Pitchers, catchers, and a bunch of guys the Phillies spent the offseason trying to trade will report to spring training Thursday. Contrary to popular belief, this team is going to be a contender.

No, they are not going to be in the National League East race or even fighting for one of the league's two wild-card spots. They will, however, compete for the title of the Most Awkward Spring Training in franchise history. If you think that's an easy pursuit, you must have forgotten some of the absurd things that have happened in the past under the palm trees in Clearwater, Fla.

Sure, that first Ryan Howard news conference of the spring is going to be uncomfortable for both him and the media. The greatest first baseman in franchise history has had plenty of time to formulate an answer to this comment and question: "Ryan, your general manager said he told you the Phillies would be better off without you. How'd that make you feel, big guy?"

It will be even more awkward when Howard is asked about his family's financial feud. These types of things usually remain private, and this one did, too, until U.S. District Court records from Howard's home state of Missouri revealed the battle he has inexplicably had to fight with his father, Ron; mother, Cheryl; and twin brother, Corey. It's fair to ask about it in terms of how much it affected his ability to play a game that extracts as much of a mental toll as a physical one.

This, however, is not the first time a Phillies team projected to be among the worst in baseball has arrived in spring training with a faded superstar still owed a lot of

money on the roster. Remember 1998? Remember Lenny Dykstra? The Dude had run out of "good vitamins" and did not have a remedy for a bad back, but he showed up for spring training anyway in the hope of extracting $5.5 million from the Phillies in 1999 by triggering a contract option. It was all a sham, and by the end of spring training Dykstra was gone from the Phillies' clubhouse forever.

We should hear early from Cole Hamels, the ace who remains in place only because no other team has been willing to meet the Phillies' terms for trading him. The price is exorbitant, and it should be, but it's still going to be fascinating to listen to Hamels' take on his precarious situation.

As unsettled top-of-the-rotation stories go, however, this one has little chance of becoming as absurd as the one we witnessed in 1997, when Curt Schilling spent six weeks in Clearwater campaigning for a contract extension. That's the year team president Bill Giles informed a couple of reporters that they should ask Schilling about the tack holding the pitcher's shoulder together. It was the spring training that then-executive vice president David Montgomery stood in the back of a news conference and reminded reporters that Schilling could have a bad season in 1997, which would reduce his bargaining power. While true, it wasn't the kind of thing you'd expect to hear from the front office.

The ridiculous soap opera ended with Schilling's signing a three-year extension worth $15.45 million, which is only four years and $142.55 million less than Hamels received in his much more friendly negotiation with the Phillies a couple of seasons ago. The Schilling saga continued into the season, with the pitcher asking to be traded before the extension he had to have even kicked in.

It should also be interesting to hear from closer Jonathan Papelbon again this week. This is what he said last year at the trade deadline after general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. did nothing: "I had a really great talk with Ruben about three or four days ago, and Ruben promised me that going forward we were still going to compete. No matter what it took to put a winning product on the field, he was going to do it. . . . He promised me that we were going to compete year after year, and there's no rebuilding here with the Phillies."

By mid-September he was grabbing his crotch as he left the mound after a rare abominable performance at Citizens Bank Park. The Phillies, of course, are not even pretending to contend this season, and that should make Papelbon a joy to be around if he is not traded before the team arrives in Clearwater.

The thought of Pap's presence in the home clubhouse at Bright House Field is ridiculous, but greater crotch-grabbing incidents than his have occurred before in spring training. This, in fact, is the 20th anniversary of the most memorable crotch-grabbing act directed at the fans in baseball history. In 1995, baseball's owners signed up a bunch of impostors and conducted a faux spring training while the real players continued a strike that had forced the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

It was awkward and awful, and it continues to hold the title of worst spring training ever. Even these Phillies will have a difficult time staging something worse than that, but things are dreadful enough that they can at least be considered a contender.