Ryan Howard said he might not be 100 percent at any point this season.

He promised, however, to give 100 percent of 85 percent at all times when he returns to the Phillies lineup.

That math is simple enough: Eighty-five percent of Howard's giving 100 percent is greater than any other player that manager Charlie Manuel has inserted at first base so far this season.

Manuel, for the record, has tried five guys at a position where he had become happily accustomed to writing in Howard's name since the middle of the 2005 season.

What we don't know and won't know for a while is exactly what 100 percent of 85 percent will look like for Howard.

A first glimpse will be provided Thursday at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, N.J., where Howard will pull on a BlueClaws uniform and begin his minor-league rehabilitation as a designated hitter in manager Mickey Morandini's single-A lineup.

Howard, after nearly two months in Clearwater, Fla., strengthening his surgically repaired left Achilles tendon and the muscles that were rendered inactive around it, cleared the final medical hurdle to begin his minor-league rehab assignment Wednesday.

Awkward was a word assistant general manager Scott Proefrock used to describe what you might see from Howard as he leaves the batter's box.

"I'm not a trainer or a doctor or anything, but from talking to Scott, it's something he has to sort of relearn," Proefrock said, referring to head trainer Scott Sheridan. "It may look awkward initially, but it's something he has to get comfortable with. It's not something that is an issue with the Achilles or anything. It's something because of the inactivity; he has to get comfortable with the explosiveness part of it."

The word awkward and Howard's own acknowledgement that he might not be 100 percent in 2012 may sound some sirens, but the first baseman said his swing and power should be fully intact by the time he completes his minor-league rehab. In fact, he indicated that they already are at 100 percent.

"Yeah, my swing has been normal," he said. "I haven't toned anything back or tried to hold anything back from my swing. I've been able to get my legs in my swing. During the simulated games and whatever games I was playing in Clearwater, I was able to focus on finding my swing again and just getting my approach back and all of that stuff. There was no trying to hold anything back."

Running and other moves in the field have been a greater challenge, and they will be the focus of Howard's minor-league rehab assignment.

"Initially, the first couple of steps were always an issue," he told reporters. "As of late, it's gotten a lot better. It's not going to be Olympic time-trial speed, and I know you guys are going to be real disappointed with that. But whatever I've got, I'm going to give. For all the fantasy people, I'm not going to be stealing bases this year. It saddens me, but hitting-wise, I'm fine."

Howard's comments were his first since he headed to Clearwater in late April. At that point, he looked overweight after an offseason of inactivity, but he appeared to be considerably more fit and close to his playing weight Wednesday.

"Being down in Florida, it's kind of hot, so every day we're at the complex doing ground balls or hitting; it's all conditioning in itself," Howard said. "Then I was going over to the place where I normally train . . . in the mornings . . . and getting my lifting in there, and I would go do my other stuff at the complex. I was doing kind of two-a-days, so I mean I feel like I'm in good shape."

Howard's return from Florida on Wednesday coincided with his longtime teammate Chase Utley's season debut at Citizens Bank Park. The first baseman watched Utley and catcher Carlos Ruiz blast back-to-back home runs off Pittsburgh starter James McDonald in the first inning, a feat Utley and Howard have performed three times and hope to repeat in the near future.

"I think when we get them [both] back, we'll be better," Manuel said. "I think we know that. Who they are and their presence helps, but at the same time how they play makes us better as a team. Basically, they're really good, and it helps us to be a better team."

Time will tell whether that's enough to overcome what right now is a really bad bullpen.