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Phillies Notebook: Phillies' Howard still a cleanup guy?

New manager Ryne Sandberg is putting Ryan Howard “in middle of the lineup.”

Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. (Matt Slocum/AP)
Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. (Matt Slocum/AP)Read more

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - Barring a blockbuster trade in the next 2 months, the Phillies already have the eight pieces in place that will represent their regular, everyday lineup.

If all of those pieces stay on the field - and are producing - you should see a familiar name in the middle of the lineup: Ryan Howard. Although current manager Ryne Sandberg said he likes his lineup's flexibility and that he isn't set with any particular order, he continues to see Howard batting cleanup.

"I see him in the middle of the lineup," Sandberg said yesterday at baseball's winter meetings. "I don't think anything has to be set with anybody. A lot of times the hitters determine where they hit as we get along. But to have Ryan healthy and swinging the bat well and batting fourth all year with [everyone healthy], that would be ideal."

Howard hasn't been healthy for a large part of the last two seasons. But he's 5 months removed from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee.

Although neither Sandberg nor general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. have seen him lately, all reports are Howard has dropped a significant amount of weight with the opportunity to incorporate stronger cardio work into his offseason routine. After undergoing Achilles' surgery, Howard was unable to put too much strain on his legs in the last two winters.

"I'm finally back to normal," Howard told Amaro recently.

Sandberg believes a Howard with a strong and healthy pair of legs underneath him, and a trimmer frame, will translate into a player with more agility and durability and a hitter with more bat speed and power.

In the 151 games Howard has played in the last two seasons since Achilles' surgery, he's hit .244 with a .752 OPS, 25 home runs and 99 RBI in 609 plate appearances. In Howard's last full healthy season, in 2011, he hit .253 with an .835 OPS, 33 home runs and 116 RBI in 152 games.

If Howard is able to play 150 games this season, he should be productive enough to hit in the middle of the lineup. And his health, according to Amaro, is more important than any weight he may have shed in the rehabbing process.

"He's lost some weight, but he seems more fit," Amaro said. "A lot of people talk about his weight, he was pretty heavy when he hit 58 home runs. He was no small human. It's really about him being healthy, his body."

Pitchers start early

New pitching coach Bob McClure will work with several pitchers in Clearwater next month, before they're scheduled to report to camp. Cuban rookie Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez will be one of those participants in the pre-spring training workouts.

Gonzalez, 27, is the wildest of wild cards on the Phillies roster.

He obviously has talent for the team to sign him to a 3-year, $12 million contract. But Gonzalez has barely pitched in the last 2 years - he was suspended from his team in 2012 after a failed attempt to defect Cuba.

He's also had some arm soreness during that layoff, although he was reportedly 100 percent healthy when he signed with the Phillies in August.

Given the lengthy layoff, it's certainly worth wondering if Gonzalez can be plopped into the rotation for 2014, as planned, and be counted on to pitch a starter's yearly work of 30-plus starts and around 200 innings.

"Those are all things that need to be determined once we see him and get a feel for him," Sandberg said. "That will start right from the first day of spring training to see where he's at and what he's capable of doing. Will he need a little backup as we go and things progress? That's yet to be seen. We don't know."

The uncertainty surrounding Gonzalez make the Phils top priority - acquiring pitching depth - all the more important in the next 2 months.

Mayberry safe?

The Phillies tendered a contract to John Mayberry Jr. before last week's deadline. But that doesn't necessarily guarantee him a place on the Opening Day roster.

With Mayberry, Darin Ruf and Kevin Frandsen, the Phillies bench appears to be righthanded-heavy. Frandsen, who was also arbitration-eligible, signed a 1-year deal last week.

In the last 2 days, both Sandberg and Amaro said the Phillies would like to improve their centerfield depth. The Phils currently have Mayberry and converted infielder Cesar Hernandez behind starter Ben Revere.

"I still see us possibly getting in piece for the bench," Sandberg said. "A righthanded bat, [with strong] defense [to help with] depth at centerfield - it would be a plus for us . . . I wouldn't say that the bench is totally solidified right now."

Amaro said yesterday there wasn't much in that area on the free-agent market, but that he's inquired with teams about trade possibilities.