|Hunter Pence will hit in the middle of a lineup that has produced less runs each year since 2007. (AP)|
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- What I like, and don't like, about the Phillies:
• Yes, the playoffs have provided disappointment the last two Octobers. But this team has had baseball's best record two years running, and there's every reason to believe they can make it three in a row.
• Why are the Phillies so good? It's not exactly complicated. They have Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. When one of those three started a game last year, the Phillies were 64-31. I know that Lee lost Game 2 to the Cardinals after getting a 4-0 lead, and I know that Halladay lost 1-0 to Chris Carpenter in Game 5, but if you start a playoff series with those three guys on the mound, you have to feel good about it.
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• Ryan Madson was fine as the Phillies closer last year, but remember that coming out of spring training, they weren't even confident enough in him to give him the job. By signing Jonathan Papelbon, the Phillies got one of the most dependable closers in the game.
• Who doesn't like Jim Thome? And who would feel bad if at age 41, in his 22nd year in the big leagues, Thome finally gets to play for a World Series champion? He made it to the World Series but lost with the 1995 and 1997 Indians, he was traded by the Phillies three years before they won and joined the White Sox the year after they won.
• I'm not saying that Citizens Bank Park is the best ballpark in baseball, but the atmosphere for a game could be the best in baseball. It's really amazing how this fan base has transformed, and how this franchise has transformed. As former general manager Ed Wade (now back with the Phillies) said, in the final years in the old Vet, the Phillies were 22nd or 23rd in baseball in revenues. Now they're one of baseball's super-teams.
• Can they stay healthy? The signs aren't good. As third-base coach Juan Samuel said, the Phillies didn't have time to mope about their playoff loss, because seemingly half the team needed postseason surgery. They still don't know when Ryan Howard will be able to play after Achilles' surgery, and manager Charlie Manuel is playing it cautious this spring with Chase Utley and Placido Polanco, even though both are expected to be fine for opening day.
• Can they hit enough? In some ways, it feels funny asking that, with a team that won 102 games. But the Phillies scored 59 fewer runs last year than they did the year before, after scoring 48 fewer runs in 2010 than they did in 2009. Go back to 2007, and the dropoff is even more dramatic, from 892 runs all the way down to 713, and from a team batting average of .274 all the way down to .253. I know it's a concern to Manuel, who has always been and always will be a hitting guy.
• The National League East really is getting better, so maybe it gets more challenging for the Phillies to even get back to the playoffs. You've still got to figure that they will get there, and then the question will be whether the disappointments of the last two Octobers weigh on them too much.