Cockcroft: Philadelphia Phillies preview

Updated: February 19, 2007, 12:48 PM ET
By Tristan H. Cockcroft | ESPN.com
Perhaps it's that Phillies fans tend to be so pessimistic that has caused the baseball world to overlook how close they've come to the playoffs the past two seasons. In back-to-back years, the Phils have finished second in the National League East and second in the NL wild-card race. They've now averaged 86 wins the past four years, getting within six games of a playoff spot each time, a good performance but not quite great.

But is 2007 the year the Phillies finally snap their 13-season playoff drought? If the team's superstar infield has anything to say about it, they might. First baseman Ryan Howard, age 27, is coming off an astonishing 58-homer, 149-RBI breakout year that landed him the MVP, and now he's considered one of the game's premier sluggers. Second baseman Chase Utley, 28, has managed back-to-back years with at least a .291 batting average, 28 home runs, 102 RBI and 15 stolen bases, and is now the hands-down top fantasy player at his position. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins, 28, is coming off a year in which he set career highs in homers (25), RBI (83), runs scored (127) and OPS (.812), vaulting him into fantasy's top-five at his position. All three are in their prime, occupy three of the top four lineup spots and are early-round fantasy picks, which on its own would be enough to make a team a top-10 offense. And that doesn't even consider the fourth infielder, new third baseman Wes Helms, who batted a remarkable .329 with a .965 OPS as a part-timer in Florida last year.

Add Helms and a quality veteran catcher in Rod Barajas to mentor prospect Carlos Ruiz, and consider that right fielder Shane Victorino is now a year more experienced and a year closer to his prime, and you've got the makings of one of the game's most underappreciated lineups. In case you missed it, Philadelphia averaged 5.34 runs per game in 2006, fourth in the majors, so this really wasn't a bad team in the first place.

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