It’s only April, snow is still lingering in Rochester and some baseball teams have played only a single game, yet sports writers and fans are already predicting the 2004 World Series Champion. The usual suspects in the AL – the Yanks and the Sox – and some newcomers in the NL – the Cubs and the Astros – are gaining headlines as candidates for a potential world championship this year, but the real winner may be one slightly under all of our radars. The last three World Series champions came out of left field with the Diamondbacks, Angles and Marlins defined as contenders by few if any baseball minds prior to their championship seasons. One of these teams could be the Philadelphia Phillies.No, I am not a Philly fanatic making drastic claims in favor of my team. My Baltimore Orioles have nowhere to go but up, but reasonably the best they can hope for is third in the AL east. Fans of the A’s, Mariners or Giants could also sneak their way to the World Series. In my mind these teams lack the consistency top to bottom the Phillies have to offer.Philadelphia’s most formidable foe last season was themselves. An August meltdown during a grueling 27 straight game stretch, which featured televised spats between players and between coaches, caused the team to go from Wild Card leader to the third best team in the NL East. Jim Thome, the team’s leader has made it an issue to calm the clubhouse atmosphere and make it a past issue.With the 2003 season’s problem in the past, the Phillies spent the off-season building a championship-caliber team. Their bullpen is arguably one of the best in baseball with the additions of flame-throwing close Billy Wagner and proven set-up man Tim Worrell. Combined with Roberto Herendaz and Rheal Cormier, any Philly late inning lead seems insurmountable. Philly’s starting pitching rotation rivals those of the Astros and Cubs – it just has less star power. Kevin Millwood could be the ace of any staff in major league baseball and is coming of a dominating spring. Randy Wolfe is a proven second starter coming off a 16-win campaign and the remainder of the staff Vicente Padilla and Brett Myers both registered double digits win totals a season ago. The off-season addition of Eric Milton, a proven winner in Minnesota, will only benefit from the additional run support he will gain in Philadelphia.Thome anchors an offense that could be the most consistent in all of baseball. The potential MVP candidate, along with outfielder Bobby Abreu and catcher Mike Lieberthal, will make outs hard to come by in the Phillies lineup. The only question marks are Pat Burrell and David Bell. This spring, Burrell showed signs of the player who produced 116 RBIs in 2002, not the player who managed only 64 last season. Bell is coming off a shoulder injury and a second would cause a large hole down the third base line. However, with an off-season fixated on improving offensive production, the Philly lineup will be hard to stop.The Phillies match up well with the predicted contenders in both the AL and NL as well. Their pitching staff and lineup closely resembles that of the Houston Astros, minus some big names, but the Astros lack the bullpen depth that could allow the Phillies to win close contests. The Cubs cannot match the Phillies, or many other teams, defensively or in the bull pen. Philly also matches up well against the Diamondbacks, who cannot match their lineup or pitching staff past Randy Johnson.In the AL neither New York nor Boston would be clear-cut favorites over the Phillies. The middle infield tandem of Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco give Philly the type of speed at the top of the lineup the Marlins used to beat the Yankees last year. The teams’ pitching staffs are about even. While Boston’s first three starters could overcome that of Philly, the bottom two starters and the bullpens both clearly give an advantage to the Phillies. Boston’s lineup is more powerful than Philly’s, but the Sox cannot match the Phillies’ speed.The Phillies do not receive the publicity of the Cubs or the Yankees as contenders, but neither did the Marlins in 2003. Phillies players such as Wolfe or Bobby Abreu may not be household names, but neither were Marlins Josh Beckett or Miguel Caberra before last year’s World Series came to an end. This, however, does not hinder Philly’s chances for success. Most see the Phillies as contenders in the NL East and at best making the playoffs, only to lose in the divisional series. By not gaining the moniker “contender,” the Philadelphia Phillies could make for an interesting season in major league baseball. Ahhh, and it’s only April.Allard can be reached at

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