SPRING TRAINING is a difficult time to judge the overall strength of a baseball team. But here are five burning questions the Phillies face as they hold their first official workout of the spring on Sunday.
1. How healthy are they?
The big question mark is the Big Piece. For the first time since Ryan Howard ruptured his Achilles' tendon while making the final out of the 2011 season, we will get a chance to see the star slugger's rehabilitation in action. Last we heard, general manger Ruben Amaro Jr. was saying that he would be happy if Howard returned sometime in May. The reality is, nobody knows when his body will allow him to endure the rigors of regular-season baseball. Some athletes have returned from Achilles' injuries in just over 6 months. Other recoveries have taken closer to a year. Rehabilitation is a day-by-day process, one that requires careful progression, and careful monitoring of the results of that progression. The last thing the Phillies want is to rush their $25-million-a-year first baseman back onto the field before the injury is fully healed. Truth is, we might leave Clearwater in 6 weeks without a clear idea of when to expect Howard back.
Howard isn't the only question mark. Last year at this time, none of us knew just how bad Chase Utley's knee was hurting him. The Phillies gave no indication this offseason that they were concerned about the condition of the knee, which required rigorous treatment throughout the season to combat tendinitis. But Utley's health certainly bears watching. The same is true of righthander Joe Blanton, who missed most of last season with elbow soreness that at one point prompted a trip to renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews. And reliever Jose Contreras is still working his way back from elbow surgery.
2. How will Domonic Brown rebound from his first big test?
It is easy to forget that Brown entered last season as one of the top prospects in baseball, or that he at least held his own in 210 major league plate appearances, hitting .245 with a .333 on-base percentage, .391 slugging percentage and five homers. But by the end of the year, he was mired in the first extended slump since he burst onto the radar, the trade for Hunter Pence having left him with a stinging demotion to Triple-A and the sudden need to learn a new position. Make no mistake: Brown is still highly regarded around the league, and he will enter this spring with far less external pressure than he did a year ago, when he was in the mix for an Opening Day roster spot before breaking a bone in his hand. Don't be surprised if, 6 weeks from now, we are once again talking about whether he deserves a spot in the majors.
3. Can Jim Thome play first base?
The odds would seem to be against the 41-year-old veteran contributing much in the field. But Thome has said he will try his hardest to get his body into shape to do so. The future Hall of Famer hasn't played at all in the field since 2007, and has done so only four times at first base since his first stint with the Phillies ended in 2005. At this point, Ty Wigginton, John Mayberry Jr. and even Laynce Nix seem like better shots to fill in for Howard. But Thome's progress will be interesting to watch this spring.
4. How much better is the rest of the division?
The Phillies do not play the Marlins or the Nationals down here. And even if they did, those games would provide a poor barometer for the upcoming season. That being said, it will be fascinating to monitor the buzz surrounding both teams as national baseball writers from various outlets make their spring training rounds. How healthy is Marlins ace Josh Johnson, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury? What about Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg, who returned from Tommy John surgery with a strong performance late last season? Both teams made significant splashes in the offseason. After seeing their new-look rosters on the field together, will any brave souls predict a power shift in the NL East?
5. Are any of the young relievers ready?
Last year, Michael Stutes played his way into an early-season call-up with a strong spring. Could a well-regarded righty like Justin De Fratus do the same? What about lefty Joe Savery, who re-invented himself as a reliever last season after first moving from the rotation to the field? There are other intriguing names in camp, including Arizona Fall League all-star game participant Jake Diekman.