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For Phillies, three unanswered questions

The season opens next week but there are issues the team still needs to address.

Cole Hamels. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
Cole Hamels. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)Read more(David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Well, we're officially 1 week away. Next Monday, the bunting will be hung and the roster will be announced and the Phillies will open up the 2015 season with a home date against the Red Sox.

It has been a spring of plenty of story lines and little resolution, with possible exception of the play of Rule 5 draft pick Odubel Herrera, who has locked up a roster spot and could get a look in a starting role (more on that later).

Otherwise, we haven't seen much to suggest that expectations should be upgraded. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez didn't put himself back on the radar. Maikel Franco didn't give the front office any reason to contemplate keeping him in the majors. Chad Billingsley hasn't faced major league hitters. In short, the major questions surrounding this club are similar to what they were when the Phillies arrived in camp a month-and-a-half ago.

1) Will Cole Hamels be on the mound (in a Phillies uniform)?

Ryne Sandberg has named Hamels his Opening Day starter and Hamels is talking as if he expects to be sitting in the home dugout when the Phillies face the Red Sox. Still, deadlines have a way of making deals happen, and while Opening Day may not be an official deadline, it does serve as the greatest impetus that suitors for the lefty have faced since the start of spring training (and, arguably, since last August's waiver trade deadline). If a team is going to acquire Hamels before July, it makes most sense to do it this week.

It doesn't figure that a general manager's evaluation of the roster he has assembled will change greatly between now and the end of May, and by that point the Phillies will be better off playing things out until July 31 to maximize the number of potential buyers for Hamels. In other words, if a team has decided over the last month that it needs to add a pitcher like Hamels at some point this season, then it might as well add him before Opening Day, because 4 months is an awful long time to wait. Given the complexity of this kind of deal, the odds are against one happening in the next week. But they are probably stronger than you think.

2) What will the outfield rotation look like?

It is rare for a Rule 5 draft pick to break camp with a club, even rarer for that player to be a hitter, and rarer still for that hitter to be in the Opening Day lineup. Yet Odubel Herrera is looking like he could accomplish all three feats when the Phillies take the field against the Red Sox next week.

Much of that is a tribute to how well the 23-year-old lefthanded hitter has played this spring, hitting .321 with a .356 on-base percentage and six steals, all of which rank first among Phillies players with at least 40 at-bats.

But Herrera is also a beneficiary of circumstance as Sandberg attempts to cobble together an outfield with the imperfect parts at his disposal.

Dominic Brown's sore Achilles' could land him on the disabled list to start the season, a disappointing development for the player on the roster who is most in need of a fast start. The 27-year-old was projected to open the year as the regular at his natural position of rightfield after spending the last couple of seasons in left, where he was one of the least productive hitters in the majors last season, posting a .235/.285/.349 batting line with 10 home runs in 473 at- bats. Of 209 players with at least 400 plate appearances, Brown ranked 192nd with a 77 OPS+ (meaning he was about 23 percent worse than an average MLB regular). If somebody else gets off to a hot start while Brown is sidelined, it will be tough to argue that Sandberg should move him back into the lineup.

The question, of course, is who that player could be. Recently, Sandberg has been using Herrera in centerfield and Ben Revere in left. Revere, who has hit .306/.329/.358 in his first two seasons with the Phillies, is the only player in the mix with a consistent track record. Darin Ruf is a .251/.339/.466 hitter with 20 home runs in 386 career major league at-bats, but he has rarely had a chance to play on a regular basis. Whether he gets that chance at the start of this year remains to be seen. Grady Sizemore, another candidate, has just five hits, all singles, in 34 Grapefruit League at-bats.

3) Is Ryan Howard a different player than a year ago?

The first baseman certainly looks trimmer and faster this spring, and Sandberg has spoken positively about what he has seen from the veteran, but that hasn't necessarily translated into results in the admittedly limited and imperfect sample of Grapefruit League play. In fact, his numbers are near duplicates of what they were last year.

2015: 17 strikeouts, one walk, three home runs, two doubles in 58 at-bats

2014: 25 strikeouts, seven walks, three home runs, two doubles, in 66 at-bats.

The Phillies have done little to hide their desire to trade Howard, but he'll need to give a team some reason to think he can offer something more than the .223/.310/.380 line and 23 home runs he produced in 569 at-bats last season. Even a few months of the production he offered in 2013 (.266/.319/.465, 11 HRs, 286 ABs) could entice an American League team to take him on, albeit at a fraction of the $60 million still owed to him over the next 2 years.