CLEARWATER, Fla. – If the Philadelphia Phillies are to catch the New York Mets in the National League East, they'll have to press the advantage they appear to have in starting pitching, particularly until Pedro Martinez returns, whenever that will be.

The Phillies have six starters, the Mets have, oh, three or four, depending on who gets healthy and who develops in the next few months. Mets brass feels its pitching is better situated now than it was a year ago, when it ran off with the NL East, but at this point it does not match up in skill or depth with Brett Myers, Cole Hamels, Adam Eaton, Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer and Jon Lieber.

Now the Phillies have to find out what they've got in Eaton, the 29-year-old right-hander who has been limited to 35 starts over the past two seasons because of a strained tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand.

Eaton was 9-1 with a 3.18 ERA for the San Diego Padres on June 15, 2005, when the tendon went the first time. He lost that game, returned six weeks later, and lost three of his last five decisions. He was traded to the Texas Rangers in the offseason, experienced a more severe injury to the same area, and did not pitch until late July.

Eaton became a free agent and Phillies general manager Pat Gillick, seeing potential where others might have seen risk, signed Eaton to a three-year, $24-million contract.

"Everybody's obviously concerned with my finger," Eaton said Sunday. "At the same time, there's nothing I can do about it."

He works his right hand with strengthening exercises, and has even dabbled in the bucket of rice Steve Carlton once made famous and still exists in the Phillies' clubhouse. Otherwise, he'll monitor unusual fatigue or soreness in his hand, back off on the breaking balls (he grips his cutter and curveball very firmly) if necessary, and assume all is well.

Manager Charlie Manuel agreed, saying he had no plans to treat Eaton's preparatory work different than any of the starters.

"There's not a whole lot we can do about that," he said. "We're just trying to work him in. He's on the same program."

2007 Spring Training

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