5 pressing questions for the 2014 Phillies

YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ryan Howard is a big question mark with his health concerns.
YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Ryan Howard is a big question mark with his health concerns. (is a big question mark with his health concerns.)
Posted: February 13, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Just 3 short years ago, the Phillies' rise to top dog on the Philadelphia sports landscape reached its peak when newly signed Cliff Lee found a seat on the dais for a near-celebratory press conference following the team's first workout of the spring.

Lee completed a rotation of aces. He sat alongside two-time Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay and postseason MVPs Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Joe Blanton was there, too.

Back then, the most pressing question was probably who would sit next to who at that press conference. Although postseason success never came, that team went on to win a franchise-record 102 games.

Time has not been kind to the remaining pieces of that rotation. While Lee and Hamels are still among the game's elite pitchers, their offensive teammates have grown older and more prone to injury and the pitching staff around them is, at best, uncertain.

Pitchers and catchers officially report to Camp Clearwater today; they'll hold their first workout of the 2014 season tomorrow.

For the majority of the last decade, the day camp has opened has felt like a holiday to a suddenly baseball-crazed Philadelphia. Now it's a day met with a little excitement and a lot of skepticism.

The most pressing questions are . . .

1 Can Ryan Howard be counted on?

Howard's 5-year, $125 million contract extension kicked in in 2012, when he spent the first 3 months of the season recovering from left Achilles' surgery. Last year, the second year of the contract saw Howard limited to 80 games as his left leg became a problem again, this time resulting in season-ending knee surgery.

Howard is not the perfect middle-of-the-order hitter: He strikes out three times as often as he walks and he struggles mightily against lefthanders. But when Howard has been on the field in the last two seasons, he hasn't been completely unproductive either.

Howard hit .244 with a .752 OPS, 25 home runs and 99 RBI in 151 games in the last two years, the equivalent of one full season. Although the 34-year-old will never repeat 2006, he could see an uptick in the per-game production listed above simply because he is 100 percent healthy for the first time since the summer of 2011.

Under new manager Ryne Sandberg, the Phillies also won't hesitate to rest Howard against lefthanders with the capable Darin Ruf as an option (and Maikel Franco as another righthanded option in the near future).

The question isn't really about whether Howard can be productive; it's whether he can be durable and healthy over the course of a full season. If Howard can play at least 130 games (the number Chase Utley reached after suffering through his own back-to-back, injury-plagued seasons) the Phillies will be content with the production that follows.

In his last full healthy season, in 2011, Howard hit .253 with an .835 OPS, 33 home runs and 116 RBI in 152 games.

2 Is Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez a difference-maker?

Meet Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, the international man of mystery in camp. Sandberg and general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. are meeting the righthander for the first time this month; neither had seen him throw before February.

Who is Gonzalez? He's a Cuban export who drew enough interest from major league teams that the Phillies originally agreed to pay him $48 million over 6 years last July before he threw a pitch in the major leagues. So, apparently he's talented.

But Gonzalez eventually signed for a quarter of that price for 3 years ($12 million guaranteed) last Labor Day weekend. So, apparently there's concern about his health.

Gonzalez, 27, was barred from competing in Cuba after attempting to flee the country a couple of years ago. Because of that, his work has been very limited.

The Phillies need a starting pitcher who is both talented and durable to replace Roy Halladay. Gonzalez could eventually be both.

If the Phillies hope to contend in the Chase Utley-Jimmy-Rollins-Cliff Lee era, they need him to be both sooner rather than later. How he competes in the next 6 weeks should offer some clues.

3 Is clubhouse chemistry an issue?

Sure, it sounds like one of those overblown, made-up story lines, but those who undervalue the importance of a content clubhouse are likely those who have never stepped foot into said clubhouse.

The Phillies were a bad baseball team in 2013. As a result, star players who came to Philadelphia to play for a winner were unhappy, including Jonathan Papelbon and Lee.

Both of those pitchers aired their displeasure during the season. Hamels spoke about the need for a better team chemistry recently in an interview with Comcast SportsNet.

The solution is simple, really: win. If a team wins, the players are happy and are less likely to bicker over small things and are less likely to be concerned with job security.

But some personalities are more prone to react badly when things go badly. When the Red Sox won the World Series last fall, it was partly the result of a massive overhaul by the front office in jettisoning malcontents and replacing them with team-first players who wanted to be in Boston.

Talent will always override chemistry, but it's not something that should be ignored or discarded as unimportant, either.

4 Can Bob McClure fix the bullpen?

Perhaps the quietest change of the Phillies' offseason came with the dismissal of longtime pitching coach Rich Dubee a day after the season and the arrival of Bob McClure to assume the same position.

Who is Bob McClure? A 19-year major league pitcher, he's a former Red Sox pitching coach (2012) who got the Phillies' job after a drawn-out process that saw the team fail to land at least two of the names atop its wish list.

Like Dubee, McClure figures to bring an approach both hands-on and honest. But the Phillies have to hope that, unlike Dubee, McClure is able to click regularly with the young pitchers in the organization, notably those suited for the bullpen.

Major league teams are far more successful when they develop their own relievers rather than overpay for an overused veteran on the open market. The Phillies have no shortage of talented young arms that could help the bullpen both today and tomorrow, including Jake Diekman, Justin De Fratus, B.J. Rosenberg and Ethan Martin (if Martin ends up back in the 'pen, for which he's best suited).

But none of those relievers has carved out a certain major league career just yet. And there are others, like Phillippe Aumont, with major league arms but minor league command and consistency.

McClure has to get through to young pitchers for the Phillies to succeed.

5 Is this team too old (and brittle) to contend?

Thirty-one years ago, the Phillies opened the season with a lineup that would be dubbed the "Wheez Kids." The 1983 Phillies had a starting nine on Opening Day with two players (Pete Rose and Tony Perez) in their 40s and two more who were 38 and 39 (Steve Carlton and Joe Morgan, respectively).

Granted, all of those players were Hall of Famers (or in Rose's case, Hall of Fame-worthy), but that's four players who all are older than anyone in the current Phillies lineup.

The average age of the projected 2014 lineup is 31.22 (or 31.77 if you choose to flip-flop probable Opening Day starter Hamels with Lee in the nine-hole). The average age of the 1983 Opening Day lineup: 34.55.

But, there's more.

The Red Sox won their third World Series in the last 10 years last fall with a Game 1 lineup that featured eight players 30 or older. The average age of that lineup: 31.

Perhaps "age" becomes the easy, go-to excuse when in actuality it's the lack of durability that has come with age for several Phillies players. It's only natural for the body parts of professional athletes to break down from wear and tear over the course of a career, whether it's Halladay's and Mike Adams' arms, Howard's and Utley's legs and Carlos Ruiz' everything.

What the Phillies need more than a trip to the fountain of youth is a little luck in the form of avoiding extended stays on the disabled list.

In the last two seasons, the quartet of Howard, Utley, Ruiz and Jimmy Rollins have been in the starting lineup together just 40 times out of 324 games. And 13 of those games came in September 2012, when the season was all but over.

But it goes back even farther. After the Phillies lost to the New York Yankees in the 2009 World Series, the core four were in the starting lineup together just 20 times (and only 11 games before September) in 2010, and for just 56 games in 2011.

All told, Howard, Utley, Ruiz and Rollins have started a whopping 116 games together in the last four seasons. The Phillies have played 648 games in that time.

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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