"I think we are the team to beat in the NL East -- finally."
-- Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, on Jan. 23
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- If we gathered up all the January pennant predictions that never quite came true, we could probably light a bonfire that could be seen on Mars -- with the naked eye. (Quick technical question: Do Martians have naked eyes?)
But there was something about that prediction last month by Jimmy Rollins, if that's what it was, that separated it from the usual collection of preseason kindling.
And that something would be:
Was this really a Phillie speaking?
Bold, confident statements like this don't emanate out of Philadelphia much, you see -- for lots of reasons. Such as:
• The last time any major professional sports team from Philadelphia won a championship, Millard Fillmore was president. (Oh, all right. No, he wasn't. But we're pretty sure Ulysses S. Grant was president. Or possibly Rutherford B. Hayes.)
• The last time the Phillies won the World Series (1980), 16 guys currently hanging out in their locker room had forgotten to be born yet.
• And over the last 23 seasons, the Phillies have shown up in the postseason a grand total of -- uh, hold on while we fire up the calculator -- well, that would be once (1993). That's even fewer than the Cubs, believe it or not.
So if you were wondering why Rollins used that word, "finally," at least we cleared that up for you.
"Everybody pencils in the Mets. Everybody pencils in the Braves because they've done it every year. But why can't the Phillies win this year and next year and the following year, and be one of those teams?"
-- Closer Tom Gordon
Now there was a time (and not during the Rutherford B. Hayes administration, either) when there was a better chance of a Phillies player quitting baseball to join the Mummers than there was of one of them uttering an earth-rattling quote like that one.
And if one of them ever had said something like that, possibly because he was under the mistaken impression the Braves and Mets had been transferred to the New York-Penn League, his teammates would have charged in the other direction at a faster rate of speed than Dale Jarrett.
But these are strange times in Philadelphia. And not just because 76,418 flights out of the Philadelphia airport have been canceled by ice storms in the last week. When we toured the Phillies' spring-training site Sunday, we were fascinated to learn that many of these people actually seemed happy that Rollins said what he said.
• From Rollins' double-play partner, Chase Utley: "In order to be successful, I think you have to expect it. You have to set the standards pretty high."
• From GM Pat Gillick: "Even though those statements kind of put the bull's-eye on you, when they come from players, I like to hear that. It means they feel good about themselves and they feel good about their teammates. So I like to hear those kinds of positive comments."
• And from the most enthusiastic endorser of Rollins' predictive powers, closer Tom Gordon: "I never read the article where he said that or heard anything about it until now. But why not? Why not us? Everybody pencils in the Mets. Everybody pencils in the Braves because they've done it every year. But why can't the Phillies win this year and next year and the following year, and be one of those teams? This team has had an opportunity to see every year what the Braves have done. So now why can't we do just what they've done, if not better? I mean, why not?"
It's an intriguing question, all right -- not to mention an intriguing opportunity for some shrewd South Philadelphia entrepreneur to print up about 100,000 "WHY NOT?" T-shirts.
This is, after all, a team that went 41-24 down the stretch last season (tied with the Dodgers for best finish in the NL); a team with the most productive offensive infield in baseball (Rollins, Utley and Ryan Howard combined for a ridiculous 112 homers, 335 RBI, 362 runs and 256 extra-base hits last year); and a team that added former White Sox inning-digester Freddy Garcia and ex-Padres tantalizer Adam Eaton to the rotation over the winter.
So this is a group that has every reason to ask, "Why not?"
Of course, if these men dare to ask, the world has every right to give them an answer, too. It just might not necessarily be the answer they want to hear.
One of those answers, obviously, would be: What, have the Mets decided to forfeit their first 50 games or something?
The Mets did, after all, win 97 games last year -- 12 more than youknowwho. And they did allow 81 fewer runs than the Phillies. And they clearly have much deeper pockets than the Phillies should any prominent salary-dump opportunities come their way in July.
