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#OnDeck: Three more pivotal questions for the future

We break down the favorites to take the field for the Phillies on Opening Day 2015.

There are still plenty of question marks facing the Phillies as they close in on the start of spring training.

The three most intriguing, in my opinion:

1. Will Jonathan Papelbon be here?

2. Will Cliff Lee be healthy?

3. Will Cole Hamels be traded before Opening Day?

The quick answers:

1. Probably. Papelbon is the one player who can have a measurable impact on the Phillies' stated goal of competing in 2016 or 2017 (adjusted into real terms, that's 2018). He can do this by giving Ryne Sandberg 60 innings of relief, thereby reducing the load on their stable of young arms by 60 innings, and reducing the wear on their arms, and the temptation on Sandberg's part to push them past their physiological comfort zones. He can also keep Ken Giles in an eighth-inning role, where he will not be able to rack up the save totals that inflate a player's value once he reaches arbitration. That might sound trivial, but we could be talking about a savings of a couple of million dollars in his first year of arbitration, right around the time the Phillies hope to be investing in their payroll in an attempt to contend. Scoff if you want, but this is the kind of calculus a rebuilding front office needs to conduct. If the Philies get an offer for Papelbon similar to what they got for Jimmy Rollins or Marlon Byrd, then they should jump. But there is no indication that they will get such an offer, since one has yet to materialize in two years of trying. Any less of an offer is one that they could probably drum up at the July trade deadline, provided Papelbon continues the solid production he has turned in since signing with the Phillies. In other words, the benefit of keeping Papelbon probably outweighs the benefit of trading him (for now).

2. Maybe. But the reality is it all depends on how you define "healthy." He will be 36 years old. Over the last three seasons, the only pitchers to log 200+ innings at 36 years or older are R.A. Dickey, Hiroki Kuroda, A.J. Burnett, Aaron Harang, Bartolo Colon, and Bronson Arroyo. Of those pitchers, only Dickey and Kuroda have logged seasons that have been anything close to dominant. Dickey, Kuroda and Colon are the only pitchers during that stretch to post an ERA+ of greater than 110 at 36+ years old (minimum 150 innings pitched). And neither Kuroda nor Dickey pitch off their fastball. So even if we were talking about a healthy pitcher, we would have to acknowledge the near certainty that Lee would enter a steep decline at some point in the next few years. As it happens, we are also talking about a guy who missed half of last season with a flexor tendon injury. The reports from Ruben Amaro Jr. have been positive, but reports are always positive this time of year. The reports on Roy Halladay were positive this time of year. So, sure, Lee will be healthy and ready to go when pitchers and catchers report. But none of us can escape the physiological laws that govern human bodies, and the fact is, while flexor tendons may heal themselves, they do not magically rejuvenate themselves to be stronger than they were before the weakened state that led to the initial injury. They just don't. It's why, once upon a time, in a land where Major League Baseball did not drug test, many pitchers at Lee's age with Lee's condition decided, hell, if my only other choice is hobbling toward retirement, what's the downside to seeing if artificial means might help. But this is a new era, and there are actually consequences for pitchers who make that choice, and thus it is very hard to plan on Lee returning and putting together an entire season as the guy he was at the start of last year. It could happen. But the odds say it won't.

3. I have no idea. And I'm not sure if the Phillies know. If the decision is truly up to Ruben Amaro Jr., then, based on my experience with human psychology, I'd say he's gone. Because I'd say that the potential of Hamels getting hurt and rendering himself untradeable is a much greater risk to Amaro's individual survival than the potential of the prospects acquired for Hamels failing to pan out two or three years from now. But I also think the Phillies are going to have to accept much less for him than they might originally have thought, because there are still two Hamels-level pitchers available on the open market, and teams would rather spend money than part with prospects. On the other hand, there are only two of those pitchers, and there are more than two teams who could use them. I've said before that I think the Phillies' best return would come from a smaller-to-middle market team that is unable (or, perhaps, unwilling) to fit Hamels salary into its budget projections, and thus would be motivated to increase the price it would pay in prospects in return for the Phillies eating enough money to turn Hamels into a, say, $14 million a year pitcher instead of a $22 million a year pitcher. The Padres could be such a team. So, too, could the Cardinals, given the relative fisal strength with which they operate and then bounty of talent they possess in their farm system.