LAKELAND, Fla. - There was Ryan Howard legging out a double to the wall and Jimmy Rollins stealing second base and Roy Halladay showing the velocity and late life on his fastball that was missing for much of the 2012 season. The Phillies' veterans have talked a good game for the first couple weeks of spring training, and two games into the Grapefruit League schedule their actions have followed suit.
Energy is a difficult entity to measure in objective terms, so you'll just have to trust the opinion of somebody who has been around this team for the last six spring trainings: There is a unique feeling emanating from the locker stalls where the veterans dress that was not present the last few Februaries. That energy was absent mostly because the only people who can generate it are those who truly believe they have something to prove.
There has been lots of talk about leadership in recent days, with players like Halladay, Rollins and Cole Hamels echoing the comments from closer Jonathan Papelbon that generated some headlines last week. But it has to be tough for a veteran to lead when he knows, deep down inside, that the players tasked with following him are not good enough to contend for a World Series.
A lack of leadership is not what kept the Blue Jays from the playoffs during Halladay's decade-plus in Toronto. The culprit was a lack of talent. Last season, the Phillies had a mortal flaw in the bullpen and, for half of the year, two gaping holes in the clubhouse that Howard and Chase Utley used to fill. This year, Utley has already played in more Grapefruit League games than in 2011 and '12 combined, while Howard looks nothing like the shell of a slugging first baseman who showed up to camp last spring after an offseason spent waiting for a surgically repaired Achilles' to heal.
The vibe you get from the vets would not exist if they did not feel they had the talent to contend. That vibe is one part unfinished business and one part belief that said business can be finished.
"Our veterans have been really into it, they've really been bearing down and thinking it over," manager Charlie Manuel said after Sunday's game. "Without a doubt."
Whether that vibe results in a return to the postseason depends on a slew of variables that have barely begun to reveal themselves. The early signs from one of them are exceedingly positive. Domonic Brown did not start Sunday's game, but he did get an at-bat and he made the most of it, pinch-hitting a solo home run off Tigers setup man Al Alburquerque in the eighth inning to tie the score at 5-5.
Including Friday's intrasquad scrimmage, the 25-year-old outfielder is 4-for-6 with two extra-base hits in three games. A strong start to the spring could prove crucial for Brown, who has spent much of the last 2 years in prospect purgatory, never quite getting an extended chance to prove himself on an everyday basis at the major league level. This spring, Rollins and Howard have made strong public expressions of their belief in Brown, and you don't need to read too deeply between the lines to get the sense that both players think it is time to give him that chance.
On a roster that tempts you to focus on worst-case scenarios, Brown is one of the few players who has a ceiling that, if reached, could change the entire outlook of the season. Another is Halladay, who Sunday drew raves from one of the most potent lineups in the major leagues after his two innings of work against the Detroit Tigers. Outfielder Torii Hunter noted that Halladay's fastball had its usual late movement, something that was not so usual last season. There were no red flags with regard to his velocity, which sat around 89 mph, what you would expect in the first outing of the spring. If Halladay could muster a season like his friend Chris Carpenter did at the age of 36, with 230-plus innings and Cy Young-caliber stats, it would have the same impact as a breakout year from Brown.
"I think, physically, we're a lot better off," Halladay said. "Chase is a lot better off, Ryan is moving better, Jimmy is stealing bases in the first game of spring training. It seems like health is a lot better. I think guys are in better shape and maybe feeling better than they have in the past."
With all of the potential downsides of the advanced age of the Phillies' core, it is easy to overlook the fact that experience has its advantages.