IT SEEMS eons ago, but just two full autumns have passed since Ryan Howard crumpled to the ground on his way to the last out of what was, statistically at least, the best season of a 5-year string of division titles.

So much has changed since that 102-win season. So many have gone. And one player, the one who sat so dejectedly at his locker that night, has, for much of the time since, disappeared. The Phillies started 45-year-old Jamie Moyer in the World Series they won, and couldn't get past the first round despite the healthy arms of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt in 2011. No collection of statistics will ever explain that fully, but if you're doing forensics on the last two seasons, then the disappearance of the player his former manager dubbed "The Big Piece" would seem to be the obvious starting point.

Clearly, it is for the new manager and the general manager who oversaw the last three of those division titles. To both, Howard is now "The Big If" on a team full of them, his health more paramount to their high hopes than the health of any of the others.

"I'm optimistic about him,'' Ryne Sandberg said before the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association dinner last night. "Ryan Howard joined us in the last three games of the season and he looked good. Now he's had 4 months of training and working out in Clearwater. I know he's dropped some weight and doing some baseball activities."

"I think he's going to be on the field and healthy and he's going to provide solid offense for us," said Ruben Amaro Jr., the general manager whose popularity has waned along with his slugger's health. "And I know if he's on the field, that's what he's doing, and we'll win games because he is on the field.

"He's 100 percent. There's nothing medically wrong with him. His knee's fine. His calf's fine. It's time for him to play and produce."

We have heard this all before, of course. The 2012 season was Howard's mulligan year, his balky left Achilles' taking its own sweet time to heal completely, his output muted as a result. But last winter at this time the same bluebird of happiness songs were being sung, slightly more boastfully, in fact, as the Phillies banked on a rebound season from Howard (and from Chase Utley and Roy Halladay) to return to the postseason.

Utley hit .284 over 131 games. Halladay had shoulder surgery in May and was shut down until the final, meaningless days of the season. Howard was diagnosed with a torn left meniscus in early July. His mediocre season to that point is now traced to that injury by Amaro, who expects a renaissance despite an Opening Day age of 34.

"That's ancient, I guess, huh?" Amaro scoffed last night. "I think people make a little too much of that. It is what it is. If people don't perform, it will be because of age, I guess. But I don't necessarily believe that. Was Boston a fairly old team last year? They did fairly well. They weren't a young team. They had older guys. They had experienced guys. But they had to perform. And they had to stay healthy. But I feel pretty bullish about the guys we have being ready to play."

Eight of the Red Sox players involved in 110 games or more last season were at least 30. Three were 32 or older, including 37-year-old designated hitter David Ortiz, who rebounded from an injury-hampered 2012 season to hit 30 home runs and knock in 103 runs and anchor a lineup that produced 853 runs.

Howard is not Ortiz. He strikes out more and walks less than half as much and his struggles against lefthanded pitching are more, um, epic. In fact, those used to be the primary topics for discussion as spring training approached: How to get Howard to hit lefties better, how to get him to be more disciplined at the plate.

Now it's just about getting him to the plate. Everyday, if the lefty conundrum can be solved. "He's going to get the opportunity to hit against lefties," Sandberg said. "That's in spring training . . . to get better at that. That's the first thing that takes place."

And if not? Well, Sandberg spoke several times about being a manager who utilizes his entire roster, which is not exactly how the previous guy did it. Howard played in all but a handful of his team's games from 2006 to 2011, despite his numbers against lefties. That's not likely to continue, the new manager said.

"Not if we have a righthanded hitter that can go over there and hit. That's not a concern. 'Cause I can maybe do something about it," Sandberg said.

"Would you consider a platoon?" someone asked.

"I already answered it," the new manager said.

A $25 million platoon player. Imagine such a thought on that fateful 2011 fall day, when the Big Piece hit the ground and all the dominoes started to fall behind him. As has been chronicled over and over, there are a whole lot more ifs than just Howard entering this spring.

But he remains the biggest.

On Twitter: @samdonnellon