Oh, and, in case anyone at ESPN is looking for reasons to pump the first Mets-Phillies telecast of the year, the Mets (shockingly) don't seem to agree that that club down the Turnpike is the team to beat.
Speaking for the Mets' defense counsel, here's David Wright, in a recent interview with WFAN: "I read in the paper that Jimmy Rollins thinks nobody else has a chance. When you read that, it irks you a bit and makes you want to go out there and beat them that much more."
We'll let the misquote police inform Wright that that isn't exactly what Rollins said. But it's still comforting to know the Mets' bulletin boards won't be empty this spring.
The Braves, meanwhile, haven't surrendered, either. And Gillick was the first to bring that up.
"I think, in our division, Atlanta is the one that got better," the GM said. "They went and got [Mike] Gonzalez for the back end [of the bullpen]. And they've got [Bob] Wickman back there and [Rafael] Soriano back there. So I think, from a pitching standpoint, Atlanta has probably improved as much as anyone in our division."
Agreed. And the Marlins still have all those young studs who helped them charge from oblivion to contention last year. They were also, by the way, a team that had a better record than the Phillies as late as Sept. 11.
So given all that, should the Phillies be considered the team to beat?
Well, the gambling portion of the universe doesn't think so, for what that's worth. We checked bodog.com, vegas.com, gamblerspalace.com and betus.com. All of those sites listed the Mets as the favorite to represent the NL in the World Series. The Phillies were rated as either the fourth or fifth pick, behind the Dodgers, Cubs and/or Cardinals.
But when we surveyed one GM and one assistant GM from outside the division, we got a different reaction.
"I've been picking the Phillies for three years," the GM said. "I really like that team. Howard and Utley are unbelievable. Jimmy Rollins is a really good player. They've got the best rotation in the division. Like I said, I've been picking them for the last three years. I've got to be right one of these years, don't I?"
The assistant GM wasn't as effusive. But when we ran Rollins' words past him, his response was: "I'm not sure I disagree" -- for similar reasons.
What this race is liable to come down to, in the simplest terms, is whether the Mets' biggest worry (starting pitching) will turn out to be less of a liability than the Phillies' biggest worry (bullpen). The assistant GM's take on that was: "I don't think so. The Mets' rotation, obviously, has a lot of questions."
Nevertheless, even Gillick freely admits he's uneasy with a bullpen that has no clear set-up path to Gordon -- and added only Antonio Alfonseca and a couple of Rule 5 Draft arms (Alfredo Simon and Jim Ed Warden) over the winter. The Phillies will try to market Jon Lieber for an impact set-up man this spring. But they appear to have nothing substantial percolating on that front at the moment.
"We still need work in our bullpen," Gillick said, unequivocally. "We need to get better back there."
Nevertheless, this team is clearly better than it's been in one critical area -- above the eyebrows. Unlike the 2004 and 2005 Phillies, two teams hyped to end the Braves' reign, this group actually seems to think expectations are a good thing. What a concept.
"You know, sometimes it's tough when somebody says, 'We're the ones to beat,'" said hitting coach Milt Thompson. "Then everybody tries to look at you and come after you. But the mentality of this team is, I think they want to be the ones where everybody is going to try to come after them."
Hey, if that's true, we have good news for them. Jimmy Rollins' state-of-the-Phillies address pretty much guaranteed they're in everyone else's sight lines. But in a clubhouse that seems to have undergone a personality transplant since the trade of the laid-back Bobby Abreu, life in those sight lines doesn't sound so scary.
"On our ballclub, I think guys want to feel, 'Know what? Let's challenge each other to believe we can be the team to beat,'" Gordon said. "We know all about the Mets. Great ballclub. We know about the Braves -- great every year, year in and year out. But the bottom line is still, why can't it be us?
"And I think that's what Jimmy was saying, in a respectful way: Why can't it be the Philadelphia Phillies? And the bottom line is, it can be the Philadelphia Phillies."
And if not, well, at least they tossed one seriously massive redwood onto the bonfire -- finally.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.