CLEARWATER, Fla. – Even though they were in last place and their manager had been reassigned, the Phillies were still in a good place when the 2017 season ended. They went out with an 11-0 blanking of the rival New York Mets, which allowed them to finish 37-36 in their final 73 games. Confidence was high and it remains so as the Phillies get set to step to the starting line again with the opener Thursday against the Braves in Atlanta.

"I would say so," said second-year slugger Rhys Hoskins, a primary reason the Phillies finally have some renewed optimism. "I think that was pretty evident with some of the play we had in the second half. Obviously the organization was in a position to make the moves that they saw fit and now I'm excited to see where it goes."

During their strong second-half stretch, the Phillies even went 10-10 against the five playoff teams they faced  – Houston, Colorado, the Chicago Cubs, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Washington.

"Obviously that's great, but you have to respect all opponents," Hoskins said. "I think it comes down to us and how we play. On our best night, we think we can play with any team, whether it's the Astros, who won the World Series, or any other team in the league, I think if we focus on what we can do we're going to be OK."

That's the right approach for the players to take, but as the Phillies attempt to become a winning and possibly even a playoff team again, it sure does not hurt that the schedule makers did them an early favor. Through their first 43 games — starting with Thursday's opener and continuing through a two-game series May 15 and 16 at Baltimore — the Phillies will play only two teams – Arizona and Washington – that had winning records a year ago.

"I don't think you can look at it that way," Hoskins said. "I think if you start looking over teams, it can only snowball in a negative way. Let's worry about opening day and go from there."

That's a wise approach, but it's difficult not to look at the early portion of the Phillies schedule without thinking that they should be sitting at least seven or eight games above .500 when they open a four-game series in St. Louis on May 17.

"It's not [nonsense] when I say I think we're going to be pretty darn good," Phillies reliever Pat Neshek said. "Last year, I said I didn't know what we were going to get. I thought we could be the worst team in the league or we could be .500. But I was there with Houston when they were rebuilding in 2015, and they projected us to win 60 games, and we ended up getting the wild card.

Phillies pitcher Pat Neshek throws a warm-up pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays during a spring training game on Saturday, March 10, 2018 at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, FL.
YONG KIM / Staff Photographer
Phillies pitcher Pat Neshek throws a warm-up pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays during a spring training game on Saturday, March 10, 2018 at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, FL.

"I think we're so much past that 2015 stage that the Astros were in. We have the money, we have a lot better core, and when we're winning, we're going to be able to add. If we're in it in June and July, we're going to add and get even stronger."

In addition to all that, they have that favorable schedule that should lead to early wins and enhance the already growing confidence of a young team.

"The NL East, in my opinion, is not a strong division, and you're playing those teams 19 times," said Larry Bowa, who is now a special assistant to general manager Matt Klentak. "You better take advantage of it. I looked at that schedule in April, and I've been in baseball too long to say there are easy games, but that's a very favorable schedule."

The "favorable schedule" starts on opening day in Atlanta and stretches through those two games in Baltimore. During that stretch, the Phillies will play their own division in 24 out of the 43 games, but only three of those games are against Washington, the defending division champion and the only NL East team with a winning record last season.

There are nine games against the Braves, who are in a rebuilding stage that is similar to the place the Phillies were in a year ago. There are six games against the Marlins, the odds-on favorite to be the worst team in baseball.

"You have to beat up the Marlins, and that's nothing against the Marlins," Bowa said. "They tore their whole team up, and they're not going to be good."

The Phillies also have four games against a rebuilding Pittsburgh team and four against a San Francisco Giants team that will likely be without prized starter Madison Bumgarner, who suffered a broken finger Friday night. Starter Jeff Samardzija could also still be sidelined when the Phillies face the Giants in early May. And there are consecutive three-game series against rebuilding Cincinnati and Tampa Bay in April.

Opportunity awaits the Phillies early this season, and they'll regret it if they do not take advantage.