CLEARWATER, Fla. - Ryan Howard has not spoken publicly since the end of last season, not since a recently settled monetary dispute with his family became known to the masses, or since general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. openly admitted that he told the aging slugger the rebuilding Phillies would be better off without him.
Ryne Sandberg spoke on the phone with Howard about a month ago. Howard, the Phillies' second-year manager said, "was very positive" in that conversation. Pitchers and catchers will hold their first workout Thursday in Clearwater, and when the rest of the position players join them Tuesday, the team's first baseman of the last 10 seasons will, despite everything, be its first baseman once again.
"Unless he gets unseated," Sandberg said, "he's the first baseman."
Eight of the roughly three dozen questions offered to Sandberg in his Wednesday morning news conference regarded Howard. Like the other 57 players expected in the Phillies' big-league camp, Howard will take to the practice fields at the Carpenter Complex "to prepare for the season as one of the guys," Sandberg said.
"We can get younger around Ryan Howard and have some youth and some hop around him," the manager said. "I'm anxious to see where he's at and to see if he can't be a guy that raises his game and helps us win this year."
Howard, 35, is coming off a season in which he slugged just .380. He hit 23 home runs and drove in 95 runs. Sixty of his league-worst 190 strikeouts came with runners in scoring position. The 304 games in which the former franchise cornerstone has appeared since his career-altering Achilles tendon tear have yielded a .233 batting average.
The Phillies will not release Howard, Amaro has said. But the $60 million that remains on the player's contract makes him one of baseball's most untradable players. He can block deals to all but nine handpicked American League teams, although it's not known if that would be an obstacle if the Phillies found a suitor. A full no-trade clause takes effect May 2, when Howard achieves 10 years of major-league service and at least five with the same team.
Howard kept a low profile this offseason, his last public comments coming Sept. 28 before the Phillies capped a second consecutive 73-win season with a loss to the Atlanta Braves. He appeared Feb. 5 with his wife, Krystle, in a congested Haverford bookstore to sign copies of their new children's book but eschewed interview requests.
"With Ryan getting some things off of his chest and off his back that have been bothering him, personal things, I'm anxious to see what he can do," Sandberg said.
"With the way our lineup is set up, we can use a healthy Ryan Howard that produces and is right there doing his thing. It's a part of it that would go a long way with us winning games this year, and he can be a part of that."
Righthander Chad Billingsley, the low-risk veteran the Phillies signed three weeks ago to a one-year contract, "looked very good" in a side session he threw over the weekend, Sandberg said. It is too early, however, to know whether Billingsley, coming off two seasons lost to arm injuries, will be ready to begin the regular season in the rotation. . . . Lefthander Cliff Lee remains on track to be a full participant in spring training starting Thursday. The 36-year-old former Cy Young Award winner, whose elbow injury limited him to only 13 starts last year, has "no complaints and he's pretty much where he usually is" in his normal routine, Sandberg said, save for a recent bout with an upper respiratory illness. He will address the media after Thursday's workout. . . . Sandberg said he envisioned Chase Utley, 36, getting more days off this season. Utley played in all but seven games last season, his most since 2009.