Inside the Phillies: Another spring, another challenge for Phillies manager Charlie Manuel

"I'm not worried about my job," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Where I'm at in my career, I'm not on the upside. . . . But I don't see myself on the downside, either. I figure if I am worried about myself, it's going to hurt my team.    
"I'm not worried about my job," manager Charlie Manuel said. "Where I'm at in my career, I'm not on the upside. . . . But I don't see myself on the downside, either. I figure if I am worried about myself, it's going to hurt my team.     (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: February 14, 2013

CLEARWATER, Fla. - It starts anew for Charlie Manuel and the Phillies on Wednesday morning when pitchers and catchers go through the first official workout of spring training at the Carpenter Complex.

Perhaps this is the beginning of the end for the 69-year-old Manuel and his aging core of players, many of whom are working on the final year of their contracts, just like the manager. Or maybe this is the beginning of something special, which is the word that best describes the most of the Manuel era.

Only fools would say they know for sure.

The one certainty about the Phillies' 2013 season is that it will present the greatest challenge for Manuel and his players since 2007.

Manuel went into that magical year with a restructured coaching staff that included former managers Jimy Williams and Davey Lopes. If the Phillies didn't win the division that year, Manuel was going to be history without any sort of history worth remembering.

It would have been considered the Charlie Manuel error instead of the Charlie Manuel era.

The Phillies, of course, rallied from seven games down with 17 to play to overtake the New York Mets on the final day of that season. It was the first of five straight division titles, a streak that finally ended in a pool of mediocrity and medical meltdowns last season.

Here in 2013, the Phillies again have a restructured coaching staff, and this time it includes Ryne Sandberg, the man most people consider the team's future manager. Manuel made it clear when Sandberg was among the coaching hires in October that he does not feel threatened, and he continued to make that clear throughout the offseason.

"I'm not worried about my job," he said again Monday after a series of lengthy meetings with his coaching staff. "Where I'm at in my career, I'm not on the upside. . . . But I don't see myself on the downside, either. I figure if I am worried about myself, it's going to hurt my team from staying focused on what we're doing and where we're trying to go."

Manuel knows much work needs to be done between Wednesday and the April 1 season opener in Atlanta. Defense is the thing that most worries the manager, and with good reason.

"We've always had good defense ever since I've been here," he said.

That's true with a couple of exceptions, including last season. The Phillies made 101 errors and finished 17th in the majors and eighth in the National League in fielding percentage. The year before, when the team won 102 games, the Phillies were tied for the best fielding percentage in baseball. In six of Manuel's previous eight seasons, the defense's fielding percentage ranked eighth or higher in baseball.

The only other time the defense betrayed the manager was in 2006. The Phillies made 104 errors and finished 18th with a .983 fielding percentage. It nearly got Manuel fired.

"In the outfield, my concern is defense on the corners," Manuel said.

That makes sense. Darin Ruf, the potential leftfielder, was a minor-league first baseman seven months ago. Delmon Young, the probable rightfielder, has not played a game at that position since 2007. There are other reasons to be worried about the defense, too, especially when the pitching staff has a chance to be outstanding.

"One of the biggest things we have to do right now is get enough work in the outfield with our defense in spring training," Manuel said. "We have to practice the fundamental parts of it and . . . we have to talk a lot about it with our players and let them know how much better we need to play defensively."

In all likelihood, the Phillies' final destination for 2013 will be determined mostly by the guys who remain from that magical 2007 team that needed to win to save the manager's job.

Only six players remain from that squad: Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Cole Hamels, and Kyle Kendrick.

"I think our biggest challenge is to keep our best team on the field as much as possible," Manuel said. "Hopefully, guys like Freddy Galvis and Kevin Frandsen can spell some of our position players but allow us to remain productive and score runs. My biggest job is to make sure we stay healthy and rested."

There was a wonderful sight for the Phillies and Manuel Tuesday. Utley, who has not played in a spring-training game since 2010, looked perfectly healthy taking grounders on a half field just outside of the Bright House Field clubhouse.

Maybe it was the beginning of something special for a player and manager who have been part of 11 champagne celebrations over the last six years.


Contact Bob Brookover at bbrookover@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @brookob.

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