Braves are retooled, but don't count out Phillies

Cole Hamels pitches against the Braves in Thursday's spring training game.
Cole Hamels pitches against the Braves in Thursday's spring training game. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 02, 2013

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Cole Hamels has pitched against the Atlanta Braves 28 times, more than any other opponent. Of the 10 batters he has faced the most, six of them played for the Braves.

When Hamels makes his first start of the regular season, presumably on opening day, it will be against the Braves. He will barely recognize them. No Chipper Jones (he retired). No Martin Prado (he was traded). No Brian McCann (he's injured).

That added a little intrigue to Thursday's otherwise mundane spring training start for Hamels. He got a preview of the radically revamped Braves lineup: Justin and B.J. Upton, Chris Johnson, Evan Gattis.

"They've got a really good outfield with the additions they made," Hamels said. "It definitely changes up everything I know - minus Chipper and the presence that he had. I think they're going to be there for a long time. It's going to keep them in the mix."

Because of the additions, most observers expect the Braves to be in the mix with the Washington Nationals for the division title. The Phillies, who won the National League East five years in a row before the Nats emerged last year, are considered to be on the decline.

And maybe they are. But you can make a very good case that the Phillies are still in better position than Atlanta to challenge the Nationals. Former Phillie and current Nat Jayson Werth made a little splash by making that very case the other day.

Not surprisingly, Hamels believes in the Phillies, too.

"For us to get the guys back who are healthy now, I think that's going to put us over the edge and keep us up at the top," Hamels said.

The Braves made the flashy additions, but their subtractions should not be underestimated.

"It's hard to replace a guy like Chipper," Hamels said. "The guy's a Hall of Famer. With the guys that they got, they're going to be more balanced. I think they maintained it and probably got a little bit more balance."

Officially, the Phillies' offseason additions don't seem as impressive: Michael Young, Ben Revere, Mike Adams, Chad Durbin, John Lannan. But in a very real sense, they are also adding three other guys: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, and Roy Halladay.

The Phillies were without their third and fourth hitters for the first half of the regular season. Utley's first game was June 27. The team's record on July 5, the day before Howard returned from offseason Achilles tendon surgery, was 37-47.

After getting the heart of their order beating again, the Phillies won 44 and lost 34. That winning percentage (.564) over a full season would translate to 91 wins, good enough for a wild card.

"You can't get down early," Hamels said. "That's ultimately what happened to us last year. We made a fun run, but it was too much."

But they made that run without Halladay, for the most part, and with Howard (.219, .718 OPS, 14 homers) and Utley (.256, .793, 11) not exactly at the top of their games. It is early, but both look much more like their 2008 selves than their 2012 selves.

"If we can start the season with everybody healthy," manager Charlie Manuel said, "we're going to benefit from that. I definitely expect us to challenge and be competitive and have a chance to win our division and go to the World Series. That's what we play for."

There's no reason to write the Phillies off. They have a better starting rotation - with Hamels, Halladay, and Cliff Lee at the top - than they did in either year they went to the World Series. They have a better-hitting third baseman than they've had since Scott Rolen.

The question marks in the outfield are no more daunting than they were in 2008, when a fading Pat Burrell was in left and Geoff Jenkins was the rightfielder until Werth claimed the job.

The division is markedly better than it was a few years ago. It isn't going to be easy for anyone to win it - and that includes the Nationals.

"It's going to be a fight all the way to the end," Hamels said.

Sounds like fun.

Contact Phil Sheridan at Follow on Twitter @Sheridanscribe.

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