5 questions confronting Phillies

Utley
Utley
Posted: February 12, 2013

Gone are the salted roadways in the city and snowdrifts in the suburbs. Here are the pretty palm trees and the sun-soaked grass fields.

Although spring training doesn't officially begin for the Phillies until Wednesday's first workout for pitchers and catchers, most of the players, coaches and front office members already have escaped their winter homes and found refuge in Clearwater.

Regardless of where you're at, it's the time of the year when everyone can daydream of first place, when the previous year's standings are wiped clean and when even the most pessimistic fan can be hopeful.

We're all for the positive vibes. It's sports, it's supposed to be fun; wait until your team starts regularly losing games (or key players to injuries) before breaking into panic or negativity.

With that said, every baseball team that opens camp this week has question marks, some more than others. The Phillies may actually lead the National League in this category.

There are so many issues that we're breaking them into 2 days. But before we get ahead of ourselves, here are five burning questions facing the Phils:

1. Can Roy Halladay stop looking human?

With his uncanny consistency start-to-start and cold, emotionless approach from the mound, Halladay often was likened to a robot in his first 2 years in Philadelphia. After being the best pitcher for the last decade in Toronto - no one was as durable and as consistently excellent - Halladay made the transition to Philadelphia and the National League look, well, robotic.

He pitched a perfect game, a playoff no-hitter and won a Cy Young Award in 2010 and might have been better, statistically speaking, in 2011 when he was the runner-up in the Cy Young voting. But then came 2012, the year Halladay became human.

Whispers began in spring training from scouts who questioned the pitcher's precision and crispness. Finally, 2 months into the season, Halladay came out of a game in St. Louis after two innings, which might as well have sounded off sirens all across an already-concerned baseball city awaiting the returns of Chase Utley and Ryan Howard.

Halladay was sidelined for 7 weeks with a right lat (shoulder) injury. He showed flashes of his old self when he returned, but he wasn't nearly as consistent or as unhittable.

While they'd surely take him back, the Phillies do not need Robot Roy Halladay. They just need a healthy, effective Roy Halladay.

After altering his offseason workout program, Halladay, who puts in as much time to perfect his craft as anyone in any sport, has to have enough bullets remaining in his 35-year-old arm to take the ball at least 30 times this season. But those bullets have to move, too.

The Phils should know the answer to this question - whether the life is back in Halladay's arm - when the two-time Cy Young Award winner faces hitters in roughly 2 weeks.

2. Can Chase Utley get on - and stay on - the field this spring?

It began with "general soreness." That's what the Phillies and Utley used to explain why he wasn't playing when the exhibition season began in Clearwater two springs ago.

But then the excuses suddenly became more specific and the words became tougher to pronounce (see: chondromalacia). As general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. stated bluntly last March, Utley has a pair of bad knees. And there isn't a surgery, exercising program or vitamin than can act as the cure-all.

Having dealt with two bum knees for at least 2 years, Utley and the Phils' trainers and medical staff are approaching it from a better angle in 2013. They're more informed; they know what works and what does not.

Rather than resting this winter, as he had last offseason, Utley stayed active and regularly took infield practice to keep the blood flowing and his knees in motion. But we won't know until full-squad workouts begin Saturday whether Utley will fall right in line with the rest of the position players in camp.

And we won't know if he'll play in his first Grapefruit League game since 2010 until Charlie Manuel writes out 2013's first lineup card a week from Saturday. But the Phils simply can't afford to miss Utley's bat for the first 2 months of the season with Carlos Ruiz already out (suspension) and no viable middle-of-the-order presence in his place (they had Hunter Pence last year).

3. Is Ryan Howard's left leg finally at 100 percent?

If Ruiz's embrace with Brad Lidge is the indelible image of the success the Phils have had in the last decade, Howard crumpling to the ground in pain after making the last out of the 2011 season 3 years later is the picture that encapsulates all that has gone wrong since.

After missing the first 3 months of the 2012 season recovering from left Achilles' surgery, Howard took the field on July 6 and stayed there until suffering a broken toe before the final weekend of the season. But he wasn't quite right, as anyone with a working set of eyes could attest.

He hit a few home runs and drove in some runs, but Howard was slow on the bases and in the field (or, slower than usual). He also looked tentative at the plate.

All of this, of course, shouldn't be surprising since the guy they call the Big Piece didn't have all of the strength back in his left leg. Months of inactivity, of waiting for the ankle to heal, robbed Howard of the ability to get in shape and gain strength, too.

Howard is 16 months removed from surgery. After playing while rehabbing late last summer, he has had 4 full months to focus solely on regaining his strength and playing shape.

The Phillies are paying Howard $20 million this year and then a minimum of $85 million through the four seasons that follow. They need him healthy and capable of flirting with 40 homers again, too.

4. Can Delmon Young play rightfield?

A former first overall pick and the reigning American League Championship Series MVP signed a contract this offseason for a guaranteed $750,000. But Young didn't have a rough winter based on his off-the-field troubles alone.

Young, who once hit a minor league umpire with a bat and was arrested just last year for a hate crime, making anti-Semitic remarks while intoxicated, didn't have a lot of teams knocking down his door and handing him a job because he was (is?) a 27-year-old designated hitter. Young's conditioning issues can be summed up here: He has weight clauses in his current contract (he can make as much as $600,000 if he makes weight) and he recently said being a DH last season allowed him to basically sit around and eat junk food in the clubhouse. The Phils are hoping that putting a glove on his left hand will prevent Young from using it to hold a hoagie.

Once a plus fielder with a strong arm, Young was a liability in the field in 2012. He played just 30 games in the outfield. When the World Series began at cavernous A&T Park in San Francisco, where the Detroit Tigers couldn't use a DH, Young started in leftfield and was an easy punch line.

Not only are the Phillies putting faith in Young's regular return to the outfield, but they're also labeling him as the odds-on favorite to be their everyday rightfielder. Young hasn't played right regularly since 2007.

Since it's his natural position, however, Young says he feels most comfortable there. We won't be able to judge that until Young, who had right ankle surgery in October, gets on the field sometime this spring.

5. Can Michael Young play an effective third base?

Sensing a theme here? Perhaps just as concerning as Young's defense in right (and the corner outfields as a whole) is a position where the Phillies have three Gold Glovers in the last 30 years: third base.

From Mike Schmidt and Scott Rolen to Placido Polanco, and even non-Gold Glover Pedro Feliz, the Phils have had some of the surest hands in baseball at third base. It's unknown if Young can continue that lineage; many baseball people would vote "no" heading into 2013.

Whether it was the aging process (he is 36) or being bounced around the infield too often (he had played everywhere regularly for Texas at some point), Young's defense slipped in the last couple years. A Gold Glove-winning shortstop in 2008, Young slid over to third base when Elvis Andrus was promoted and then was moved off of third when Adrian Beltre joined Texas as a free agent before the 2011 season.

Like Delmon Young, Michael Young was a designated hitter for the majority of 2012 (he made 72 starts as a DH, as opposed to 25 at third base). The last time the Phils tried the turn-the-DH-into-a-fielder experiment came just last year, when Jim Thome's back couldn't handle first base.

Both Youngs are younger than Thome, and Michael Young doesn't have an injury history. Like Polanco before him, Young could slide right into third, a position he hasn't played regularly since 2010, and handle it without a problem.

But it's certainly not a given that he will be reliable at the position. The Phils can only hope concentrating on one position - and not being the jack-of-all infield trades as he was in Texas - will benefit Young.

Tomorrow: Jimmy Rollins as leadoff, Mike Adams' injury and more.


On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: philly.com/highcheese

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