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NL East Sidebar

Top rival: New York Mets

The Phillies were supposed to contend in each of the last two seasons, ever since Thome arrived from Cleveland, toting his big bat. But in four years under Manager Larry Bowa, they never won more than 86 games. The blame, fairly or not, largely landed on Bowa, the eternally intense presence in the clubhouse.

Enter new manager Charlie Manuel, who was hired, at least in part, because he never stops smiling. Will he be the answer? More important will probably be the retooled rotation, which made just one veteran addition in Leiber. Though he's unlikely to return to his 20-win form of 2002, he keeps his defense alert. In 317 2/3 innings over the past two seasons, he's walked just 30 batters.

The rest of the rotation is a tad shaky, though club officials believe it could develop into a strength. None of the other members was better than .500 last season. Padilla was injured all spring. And the Phillies expect a huge leap forward from Myers, who went 11-11 with a 5.52 ERA last season. We'll see. The closing situation is stable with Wagner, who throws harder than any lefty this side of Randy Johnson.

Offensively, the key might be Burrell, who's a bundle of unrealized potential. He still draws walks and gets on base, but since his 37-homer, 116-RBI season of 2002, he's disappeared. Lieberthal (just 61 RBI) also needs to bounce back. And defensively, the 37-year-old Lofton can't get to the gaps in center like he once did.

4. NEW YORK METS

Lineup

SS Jose Reyes

2B Kazuo Matsui

CF Carlos Beltran

C Mike Piazza

LF Cliff Floyd

1B Doug Mientkiewicz

3B David Wright

RF Mike Cameron

Rotation

RHP Pedro Martinez

LHP Tom Glavine

RHP Kris Benson

RHP Victor Zambrano

LHP Kazuhisha Ishii

Closer:

RHP Braden Looper

Best move: CF Carlos Beltran was considered the prize of the free agent market after hitting 38 homers and dominating the playoffs last season.

Biggest loss: LHP Al Leiter loved playing in New York and would have provided stability to the rotation after Steve Trachsel went down with a back injury.

Top rival: New York Yankees.


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