DALLAS - In Ruben Amaro Jr.'s perfect world, the Phillies will re-sign Jimmy Rollins and then turn their attention away from the team's offense. And that would be OK with Charlie Manuel.
"I feel very good about it," said the Phillies' manager, who met with the media yesterday at the winter meetings. "At the end of the season, of course I was upset. It took me about a week to get over it. But I look at things, and you bring Jimmy back, and put our team on the field, and I like what I see."
On paper, the Phillies have not done much to improve their starting lineup. Other than Laynce Nix replacing Raul Ibanez as the lefthanded option in leftfield, the batting order will look much as it did last season. That is not a bad thing, at least from the Phillies' point of view. Both Amaro and Manuel point to the offense's performance over the last half of the season, when the Phillies led the National League in runs scored. While both men acknowledged a need for improvement after a 1-0 loss to the Cardinals that ended their season, neither felt wholesale changes were in order.
In his season-ending press conference, Amaro said he wanted his hitters to produce better at-bats, a sentiment that Manuel echoed yesterday. But with an improved bench that will feature Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton and Nix, and John Mayberry Jr. poised to slide into an everyday role, the Phillies feel they have the personnel in place to replicate their regular-season success of 2011 while advancing farther in the postseason.
"We won 102 games last year," Manuel said. "From the second half of the season on, we were either No. 1 or No. 2 in offense. Once we added Hunter Pence last year, that's when Mayberry really started coming on. We think that he has a chance to be an everyday player, and we'll find out. But at the same time, if you look at who we have, why shouldn't I be excited about it?"
The answer to that question will hinge on a number of factors. First and foremost is Mayberry, who has never played in an everyday role. The 28-year-old leftfielder spent six mostly lackluster seasons in the minors before establishing himself as a valuable rotational player last season, hitting .273 with a .341 on-base percentage, .513 slugging percentage, 15 home runs and eight steals in 296 plate appearances. Both Manuel and Amaro have expressed confidence that he is a different player from the one who hit .267 with a .740 OPS at Triple A in 2010.
"We'll put him out there, we'll let him play," Manuel said. "Last year, when he was hitting the ball, I tried to match him up against certain pitchers. John's improved a lot. If he can play regular and hold his own and play like he did the second half of the season, then he is going to be a top-notch player. But that is something we have to find out."
Rather than sign an experienced everyday player to compete with Mayberry, the Phillies opted for Nix, a journeyman who has hit .254/.306/.461 with 35 home runs and 202 strikeouts in 798 at-bats over the last three seasons. But Manuel thinks he has enough options at his disposal in left even if Mayberry struggles in an everyday role.
"Right now, when you look at our team, we would have Wigginton and we would have Laynce," he said. "We've got some options. We've got some guys that can move the ball."
The second biggest factor is health. Amaro said earlier this week that his top goal this offseason was to improve the roster's versatility. That meant trading for Wigginton, who can spell oft-injured Placido Polanco at third base, and signing Nix, who can play first and left, and welcoming back Thome, who Manuel believes will be able to play first base on a limited basis while also providing a powerful lefthanded bat off the bench.
Last season, the Phillies carried light-hitting utility players Wilson Valdez and Michael Martinez for the entire season, leading to a huge offensive decline when Polanco and Chase Utley were sidelined with injuries. Pinch-hitter Ross Gload spent most of the year playing through a hip injury that sapped his power and limited his ability to run the bases and play in the field.
"We're very capable of scoring quite a few more runs than we did last year," Manuel said. "You have to remember that we tried a lot of new players last year at the start of the season. Our two utility players got 550 at-bats [Valdez and Martinez combined for 534 plate appearances]. If you would have told me that coming out of spring training, I would have told you there is no way we would win 102 games. It wasn't like we failed. We failed to win a World Series, but from an offensive standpoint, we're capable of doing a lot better."
Manuel acknowledged the need to find rest for Polanco, who had elbow surgery last offseason and abdominal surgery this offseason. He also expressed confidence that Utley would rebound from a season in which he posted career lows in batting average (.259), on-base percentage (.344), slugging percentage (.425) and home runs (14). The second baseman, who turns 33 next week, missed the first 2 months of last season with tendinitis and other related ailments in his knee, a condition that has the potential to remain with him throughout his career. But Manuel said he still views Utley as a bona fide No. 3 hitter who can power an offense.
"I think Utley's going to bounce back and he is going to come back and be a player like he used to be," Manuel said. "I think he is definitely capable of hitting .300 and hitting 25 to 30 homers. I think in the last 3 years, he's missed time, and his injuries kind of set him back . . . I think the rest he's getting this winter and the fact that he is going to be ready to go when he comes into spring training - I think he's going to end up having a big year for us.
"I know our doctors and [trainer] Scott Sheridan were looking to get him a program where he could strengthen his legs while taking as much pressure off his knees as possible. But I know he is going to work out hard . . . Utley's got some good years left. I totally believe that."