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THE PHILLIES led the National League with 45 wins after the All-Star break, finished the season with the most runs in the NL and the heart of their lethal order is back. In the off-season they swung a deal with the White Sox to get innings-eater Freddy Garcia, giving Philadelphia five solid starters (six, if Adam Eaton returns to the preinjury form he showed with the Padres in 2005). Those are the reasons for shortstop and team leader Jimmy Rollins's unshakable faith in his team. "For the first time since I've been here, I think we are the team to beat in the National League East," he said to fans in January during a stop on the club's annual winter caravan through Phillies country. "I know we are. Finally. Now we've got the pitching."
Strong words from a player on a team that never seriously threatened the division-winning Mets in 2006--and that is probably still closer, in depth and balance, to Atlanta than to New York. Philadelphia finished 12 games back, so you can imagine how those words were received in New York.
"Talk is very cheap," says third baseman David Wright.
Nearly two months later, in the Phillies' lively spring clubhouse in Clearwater, Fla., Rollins was even more certain that his team is better than the Mets. And he realizes that he's adding spice to what's already a hot rivalry. "Last year, when the Mets got Carlos Delgado, I knew we were undermanned," says Rollins, a 28-year-old All-Star, "but I don't feel that way this year. I wouldn't have said what I said if I didn't believe it. When I'm asked a question, I answer with what I believe is the truth, and the truth is, I think we're the better team.
"We've got the MVP of the league [ Ryan Howard]; Chase Utley's a star; Pat Burrell's going to knock in his runs. We improved our pitching. Got a good first or second starter in Freddy Garcia. Got good young pitching with Brett Myers and Cole Hamels. People aren't blind. They can see we've got a good team. Here's the thing about saying what I said--are the Mets or the Braves going to try any harder to beat us than they already try? No. They're coming at us; we're coming at them."
Philadelphia's one weakness is its shaky bullpen, and the worst-kept secret in the Grapefruit League is that a team can get one of Philly's starters--likely serviceable, sinkerballing righthander Jon Lieber, 36--if it dangles a good setup man in front of general manager Pat Gillick. After 39-year-old closer Tom Gordon, who had 34 saves last year but missed a month with a right shoulder strain, and durable setup man Geoff Geary, who had a 2.96 ERA in 81 appearances, there is a long line of potential liabilities.
It will be up to the starters to keep the pressure off the bullpen. The Phils, justifiably, are excited to see how much their two young arms-- Hamels, 23, who was 7--3 with a 2.70 ERA in his last 12 starts, and Myers, 26, who dropped nearly 30 pounds over the winter--can improve on their 2006 performances. Those two join Garcia, Jamie Moyer, and Eaton or Lieber (most likely Eaton) to form a rotation that, barring injury, should have Philadelphia in contention come September. "It's easily the best staff we've had since I've been here," says Burrell, an eight-year veteran.
In the off-season Rollins met up with former teammate Nick Punto, now with the Twins, who told Rollins he'd love playing on a team with five solid starters. "Do you know how easy it is to hit when you don't have the pressure of always playing from behind?" Punto asked him.