Phil Sheridan: For Phillies, worries are no big thing

Posted: March 16, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - It could be worse.

While the Phillies and their fans are legitimately concerned about a few of the team's key body parts, a quick look around helps put things in perspective.

Let's start with Dontrelle Willis, who had a pretty good outing against the Atlanta Braves Thursday afternoon. The onetime phenom was a low-risk signing, a lefthanded pitcher with a chance to win a job in the bullpen. If he didn't pitch well, no big deal. It was worth a shot.

Those of us whose memories extend into the misty recesses of time beyond, say, 2001, can attest. There was a time when a guy with name recognition like Willis would be the Phillies' big offseason acquisition. A manager like Jim Fregosi or Terry Francona would be forced to pretend he had great optimism that this guy - Fernando Valenzuela in 1994, Mark Portugal in 1997, to name two - could regain his old form and earn a spot in the rotation.

Spring training would be a gauntlet of setbacks and poor outings and rationalizations and then the team would go north and lose 85 or 90 games.

Now, Willis finishes up a solid inning of work, then goes and sits at a clubhouse table with Jonathan Papelbon and Cliff Lee. That's 36 postseason appearances, two rings, one Cy Young award and one rookie of the year award - and it's nowhere near the most decorated random trio in the clubhouse.

"I've been on the other side of the fence," Willis said. "In this camp, everyone's been working hard for two months now. Nobody is taking anything for granted. You see Roy [Halladay], he wants to do his best. You feed off that energy. If you're lollygagging, you're left behind."

The point is that it is a privilege to worry about a great team trying to remain great, especially when it has added so much talent since winning the World Series in 2008. It beats the bejabbers out of all those years when you could expect the season to be effectively over by Memorial Day.

Or take Dom Brown. Years ago, the Phillies had an exciting young outfield prospect named Jeff Stone. After he hit .362 and stole 27 bases in 51 games in 1984, they built their offseason marketing campaign around the speed Stone and the young Juan Samuel were going to bring to the team. Stone didn't hit above .280 or steal 20 bases in three more seasons. The Phillies finished above .500 in just one of those three seasons.

Brown is a long way from being dismissed as a bust, but when he didn't have the great start the Phillies were hoping for last year, it didn't tank the season. The Phillies went out and got Hunter Pence to play right field, sent Brown to the minors and won their fifth division title in a row.

There are reasons to worry, with Ryan Howard's Achilles and Chase Utley's knee and Placido Polanco's various ailments. But the Phillies remain the team to beat in this division and their competitors have problems of their own.

Coming off their 2011 collapse, the Braves have won just two games down here. Chipper Jones would probably swap knees with Utley. Tim Hudson is expected to miss a chunk of the season.

The Mets, the team the Phillies nosed out to begin their run in 2007, have turned into baseball's own Chernobyl. Their involvement with Bernie Madoff has left the franchise broke and ineffective. Jose Reyes is gone. David Wright has a muscle tear and has exactly as many plate appearances this spring as Howard or Utley.

The Washington Nationals have apparently embraced the 2011 Eagles' strategy of writing some very large checks with their mouths. Perhaps they'll do a better job of being able to cash them. Manager Davey Johnson said his top three starters are better than the Phillies' aces, while Brad Lidge twisted the knife by saying this is the "most talented" team he's been on.

As if. Sure, the Nationals have some good young talent. But Stephen Strasburg, for all his promise, has not pitched much since having Tommy John surgery in 2010. Bryce Harper will start the year in the minors. If the Nats are really going to "take back" their ballpark from Phillies fans, they need to shut up and win some games first.

The Miami Marlins added Reyes, a terrific talent whose attitude could go either way now that he's had his big payday. Their new ballpark should help them add and retain talent, but the Marlins haven't proven anything yet.

"Our division is going to be tough," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said.

It's supposed to be, but the rest of the teams are still chasing Manuel's squad. Three weeks from opening day, things aren't perfect for the Phillies. But they could be a lot worse.


Contact Phil Sheridan at 215-854-2844, psheridan@phillynews.com, or @Sheridanscribe on Twitter. Read his blog, "Philabuster," at http://go.philly.com/philabuster. Read his columns at www.philly.com/philsheridan

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