Phillies manager Charlie Manuel focuses on achieving a winning season
BRIDGETON, N.J. - A week after New Year's, Charlie Manuel took a midwinter vacation aboard the Phillies Fifth Annual Phantastic Voyage cruise.
The trip originated in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and took passengers to the Bahamas, Aruba and Curacao. The cruise didn't just include Manuel, but Larry Bowa and Ryne Sandberg, too.
Or, if Charles Dickens would allow, the managers of Phillies Past, Present and the Future.
There wasn't any Jacob Marley on the voyage, although Rich Dubee, who was there, could easily have played the part. There wasn't anyone to narrate the proceedings for Manuel and lay out what was, what is, and what will be.
The 69-year-old Manuel, who is entering the last year of his contract, doesn't need any of that. He knows he can control his own fate.
"I'm definitely not planning on retiring," Manuel said with a hearty laugh after being inducted to the All Sports Museum of Southern New Jersey in Bridgeton, on Monday. "So we'll see. Really. That hasn't crossed my mind. I think I still have energy, I still have passion, I think I still love to watch the games. Especially if we have some good players."
And therein lies the rub in the story of Charlie Manuel and the 2013 Phillies.
In 3 weeks, Manuel will check into Clearwater, Fla., as manager of the Phillies for the ninth consecutive year. Like the manager, the roster is an older one.
It's not the worst collection of players Manuel has opened camp with. But it's probably not the best, either.
Barring a last-minute deal at the end of the winter shopping season, the Phillies will go to spring training with three key players coming off injury-plagued seasons (Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay) and two unknown quantities in each of the corner outfield spots. If everything breaks just right, and Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels pitch like they did in 2011, the Phils should go to the playoffs and the winningest manager in franchise history may be able to extend his stay on the bench.
But everything rarely breaks right, which would seem to work against Manuel. Not that you'll hear him complaining.
"Actually, I want to go through this year and focus on winning," Manuel said when first asked about entering a lame-duck season. "I want to focus on having the best season we've ever had."
Apparently that's the focus of the aforementioned players, too.
Upon visiting Clearwater last week, Manuel got a firsthand look at Howard and watched Halladay in action, too. Utley hadn't arrived yet, but the Phils dispatched head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan to northern California last week to check up on the second baseman and his battered knees.
"I saw a DVD of Utley working with Scott Sheridan the other day - he looked good," Manuel said. "It showed him exercising, jumping and grasping at this bar, and he really looked like he was in good shape. He emailed me at Christmas and said, 'You're going to have a healthy second baseman.' Knowing him, that means a whole lot."
After winning a Cy Young Award and finishing as the runner-up in his first two seasons in Philly, Halladay missed close to 2 months last season with a strained right latissimus dorsi muscle. He hardly looked himself before or after that layoff.
"He looks real good; he looks strong," Manuel said. "I could tell he's been doing some work with his upper body, his back and shoulders...Halladay of course has thrown a lot of bullets. But at the same time, too, I think the time he's had off and the conditioning program he's been on, if anybody can bounce back and do it, I think it's Halladay."
While his physical shape won't be known until he's facing hitters in another month, Halladay's mental conditioning hasn't ever been questioned.
"I feel like he was disappointed in his season last year," Manuel said. "He puts a lot on himself. He's determined. He has high expectations for himself. He definitely wants to come back and win. When he first came here, he came to win a World Series. And I think that's still on his mind."
And Howard, who missed the majority of the season while recovering from left Achilles' surgery?
"I saw Ryan hit," Manuel said. "He said his Achilles' doesn't hurt him and he said his ankle is much better."
Unless Michael Young or Jimmy Rollins reconnect with their MVP-worthy seasons, Manuel is going to need Howard and Utley more than ever. And he's going to need them for 150 games each and producing like they were in their prime.
Because as the roster stands on Jan. 22, the projected starting outfield has a whopping 15 career home runs.
Even if he doesn't have the pop, Ben Revere should bring much-needed energy and speed to an aging lineup. But with Hunter Pence in San Francisco and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. not in love with outside options, Domonic Brown and Darin Ruf, two highly unproven commodities, figure to be the odds-on favorites as starters with John Mayberry Jr. and Laynce Nix in the mix, too.
If you were a manager ready for "the best season [the Phillies] ever had," you'd probably prefer a more-proven bat, or two, in the outfield.
"I think it's better [if you have that]," Manuel said. "Any time you've got a guy that you know has played on the corner and has knocked in 80 runs or better, a guy that can hit and you know that, that's better. When you're turning someone loose who doesn't have experience...
"But at the same time, we play with what we got. We always have. You never know when somebody is going to come around and be a really good player."
The memo from the manager: Ruf and Brown, time's yours.
"I feel like we have to have somebody step up," Manuel said. "I'm kind of anxious to see Ruf hit and play. I'm going to make sure he gets quite a few at-bats this spring training.
"I saw Domonic Brown last Monday in Clearwater. His core, his legs and back - he looks strong in the upper part of his hips and legs. Maybe he can turn the corner. That's what we're kind of waiting for."