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The Initial Prediction: They’re Extremely Good, Right?

It’s funny what a trophy will do to you.

Last season at this time, I couldn’t decipher whether the Philadelphia Phillies were a 95-win or 85-win team. I bought the fervor about the Braves. I thought the Mets would rebound nicely. I didn’t want to put the Phillies in third place, but I wrestled with it, and I decided upon that fate.

So I was wrong.

The Phillies proved to be better. Chase Utley and Pat Burrell proved to carry the team in April and May. Pitching ran with the ball all season, almost never handing in a letdown anywhere near those seen in 2007. Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard stepped up in August and September, with the big man carrying the club into another postseason berth and a second-straight division crown. Ninety-two wins. Pretty impressive.

Since the Phillies won that 92nd game on a murky Sunday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, they morphed into an elite franchise, disposing of MIlwaukee, Los Angeles and Tampa Bay en route to winning its second world championship. And since then they’ve illustrated they’re approximately the same team that left us in 2008. Exit Pat Burrell, enter Raul Ibanez. Exit Adam Eaton, enter Chan Ho Park. Exit Geoff Jenkins, enter Miguel Cairo. Exit Rudy Seanez, enter … well … the point is, 21 players have returned. This team is pretty close to the one that won it all.

There are changing variables, of course. Utley and Rollins are back, but they were injured through most of 2008. Werth and Victorino are back, but they played very well during crucial stretches. Hamels is back, but his output in 2008 resembled a modern-day Wilbur Wood. Things won’t be the same as 2008. They can’t. But the sum can be the same.

Let’s start from the bottom. Since 2003, the Phils have been an over-.500 team each season, joining only the Yankees and Red Sox in that club. With its current nucleus and depth, the Phils should continue that streak.

It used to be that the Phils were measured by 86 wins – that’s the magic number the Phils ended up finishing with three times in the past eight seasons. The 2007 team – with a beleaguered bullpen and spotty rotation – finished with 89 wins. On paper, this 2009 team has a much better bullpen with mostly defined roles (though that’ll be tested with JC Romero out the first 50 games) and a rotation that, at least, knows its job (get into the sixth if at all possible). Add the potent offensive core and it’s likely the Phillies are better than 89 wins.

Of course we have to factor in the Mets, Marlins, Braves and Nationals. The Mets improved their bullpen with Francisco Rodriguez and JJ Putz, but ignored their starting rotation and outfield holes. For now I call it a wash – the best they can do is 89 wins. The Marlins are scary, and their core players are all in line for breakout seasons. But they added nothing of value to help the foundation. They might be able to improve on last season’s 84 wins, but it’ll take some herculean efforts from some unsung heroes. The Braves should be improved with their rotation, though their bullpen and offense are relatively static. They’ll be better than a 72-win team. The Nationals actually made the most additions of any NL East team, but they won’t shock the world. They’ll just be tougher to beat.

That all said, the Phils can still beat the Nationals. They should still beat the Braves. And they should overcome a Marlins charge. The Mets? It’ll be another fight toward the finish, but ultimately, the Phillies have more players in the absolute primes of their careers and more depth throughout the organization, let alone experience and confidence. They should win more than 90 games. They could win a couple more.

Right?

That’s my initial prediction: They’re better than 86, better than 89, better than what their division foes should present. Are they the best team in the National League? To start, that’s something we can debate with Chicago fans. But to write it simply, the Phillies are in great position to defend their crown. Great position.

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