Rounding Third: Don't sleep on the Phillies

All winter we have heard how good the Washington Nationals are going to be.

And rightfully so by the way.

The Nats won a major-league best 98 games in 2012, and should be even better this year without an innings restriction for Stephen Strasburg and the additions of center fielder Denard Span, righty Dan Haren and reliever Rafael Soriano.

In fact, most in D.C. think the Nats are basically playing a 162-game exhibition until October. It's almost a fait accompli that the Nats are going to win a second straight division title.

But, then again weren't we saying the same thing about the Miami Marlins this time last year? How'd that work out?

Unlike Miami, though, the Nats actually have last year's team to back up their enormous expectations. But, while it was a trendy pick, Washington essentially came out of nowhere a year ago. It's not always easy when the shoe is on the other foot, particularly when the team now doing the hunting is one that had won five straight division titles before last season.

The Philadelphia Phillies know all about expectations and entered the 2012 campaign as a heavy favorite to win a sixth consecutive division title. However, things didn't go as planned. Sluggers Chase Utley and Ryan Howard started the year on the disabled list and were really never a factor. Not helping was the fact that Roy Halladay seemed off all year, and he and Cliff Lee combined to win just 17 games.

In fact, besides Utley and Howard, 15 other players spent time on the DL, including Halladay, Lee, Vance Worley, Carlos Ruiz, Mike Stutes, Jim Thome and Placido Polanco.

All in all it added up to a team that finished 81-81 - down 21 wins from their franchise-record total in 2011 - and good enough for a third-place finish in the NL East.

Fast forward a year and things are a little different. Expectations are as low as they've been in sometime in Philadelphia. But, there are some signs that they, in fact, could be primed for a huge bounce-back season.

Utley and Howard are healthy and barring something happening in the next month will be in the middle of the Phillies' lineup on Opening Day. And that pitching staff, if it's right, should again be one of the best in baseball.

The injuries certainly didn't help, but bad luck may have played a part in the Phils' struggles last season, too. Take Lee for instance. The former American League Cy Young Award winner managed just six wins in 30 starts, but ranked first in baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.39), ninth in strikeouts (207) and WHIP (1.11). He also pitched to a 2.14 ERA over his final 13 starts of the season.

But he also ranked 85th out of 88 qualifying starting pitchers last season with an average of 3.20 runs in support per nine innings.

"That's definitely not what I would expect out of myself and a little bit disappointing, but it was just one of those years," Lee said. "I happened to be the guy that didn't get that much support and things just didn't go my way. But that's stuff that's out of my control. It can be frustrating, looking back on it, but I wasn't as frustrated as you would expect me to be. But you have to focus on the things you can control and worry about that.

Again, the pitching should be there if Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Lee take the ball every fifth day. The main concern is going to be the lineup. That, though, may not be the case if manager Charlie Manuel can pencil Utley and Howard in for about 145 games each.

Early returns on the two of them seem to be positive. Keep in mind because of his chronic knee injuries Utley is appearing in spring training games for the first time since 2010.

"To be honest, I forgot what a normal spring training schedule is," Utley said. "No, what Charlie (Manuel) and I have planned, there will be plenty of games under my belt. So far, so good. Things are progressing well ... The last couple of spring trainings, I was just trying to figure out a way to get on the field, and that didn't work. This year, the stuff I did in the offseason has worked so far. Hopefully, it will give me a chance to not only know what I need to do to get on the field, but to actually make some progressions while playing."

Howard has been Philadelphia's whipping boy since signing a $125 million deal in 2010, but last year the boos may have been warranted. The Big Piece appeared in only 71 games while recovering from left Achilles surgery and hit a mere .219 with 99 strikeouts, but still smacked 14 home runs to go along with 56 RBI.

If there is anyone out to prove the skeptics wrong, it's him. The early results appear positive, as Howard has hit everything in sight through the first few Grapefruit League contests. He even has a few hits off of lefties.

Howard, of course, batted just .173 against lefties last season and has connected at a .227 clip for his career against them.

When right, there are few left-handed sluggers who are more feared in baseball than Howard, who will still hit 30 home runs and drive in over 100 RBI even in a subpar full season.

"Just having Chase and Howard healthy is the biggest thing to me," Lee added. "Anytime you take the three- and four-hole hitter out of any lineup, the team is going to feel that pretty heavy. Having those guys from the start is going to be huge."

New addition Michael Young also should take a little pressure off the two of them.

As professional a hitter as there is in baseball, Young also is looking for a bit of redemption. Young endured his worst season in 10 years last year with the Texas Rangers, as he saw his average drop 61 points to .277.

But, most think a change of scenery from Texas is just what the 36-year-old third baseman needs. Plus, he's a huge bonus to a clubhouse that closer Jonathan Papelbon said had some issues last season.

The teams which are the most dangerous are the ones whose players feel as if they have something to prove.

Now, of course, everything isn't rainbows and unicorns for the Phillies either. There's a reason they are not mentioned alongside the Nationals and even the Atlanta Braves. It's nice to say that Utley and Howard are going to stay healthy and Young is going to be the Young of old.

But, realistically, odds favor the exact opposite.

And by the way, who is going to be in the outfield alongside center fielder Ben Revere?

You can talk about the lineup all you want. This team's hope hinge on their starting rotation. And the staff as a whole should be better than it was in 2012. If you want a prediction, here is one: Lee will win more than six games. Philadelphia may not only have the best top-three in baseball they may have the three best pitchers in the National League - period.

That alone should give them a fighting chance.