By Joseph Santoliquito

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Spring training is fast approaching and this season will involve plenty of curiosity about the Phillies, after winning a franchise-record 102 games last season, finishing for the second-straight year with the most victories in Major League Baseball, and grabbing another franchise mark with their fourth-straight National League East division title.

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It’s all been under the guidance of Charlie Manuel, who owns the Phillies’ record for most victories under a manager with 646 victories in seven years. Manuel has proven he’s the most successful manager in Phillies’ history.

But this will mark a crossroads season for the Phillies. They’re an aging team that enters 2012 with some looming questions about the lineup, whether its aging stars can play a full season, where new acquisitions Juan Pierre, Laynce Nix, Ty Wigginton and Jim Thome fit and Ryan Howard’s recovery.

Manuel addressed some of those concerns Monday with 94 WIP afternoon hosts Michael Barkann and Ike Reese. Manuel was greeted with a standing ovation for the live broadcast from Ponzio’s Diner.

“I’m ready, I’m absolutely ready to go; I wanted to go a few weeks or two after the season was over,” Manuel told Barkann and Reese. “I’m trying to get to the World Series and win. Nothing’s changed.”

Manuel said he’s been in contact with the injured Howard throughout the off-season and he feels his team is at a magical, prime time, not a team that’s breaking down.

“I don’t think 30 is old, or 32 is old,” Manuel said. “Look it up, the prime years for a player are from 27-to-32, it’s when you’re supposed to play your best baseball and stats kind of tell that. Our guys aren’t old. Jimmy Rollins, since I’ve been here, has been one of the keys to our team. Talking to him, I think Jimmy is ready to play. I think he’s healthy and willing to put worth the effort to make us a championship team.”

Howard’s return is important. But Manuel conceded he doesn’t see the all-star first baseman coming back before Opening Day.

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“To me, that’s not concerning, when you look up and see the time Ryan missed last year, and his foot started bothering him late last year,” Manuel said. “If he can get back and play 140, 145 games his production will be up again. I still think he has some great years ahead of him, too. He’s doing real good. He’s looking forward to this season, but being in the starting lineup Opening Day, that’s going to be a reach, but he’ll be back.”

Chase Utley is another star Manuel is hoping to get for 130 to 140 games.

“I was pleased with the way things looked when Chase came back,” Manuel said. “It was hard last year for him to use his back leg, so this winter, our trainer and doctors spoke to him about strengthening his legs and we look forward to him bouncing back. I can see Chase playing 130, 140 games. At that, he’ll get 30 or 40 days off.

Manuel sees the Florida Marlins being a big challenge to unseat the Phillies in the National League East, but he warns not to forget the Atlanta Braves.

“If you look at it on paper, you have to say the Florida Marlins are the biggest threat,” Manuel said. “But I don’t ever underestimate Atlanta. Chipper Jones said after the season that they have to be more consistent offensively, and they have some talent on their team. They have one of the best centerfielders in the National League, talent-wise, and people haven’t seen their young pitching, and they can sneak up and surprise us. Florida is getting a new ballpark and they have [Jose] Reyes. But they still have to play the games, and they still have to play together.”

These next few years will mark an interesting time. For Manuel. For the Phillies. For the window of this nucleus winning another World Series.

“I think the next couple of years we’re going to have to depend on some things and keep everything in order, hope we can get the kind of season our guys can have will be important with that,” Manuel said. “If we can keep the talent coming in, that’s great, but the window for us is the next couple of years.”


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