CLEARWATER, Fla. - When Ryan Howard blooped a single to center field in the final inning of another lost Phillies season late in September, the notion existed that it may have been his final at-bat with the team.
But six months later, after a winter in which the club's front office failed to find a taker for the aging slugger and a fraction of the $60 million left on his contract, Howard will find himself back at first base at Citizens Bank Park on Monday afternoon. This season, the first of the Phillies' daunting rebuild, will differ from its immediate predecessors, but not in terms of who bats cleanup.
The best-case scenario for the Phillies - and their former franchise cornerstone - is for Howard to exceed expectations to the point that an American League club is willing to strike a deal. Though Howard, 35, has slimmed down and moved better on the base paths this spring, the three-year-old questions regarding his diminished productivity will persist until he proves otherwise.
Howard is coming off his first healthy season since 2011, and one in which he slugged at an uninspiring .380 clip and struck out more than any other player in Major League Baseball. Spring statistics mean little, at most, but even with his more-fit frame, Howard's 2015 Grapefruit League numbers paralleled those from the previous spring.
"Everything's been a work in progress," Howard said before Thursday's Grapefruit League finale. "We've had a good workload. I'm happy with how my body's been able to hold up. I feel good. Just working. The whole mind-set here has been work."
Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said Howard displayed more bat speed this spring than all of last year. Howard worked with former manager Charlie Manuel, a guest instructor in spring training, while tweaking his batting stance. "Just kind of finding the happy medium," Howard said. "This is the time to do it."
Howard stood taller at the plate earlier in spring training only to settle into what Phillies coaches feel is a more athletic position. His knees are flexed, his hands a little higher. He's standing closer to the plate, Sandberg said, which the Phillies hope results in a better feel of the strike zone.
Although Howard hit 23 home runs and recorded 95 RBIs last season, the statistic that stuck out most was his strikeouts. He struck out 190 times in 648 plate appearances. He worked 67 walks.
This spring Howard struck out 22 times while walking only four times, three of which came last week in a two-game span. Howard, who estimated he reported to camp 15 to 20 pounds lighter, hit only .171 with a .559 on-base- plus-slugging percentage in Grapefruit League play. He homered three times, doubled three times, and drove in nine runs.
"The improvement that we need is the 190 strikeouts need to turn into 135 or 140 . . .," Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt said recently.
"It would be a lot more production. Talking about it is different than doing it, of course. Spring training is different than the regular season. The batting cage is different than the game. Baseball lends itself to a lot of discussion, a lot of talk. What happens in the game is what matters. And he's on the right track."
On the Friday morning Howard arrived at Bright House Field in Clearwater for team workouts, news cameras fixated on the former National League MVP's every move. His offseason was well-documented - a bitter monetary dispute with his family became public, and Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. publicly admitted the rebuilding team would be better off without its longtime first baseman.
After declining interviews for a week, Howard broke his media silence once Grapefruit League games began, but he kept the questions to baseball. "Everything that happened in the past is in the past," he said that afternoon. "That's it on that. We're all moving forward."
Howard was often seen this spring walking across the clubhouse, bat in hand, toward the indoor cages to take extra hacks. "He's put in the work," Sandberg said. "He's done everything that's asked." Schmidt, like Manuel a guest instructor throughout spring training, said he sensed an extra "little edge" in Howard.
"Well, who wouldn't? Who wouldn't see that Ryan Howard would go on the field every day in his Phillie uniform now with a sense of, 'I'll show somebody'?" Schmidt said. "I mean, is it the fans? Is it Ruben Amaro? Is it Ryne Sandberg? He really, I think, needs to regain his status as a power force, a productive hitter in the National League. I think it's something he wants to regain really bad."
Howard has hit just .233 over the 304 games in which he has appeared since his career-altering Achilles tendon tear at the end of the 2011 National League division series against St. Louis. Playing a full, healthy season without interruption as he did last year provided a building block.
"It's good because you know now that your body can make it through," said Howard, who enters the season three RBIs behind his manager's career mark of 1,061. "My leg was able to make it through an entire season, so that's a positive to where now that becomes a thought in the back of your mind where you don't even think about it anymore, really.
"Now the focus is just going out there, getting right, and getting ready for a season."
Howard has not publicly discussed the possibility of a trade or Amaro's offseason comments, for which the embattled GM later apologized. In any trade, the Phillies would have to eat a bulk of the two years at $25 million each plus a $10 million buyout remaining on Howard's contract.
Despite the decline in production since 2011, there was no competition for Howard's longtime spot at first base this spring. He was anointed the starter even before the first workout. Third-base prospect Maikel Franco played first occasionally before he was optioned to minor-league camp. Darin Ruf logged some time at first, too.
But for most of 30 Grapefruit League games, the fourth spot on Sandberg's lineup card read, "Howard 3."
"I think he's in a better place now than he was last year," bench coach Larry Bowa said. "But let's be honest, Ryan's got to hit. I don't mean .300. I'm not talking that. He's got to be a force in the middle of our lineup, and he's very capable.
"We all know he's very capable of being a force in our lineup. Last year, as bad as things were for him off the field as well as on - what, he hit 90-some RBIs with 23 home runs? We need that bat. We need it bad."
Howard's improved physical shape permitted him to take more batting practice and more ground balls this spring, Sandberg said. How it all translates to the regular season remains to be seen.
"He's been able to do a better pregame, which I believe will allow him to have a better game," Sandberg said. "I'm anxious to see what type of a start he can get off to and what kind of a season he can have."