The clock starts ticking today.
The Phillies - the team that has acknowledged, accepted and even invited the highest of expectations - has 162 games to prove predictions that it is the team that can win the National League East.
The Phillies open their 2007 season this afternoon against the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park. Goals have been set high because of the team's strong finish last season, a more exciting identity and the addition of Freddy Garcia to one of the deepest rotations in the league - if everybody stays healthy.
But Garcia isn't healthy. And the bullpen continues to be a concern.
Time will sort out those issues. So let's sort out some of the changes that took place since the Phillies challenged for the National League wild card through the final weekend of last season.
It's hard to remember, but the Phillies were having a pretty unsuccessful off-season before they acquired Freddy Garcia from the Chicago White Sox. They lost the Alfonso Soriano sweepstakes. They lost Randy Wolf to the Los Angeles Dodgers. They couldn't find a setup man to help closer Tom Gordon. But then the Phillies surprised everybody by acquiring Garcia when they already had five starting pitchers.
Suddenly, optimism soared.
The Phillies expected to open the season with a rotation of Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Garcia, Jamie Moyer and Adam Eaton, with Jon Lieber in the bullpen. But Garcia experienced soreness in his right biceps March 21. He probably won't be back until the middle of the month. But before he was hurt, he hadn't shown much velocity on his fastball. Is he the same Freddy Garcia who pitched 200 or more innings the previous six seasons?
The Phillies badly need him to be. But the season will open with Garcia and Lieber on the disabled list.
Charlie Manuel's mood soured as the spring wore on - and understandably so. He was concerned about his bullpen.
The Phillies made no off-season moves to improve their relief corps other than to take a flier on righthander Antonio Alfonseca. That could mean trouble. Closer Tom Gordon was brought along slowly this spring, which makes one wonder how often he can be relied upon during the season. The Phillies wanted to find a certified stud to set up and fill in should Gordon miss time this season with an injury.
The Phillies will start the season with Ryan Madson as their setup man. He had a great spring, which should give the Phillies cause for hope. Righthanders Alfonseca and Geoff Geary fall behind Madson. Jon Lieber is in the mix and could contribute when he gets healthy. Matt Smith is the only lefthander.
There's no more David Bell, which means no more concerns about his balky back.
That's a good thing.
The Phillies felt they needed more offense from that position, so they signed Wes Helms in the off-season. Helms is a career .268 hitter who hit .329 last season for Florida. His defense is a question mark. If Helms struggles with the glove, don't be surprised to see Abraham Nuñez as a late-inning replacement at third. He played well defensively last season, but hit just .211.
Behind the plate
Mike Lieberthal set a franchise record last season with 1,139 games caught in a Phillies uniform.
But there's new blood behind the plate. Rod Barajas signed as a free agent from Texas. He is expected to get the majority of playing time with Carlos Ruiz his back up. If either Barajas or Ruiz can't play, Chris Coste, who opens the season on the disabled list, is expected to step in. He caught 54 games for the Phillies last season and hit .328.
Charlie Manuel hired three coaches in the off-season: bench coach Jimy Williams, third-base coach Steve Smith and first-base coach Davey Lopes. Players like what they have seen so far.
Williams has worked extensively on hitting and bunting with the team's pitchers. Almost anything would be considered an improvement because last season Phillies pitchers hit a National League-worst .092. Smith has worked with the infielders on defense. Lopes has been working with base stealers like Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Michael Bourn.
The Phillies hope the attention to detail helps the team get off to a better start than the 10-14 starts they had each of the last two Aprils.
It just won't be the same without John Vukovich this season. He spent 31 of his 41 years in professional baseball with the Phillies, and became the longest tenured coach in franchise history (1988 to 2004) in the process. Vuk died last month from a brain tumor, and he will be missed.
The Phillies will honor Vuk with a black "Vuk" patch on their uniforms this season.
It has been a while
This is the first season opener since 2000 in which Nos. 53, 24 and 43 won't grace Phillies uniforms. That's because Bobby Abreu (formerly 53), Lieberthal (24) and Wolf (43) are no longer here. The Phillies traded Abreu to the New York Yankees last July, and Lieberthal, like Wolf, signed with the Dodgers over the winter.