Phillies Carlos Ruiz

Catcher Carlos Ruiz, looking into the dugout for a sign during a spring training game against the Pirates on Friday night in Philadelphia, is part of the mid-30s core of players who led the Phillies to five straight playoff appearances from 2007-11. However, Ruiz and those teammates now face questions about their ability to lead the team again.

PHILADELPHIA - The Phillies know what their critics are saying.

They don't care.

"A lot of guys in this clubhouse have a lot of pride," closer Jonathan Papelbon said. "I look at a ballclub that isn't going to accept what's gone on the past two years."

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The Phillies open the season at 2:05 p.m. Monday in Texas against the Rangers. There isn't a lot of optimism about the team's chances from fans and media. The days of five straight playoff appearances from 2007-2011 seem like the distant past.

"The only people that have to believe we're going to be good are the 25 guys in the clubhouse," Papelbon said.

But despite the Phillies' bravado, it can be difficult to ignore the naysayers when they seem to make so many valid points.

Here are a few of the main criticisms:

The Phillies are old. Critics doubt aging core players such as Ryan Howard, 34, Chase Utley, 35, and Jimmy Rollins, 35, can produce as they did during the playoff run.

Philadelphia went 73-89 in 2013. The Phillies went 9-18 this spring training and finished their preparation for the season with three straight shutout defeats.

The Phillies are injury prone. Ace pitcher Cole Hamels is out until at least late April with shoulder troubles. Injuries have even affected the younger players. Infielder Freddy Galvis (MRSA infection) and outfielder/first baseman Darin Ruf (strained left oblique muscle) will begin the season on the disabled list.

Still, the Phillies believe they are contenders.

"I think we're good," Howard said. "There's a lot of people that think we're not. But it's a fresh start. You try to make the most of it."

The question is, why do the Phillies seem so confident?

Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg says spring training wasn't as bad as it seemed.

"If we were talking seven-inning games in spring training, our record would have been different," Sandberg said. "There always seemed to be one inning late in games when we were giving people a chance to play that cost us."

Sandberg likes the way Philadelphia has prepared for the season. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said his team will be much better defensively in 2014.

"I think our talent will speak for itself," Sandberg said. "We just have to put everything together and continue to work at the fundamentals of baseball. Pitching and defense sets the tone and gives us a chance to win."

The Phillies believe in their veterans. They believe Howard, Utley and Rollins have at least one more standout season in them. Philadelphia expects young outfielders Domonic Brown and Ben Revere to build on the success they had last season.

"I believe we're going to have the opportunity to score a lot of runs," Utley said. "I like our lineup. We have speed at the top. We have some power in the middle and we have some guys who can really handle the bat down at the bottom of the order."

The Phillies still feature two of the game's best starting pitchers in Cliff Lee and Hamels. The bullpen is full of young arms capable of striking out hitters. The Phillies also added another quality starter in A.J. Burnett.

"Those three guys can carry us," Sandberg said of Lee, Hamels and Burnett. "They're workhorses."

Preseason predictions can be debated. But what the Phillies and their critics can agree upon is the team must get off to a good start to erase the bad feelings of the last season.

After three games in Texas, the Phillies plays three games against the Cubs in Chicago. The home opener is 3:05 p.m. Monday, April 7 against the Milwaukee Brewers at Citizens Bank Park.

"Proving people wrong is a big goal of mine," Papelbon said. "We want to prove people that we can play even though we are an older team. We have to get on a hot streak at the beginning of the season and get the monkey off our back."

But if the Phillies start slow, the negativity currently surrounding the team will only compound itself and make for an unpleasant summer - at least until the Philadelphia Eagles start training camp.

Contact Michael McGarry:


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