who started Saturday, pitched his second solid game of the spring even though he was charged with three runs in three innings.

The ball was pogoing out of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium on Saturday, with nearly any fly ball of any depth making it to or over the wall. Lee was victimized by two doubles in the first three at-bats against him, but settled in as he went along. Only two of the final 10 batters to face Lee reached base (admittedly, one hit a home run). He's confident that he's right on schedule, and so is the rest of his team.

"If everybody's healthy, that's the key to everything," Lee said. "Not having Chase and Ryan last year was big for us. Having those guys this early in spring healthy and getting their reps in and preparing and getting ready for the season is going to be huge for us. Health is the key."

The biggest key to the offense may be Howard, who is playing every day and raking. He's now 9-for-21 with a pair of home runs, and although those numbers don't count for a thing, they're sure encouraging for a player who struggled mightily after returning from injury last year.

"Howard's getting there," manager Charlie Manuel said.

Utley has swung the bat well in limited duty. Ruiz will miss the first 25 games of the season due to a drug suspension, but Kratz can hold down the fort for a month. And if Brown, who has shown not only power but strike zone judgment early this spring, can make good on his promise, the Phillies could get back to having one of the league's better offenses.

Let's not go crazy here, of course. The deck is stacked against this Phillies team. They're not young. They have major health questions. They play in a tough division.

But if you squint, in just the right light, you can see how it adds up to one more shining summer and glorious fall for a team that's had a lot of those over the past several years.

"I think if we're all healthy and out there, and just playing the way we can, we can beat anyone," Lee said.

Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["spring_training" ] }
{"event":["spring_training" ] }
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