"Once upon a time there was a hare who, boasting how he could run faster than anyone else, was forever teasing a tortoise for its slowness. Then one day, the irate tortoise answered back: 'Who do you think you are? There's no denying you're swift, but even you can be beaten!' The hare squealed with laughter. 'Beaten in a race? By whom? Not you, surely! I bet there's nobody in the world that can win against me, I'm so speedy. Now, why don't you try?' " -- Aesop's Fables
The question is, who is the tortoise, and who is the hare in this morality tale? Wasn't it Jimmy Rollins who did all the bragging that the Phillies were the team to beat? I guess the moral of the story, at least for 2007, is that sometimes the hare actually does finish first. Though most of the media attention focused on the Mets' monumental collapse, the fact remains that the Phillies did go 16-6 down the stretch, and were equally, if not more, responsible for winning the race.
There's no questioning that the Phillies are an offensive force to be reckoned with. With Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and new acquisition Pedro Feliz, they've got the most potent infield in the major leagues. It would not be surprising to see this team improve on its 2007 output, as it led the National League in runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging. The big question for Philadelphia is the pitching. Certainly, having as powerful an offense as the Phillies do allows the staff a little more margin for error, but after a converted closer (Brett Myers) and injury-prone Cole Hamels at the top of the rotation, there's not a lot of depth there. And already this season, an injury to newly acquired closer Brad Lidge is putting undue stress on a fragile bullpen.
In 2008, the tortoise and the hare will have their rematch. But which role will the Phillies play this season? If it's to be the tortoise, they'd best be careful, for the Mets are not likely to fall asleep under that tree again. If it's to be the hare, then they'd better hope the pitching staff has something left in the tank for the homestretch. If so, then the story may end the same way as it did last year. If not, there's bound to be a lot of sour grapes in the Phillies' clubhouse.
Ballpark: No ballpark in the majors allows more home runs than Citizens Bank Park, and that's good reason to think twice before selecting most Phillies pitchers. While there has always been a stigma attached to Colorado Rockies hurlers because of the "Coors Field Factor," perhaps the same caution should be applied to the City of Brotherly Love. The staff gave up 52 more home runs at home than on the road. Of course, the pendulum swings both ways, and Philadelphia hitters certainly love the way the ball sails over the fence with terrific regularity.
Top Sleeper: So it's the fourth round of your fantasy draft, and you're ready to make your pick. You're targeting a guy who can give you 40 steals, hit around .300 and drive in about 60 runs for you. And so you select Chone Figgins. I've got no real problem with that, but can someone explain to me exactly why Shane Victorino isn't being picked for another eight to 10 rounds? He stole 37 bases last year despite being troubled by a calf strain and missing close to 30 games. He also hit 12 home runs, showcasing a good deal more power than a guy like Figgins. With Aaron Rowand gone, The Flyin' Hawaiian is now firmly entrenched as the starting center fielder and should get an extra 100 or so at-bats in 2008. I'm not saying he's fourth-round material, but he certainly isn't that far of a drop-off.
Intriguing spring battle: It could have been a colossally classic clash between evenly matched talents. Oh, who are we kidding? The third base battle between Greg Dobbs and Wes Helms wasn't exactly going to be back-page headline news. The duo combined for 39 doubles, 15 home runs and 91 RBIs in 2007, which was the lowest production at third base in the National League. Even throwing prospect Eric Bruntlett into the mix, it was clear Philadelphia needed to make a move, which is why the Phillies signed free-agent Pedro Feliz, who has averaged 21 home runs over the past four seasons. Now, Dobbs will be relegated to a pinch-hitting role, and the only battle Helms will wage is to stay on the roster at all.
Schedule Preview: The Phillies have a very strange schedule in 2008. Twice they play only one series at home before venturing out on the road, and on four separate occasions they have to fly clear across the country to start a trip: to Colorado, Arizona, Oakland and Los Angeles. From June 6 to July 3, they play 18 of 24 games on the road, they return home for tough series against the Mets, Cardinals and Diamondbacks, and then head out of town again after the All-Star break for 12 of their next 15 games. Suffice it to say that if this team can find itself at or near the top of the division on Aug. 4, it should be all downhill from there. If not, it could be a very long last two months of the season.
