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Phillies' shopping list long, difficult to fill Columnist @HalBodley
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Let's see. The Phillies need a third baseman, an outfielder or two, and bullpen help.

After five straight National League East titles, the Phils tumbled to third place last season, and if they're going to return as a division contender, their shopping list at next week's Winter Meetings will be long and difficult to fill.

Talk all you want about the obvious holes, but to manager Charlie Manuel, getting back to the postseason will take more than a collection of new faces.

"The biggest thing we have to do is play the game better," Manuel told during an interview on Wednesday. "We just have to play the game better. That means pitching, defense and quality hitting.

"Last year, we didn't play the game right. We have to get back to playing good, solid baseball like we did all those years we won the division. Our offense has to be consistent and, of course, our three main starting pitchers [Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels] have to be healthy. Jonathan Papelbon once again has to be strong as our closer."

For general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., the meetings that begin on Sunday night in Nashville, Tenn., will be the most important, not to mention the most demanding, since he succeeded Hall of Famer Pat Gillick after the Phillies won the World Series in 2008.

Regaining elite status in the NL East will be much more difficult than holding the top spot, as the Phils did during their five championship seasons (2007-11).

It's imperative for the veterans on this team to remember what it takes to achieve that elite status.

Washington, which won the division with the best record (98-64) in the Major Leagues, will be even better. Under manager Davey Johnson, the Nationals learned how to win, and with their young players a year older, they'll be difficult to unseat.

Atlanta, which finished second, should be as good and is always a contender.

Luckily for the Phillies, the Marlins, after their recent fire sale of All-Star players, shouldn't be a factor.

There is enormous pressure in Philadelphia for the Phils to improve over 2012. The Eagles have been an utter disappointment; the Flyers are locked out, with the entire season in jeopardy; and the Sixers are in the early stages of their season.

The Phillies led the Major Leagues in attendance last season, at 3,565,718, but the Citizens Bank Park regular-season sellout streak ended in August at 257 games.

Philadelphia fans are notoriously demanding and will not support mediocrity.

Thus the pressure on Amaro & Co.

Manuel said that landing a center fielder and a third baseman are his priorities -- in that order.

"[Analysts] on MLB Network said we need three outfielders, and I won't argue with that," Manuel said. "We could make do with two if we get a third baseman."

B.J. Upton was No. 1 on the Phillies' list, but the free-agent center fielder agreed to a deal with the Braves late Wednesday afternoon. Now the Phils will shift gears and look at Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn or Angel Pagan.

"There are priorities, but they don't always have to work in sequence," Amaro told Philadelphia reporters. "Obviously, there are things we want to address. The outfield is one thing. Offense, perhaps a third baseman, perhaps some pitching depth. Hopefully, we can get a couple of these things done."

There were reports on Wednesday saying the Phillies could be on the verge of trading for setup man Wilson Lopez. Lopez went 6-3 with a 2.17 ERA in 64 games for the Astros last season and recorded 10 saves after becoming the team's closer.

If that trade works out, the eighth-inning problem would be solved.

Overall, Manuel believes that the holes aren't quite as big as they appear.

By the same token, he said, "We need Chase Utley and Ryan Howard to bounce back and have years like they're capable of."

Manuel didn't mention Jimmy Rollins, but the veteran shortstop also falls into that category.

Adding to the skipper's concerns was Tuesday's 25-game suspension of All-Star catcher Carlos Ruiz after he tested positive a second time for amphetamines. Ruiz was the Phils' MVP in 2012, batting .325 with 16 homers and 68 RBIs.

Erik Kratz, who filled in for Ruiz when the latter was injured, will probably be the catcher for the first 25 games of 2013.

Howard, recovering from 2011 surgery on his Achilles, played in only 71 games in 2012. He batted just .219, with 14 homers and 56 RBIs, and he struck out 99 times. Utley, also out most of the first half with chronic knee problems, played in 83 games and batted only .256, with 45 RBIs.

Halladay, 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA, did a stint on the disabled list because of a shoulder strain and was far from the form that won him two Cy Young Awards and the reputation as one of MLB's top starters. Lee (6-9, 3.16 ERA) struggled most of the year. Only Hamels (17-6, 3.05 ERA) was a bright spot in the once-vaunted rotation.

"We need quality at-bats, a consistent offense and to get back to playing defense the way we used to," said Manuel. "We used to play really solid defense. We also need those guys who have been big pitchers for us to step up."

As always, the Winter Meetings will be an intriguing few days.

"Fans want to know who they'll be cheering for [to] get excited about their clubs," said Amaro. "We're no exception. There are some situations where we're waiting right now on someone to say 'yes,' and other situations where other teams are waiting for us to say 'yes.' "

It was Amaro who made the deals for Halladay, Lee, Papelbon, et al. His moves were applauded around MLB. Amaro has that track record in his favor.

This time, however, the stakes are higher, but the rewards could be greater.

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is Correspondent Emeritus for Follow him @halbodley on Twitter.

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