NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The Phillies played the first 76 games of the 2012 season without Ryan Howard or Chase Utley. Nearly half a season.

When Utley suited up for the first time on June 27, the Phillies were 36-40, in fourth place and eight games behind the Washington Nationals in the East.

So while the Phillies pursue a centerfielder and a setup reliever, while also looking at corner outfielders and third basemen who might be available this winter, it's fair to wonder if it's a necessity for them to find a middle-of-the-order bat in that search.

In addition to battling injuries, Utley and Howard are getting older and aren't nearly as productive as they were 3 or 4 years ago.

"I think we can definitely use some righthanded hitters," Manuel said. "Since we lost Pat Burrell and [Jayson] Werth . . . They would sit fifth and sixth in our lineup. They had .400 on-base percentages. Those were the guys that were always on base and allowed a seventh-hole hitter like [Pedro] Feliz to knock in 85 runs. If we have regular players that play on the corners in our outfield, we have to get more than 40 or 45 RBI out of them."

Since one of the projected outfield spots is likely to be filled with Darin Ruf and/or Domonic Brown, it's probably Manuel's preference for the Phils to find a power-prone, productive bat for the other corner outfield spot. But the manager also came to the defense of Utley and Howard, believing they can return to being reliable cogs in the middle of his order.

"From what I saw of Utley last year, he played in [80 of 83 games]," Manuel said, referring to Utley's availability after missing the first 3 months with chronic knee pain. "And I looked at that, and I was very pleased with that, really. I thought we were going to have to rest him more than that . . . I don't think he's going to play 162 games, but if he plays somewhere, I don't know - I can't put a thing on it, but if he gets 500 or more at-bats, I think you're going to see a very productive year out of him."

And as for Howard, who is 14 months removed from a left Achilles' surgery that cost him the first 84 games of 2012?

"I think the power's still there," Manuel said of Howard, who hit 14 home runs and had a .423 slugging percentage in 71 games. "I think it's just a matter of him getting some at bats and playing. Ryan can definitely improve on his strikeouts. I look for him to have a big year . . . I think when he comes into spring training next year, he will be stronger in his leg, and he'll be fine.''

Centering on Bourjos

One of the names the Phillies have been linked to in trade rumors this winter is Peter Bourjos, an outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels.

The 25-year-old Bourjos was limited to part-time duty in a crowded Angels outfield last summer, but hit .271 with a .327 on-base percentage and 22 stolen bases in his first full season in 2011. But his most impressive tool is probably his defense.

Although rookie Mike Trout was a Gold Glove finalist and was considered by many defensive metrics to be the top centerfielder in baseball in 2012, Angels manager Mike Scioscia plans to shift Trout to left in order to put Bourjos back in center.

"Peter had a little more time to play in the minor leagues and work on some things and is probably a little more polished in centerfield right now than Mike," Scioscia said Wednesday. "And I think that says more about Peter's ability than it does to say any deficiency that Mike has, because Mike Trout is a Gold Glove-caliber centerfielder. But Peter plays at a special level."

Interesting.

On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21