Trainer's room: Closer Brad Lidge just underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee to repair a torn meniscus, and should miss only three to six weeks, leaving the door open for a possible return by Opening Day, or at least shortly thereafter. With last year's closer Brett Myers now in the rotation, Tom Gordon likely will take another stab at the job until Lidge can go. Certainly the news could have been a lot worse for Lidge, but barring any unforeseen setbacks, he should have no lasting effects from the injury.
Cole Hamels strained his shoulder in 2006 and his pitching elbow in 2007. Who has "hip flexor" in the pool this year? The 24-year-old Hamels is nearly unhittable when he gets that curveball over, but there's a black cloud that seems to be following him around, and you can't help but watch each start waiting for that other shoe to drop. Perhaps this lingering sense of dread factored into Charlie Manuel's decision to name Brett Myers as his Opening Day starter. You still want to draft Hamels, and you'll have to do it early to get him, but when you do, make sure you've loaded up on horseshoes, four-leaf clovers and lucky pennies.
Platoon: When Aaron Rowand left Philadelphia for San Francisco, the team didn't waste too much time sitting around wondering what to do. Within 10 days the Phillies had signed free agent Geoff Jenkins to a two-year deal. The 33-year-old hit 21 home runs with the Brewers last season, but batted an abysmal .215 against left-handed pitching. That's why we expect to see a lot of Jayson Werth in right field as well. Werth, whose career has never been able to get on track due to a left wrist that never seems to get any better, hit .375 against lefties in 2007, which makes him an ideal candidate to share time with Jenkins.
Backup to watch: Chris Coste, a real-life Crash Davis, is going to be the backup catcher to Carlos Ruiz, now that the "Great Rod Barajas Experiment" has been declared a failure. Coste, who is now a published author after writing the book "The 33-Year Old Rookie," hit .279 with five home runs after taking over Barajas' duties in July last year. If you're in a league where you need two catchers, Coste likely won't kill you if he is called upon to step in on an everyday basis. There's every possibility he might provide you with some decent power numbers, especially considering his home ballpark.
Fantasy Studs: Let me pose a hypothetical question to you. If the Phillies repeat as NL East Champions in 2008, which player stands the best chance at being named the league's MVP? Is it the defending MVP, who hit 30 home runs to go along with his 40 stolen bases? Is it the guy who hit .332 while scoring more than 100 runs and driving in 100 more, despite missing 30 games due to injury? Or is it the 2006 NL MVP, who finished second in the league with 47 home runs, despite hitting only nine home runs over the first two months of the season due to leg injuries that eventually landed him on the disabled list in May? The fact is, it could be any of the three. Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are all potential first-round fantasy options, playing in a park that is very hitter-friendly, and in a lineup where each player's success has a direct positive impact on the others' value. You really can't go wrong here, folks.
Prospects to watch for 2008: While it is highly unlikely that Joe Savery, the 19th overall pick in last year's draft, will be rushed through the Phillies' farm system, the left-hander is talented enough to rise through the ranks very quickly. And if he can make it all the way to Triple-A, there's a very real chance he might make that final step and arrive in Philadelphia sometime this season. We've talked about Cole Hamels' propensity for injury, Jamie Moyer is pushing 50, and Adam Eaton's first-half numbers (5.65 ERA, 1.51 WHIP) were actually the more impressive split. This is a team that could easily be fighting for a playoff spot, and if Savery puts himself in a position to be the savior, the team would be foolish not to give him a shot.
Prospects to watch for the future: As we've said, there will be some open spots in the rotation in the very near future, and Carlos Carrasco and Josh Outman could be next in line to fill them. Carrasco, a right-hander, is only 20, and struggled a bit against Double-A hitters after dominating at Class A Clearwater. He has a nice fastball, but appears to need a little more seasoning before he's ready to serve. Outman is a southpaw with several pitches who had an 8.97 K/9 ratio in Class A before joining Carrasco in Reading.
Jason Jaramillo hit .271 with six home runs at Triple-A last year, and although those stats don't necessarily jump out at you, they're not too bad for a catcher with good defensive skills and a strong arm. Considering Chris Coste's age, there's certainly a chance that Jaramillo might compete for a spot on the roster in 2009.
A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.