Rollins, Phillies confident about chances in '07

Updated: January 23, 2007, 7:27 PM ET
Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA -- Pitchers and catchers don't report to spring training for another three weeks and exhibition games are still more than a month away. The Philadelphia Phillies already are talking about the postseason.

"I think we are the team to beat in the NL East -- finally."
-- Jimmy Rollins

"I think we are the team to beat in the NL East -- finally," shortstop Jimmy Rollins said Tuesday. "But, that's only on paper."

The New York Mets cruised to the division title last season, finishing 12 games ahead of the Phillies. But Philadelphia overcame a poor start and a midseason roster purge to take the lead in the NL wild-card standings with only one week remaining in the regular season, only to fall short for the second straight year.

Now, the Phillies are quite confident they'll make the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

General manager Pat Gillick strengthened an already-solid starting rotation by adding Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton in the offseason, and made minor moves to bolster an offense that led the league in runs scored.

"For the first time since I've been here, I can say I know we have the pitching to get us there," said Rollins, a three-time All-Star in six seasons in the majors. "Our offense has been productive the last couple years, but it's tough when it's 6-0 in the third inning."

Garcia was 17-9 with the Chicago White Sox last year and has won at least 16 games four times in his eight-year career. Eaton is a two-time 11-game winner with a higher upside if he avoids injuries that have plagued him in recent years.

Brett Myers (12-7, 3.91 ERA) and Cole Hamels (9-8, 4.08) might be the 1-2 punch atop the rotation while veteran Jamie Moyer (11-14, 4.30 with the Phillies and Seattle) rounds it out. The Phillies also have Jon Lieber (9-11, 4.93) as insurance should someone get hurt, though he could be traded for relief help.

"I feel we're a better team than we were this time last year because the top of the rotation is better," manager Charlie Manuel said.

The five starters entering last season were Lieber, Myers, Cory Lidle, Randy Wolf and Gavin Floyd. Strong pitching should take some pressure off the offense, though the bullpen still needs improvement.

Gillick failed in his quest to lure free agent Alfonso Soriano to Philadelphia, but NL MVP Ryan Howard, All-Star Chase Utley and Rollins give the Phillies one of the most formidable lineups in the league.

Inconsistent slugger Pat Burrell is back to play left field along with his hefty contract ($27 million owed over next two seasons). New third baseman Wes Helms provides more pop than Abraham Nunez, center fielder Aaron Rowand should produce better numbers if he stays healthy and right fielder Shane Victorino is an ideal No. 2 hitter.

"When you have good starting pitching, it makes your job a lot easier," said Howard, who had 58 homers and 149 RBIs last year.

Since last July, Gillick has changed the face of the franchise. Gone are Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal, David Bell and Wolf. The laid-back personalities who dominated the clubhouse for years have been replaced by high-energy, fiery leaders like Utley, Rollins and Rowand.

"Talk is cheap," Rowand said. "I can't tell you if we're better than the Mets. All I know is we're going to go out and play with heart every single game."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press