By Michael Farber, SI.com
Player I Saw Whom I Really Liked Jon Lieber, RHP. He isn't the Phillies' presumptive No. 1 starter because he can bunt -- but damn, the man can bunt. During drills for the pitchers, Lieber (a righty who bats from the left side) was a maestro, squaring his bat and bending his back knee to slouch closer to the level of the pitch and then dropping crisp bunts. Of 10 pitches, he fouled one and laid down nine picture-perfect sacrifices. The attention to detail was extraordinary, something that has fueled his precise, low-walk pitching. He was 5-0 with a 3.12 ERA for the Yankees last September and held the walloping Red Sox to five runs in 14 1/3 innings in two ALCS starts. Coming off Tommy John surgery in 2002, his second season back could result in a return to 20 wins. If Lieber also can move some runners -- something new manager Charlie Manuel, a former hitting coach, is stressing with his staff -- it will only help.
Team's biggest strengths
The lineup. Jump-started by leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins -- the most complete but unappreciated shortstop in the National League -- the Phillies can compete with anyone. With the extraordinary Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome (whose hand injuries have healed) and Pat Burrell (assuming he overcomes his left wrist injury), the heart of the order beats loudly. Also watch for the emergence of second baseman Chase Utley, who managed one RBI in every 4.7 at-bats last season as a part-timer. Philadelphia was third in the NL in runs scored despite stranding 1,236 runners, the second highest total in the league. Playing in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Ballpark, the largest pinball machine on the East Coast, the Phils could exceed 900 runs if they squander fewer opportunities.
Team's biggest weakness
Injuries shredded a potentially "wild" (Randy Wolf's word) rotation last season and might be in the process of doing it again. Vicente Padilla, who missed 14 starts with triceps tendinitis, was shut down at the end of February with the same injury and has yet to throw off a mound. While this creates an opportunity for Gavin Floyd, who has an otherworldly curve and was impressive last September, it is not the kind of news that will cheer fed-up Phillies fans. Padilla, a potential No. 1 starter, has the rotation's best stuff, a role that now falls to Lieber by default. If Wolf (elbow), Padilla and ace closer Billy Wagner (who suffered a laundry list of injuries last season) stay healthy, the iffy starting pitching ultimately could prove to be an asset.
You think Manuel likes Utley? In the course of one conversation, he compared Utley's stance to former Cubs great Billy Williams and his hands to Wade Boggs ("Utley's are quicker"). No mention of George Brett, Rod Carew or Ted Williams, but Stan Musial's name was dropped into the discussion. Yikes. ... On Tuesday, Burrell stroked a batting-practice home run that traveled some 440 feet on a line, striking the Phillies clubhouse beyond the left-field fence. Every Burrell swing, even in BP, is being scrutinized. He was advised last August to have surgery to fix a tendon in his left wrist, but Burrell ignored the counsel and returned to have a relatively productive September. Of course, for the money -- another four years and $43.5 million -- the Phillies need more from Burrell than 24 home runs and a .257 average. ... Rollins has contributed a rap song for the album, O Say Can You Sing, a compilation of works by major league players that will be available May 1. (The money goes to charity.) Rollins called his cousin Siriso, a rapper with Home Base Entertainment, to help with the lyrics. "My 'collabro,' as they call it in the music business," Rollins said. ... When the Phillies met Boston last Sunday, Wolf did not have any immediate words of congratulations for ex-teammate Curt Schilling but did have some poker advice, as Schilling was on the televised Celebrity Poker Challenge during the winter. Wolf told him to raise with ace-nine when he's up against four players. ... Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt is a guest instructor in spring training, his experiment as a minor-league manager over after a 55-81 record with the Phillies' Class AAA team in Clearwater last year. ... Bilingual reliever Rheal Cormier, who hails from the Canadian province of New Brunswick but lives in South Florida, is thinking about moving his family to the south of France for a while after he retires, partly in order to improve his children's reluctant French. "My son told me, 'Don't worry, Dad, I'll teach all those kids English,'" Cormier said.