One of the questions for the Phillies is can Ryan Howard return to productivity and missing a half-season with an injury in 2012?

Kathy Willens

PHILADELPHIA - The Phillies began 2012 with a swagger.

They were the five-time defending National League East champions. The won the World Series in 2008 and were the runners-up in 2009.

But the Phillies finished 81-81 and missed the playoffs last season.

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The Phillies' swagger is gone - replaced by questions marks as they open a new season. Philadelphia plays the first of its 162 games in Atlanta against the Braves at 7:10 p.m. today.

Are the Phillies a mix of aging, injury-prone veterans and unproven newcomers? Or are they a renewed veteran group that has added some talented new players and is ready for a postseason run?

"We're laying in the weeds," outfielder Domonic Brown said. "I think we have a pretty good team. All the great guys we have in this clubhouse -- the Ryan Howards, the Chase Utleys, the Jimmy Rollins. For us not to be talked about (as a playoff team), is a big deal to us, but we're taking it as motivation."

Most baseball experts pick the Washington Nationals and the Braves to finish ahead of Philadelphia in the NL East.

"We know the Nationals are hitting on all cylinders," Phillies opening-day starting pitcher Cole Hamels said. "The Braves have always been very good. We have a lot to prove."

The Phillies seem to be optimistic about the season.

The following are questions Philadelphia faces this season. If the Phillies find the right answers, playoff baseball could be back at Citizens Bank Park in October.

Will Ryan Howard and Chase Utley stay healthy, and are the Phillies too old?

Howard, 33, played in just 71 games last season. Utley, 34, played in 83 games last season and hasn't played in more than 120 since 2009.

The Phillies never recovered from their absences last season.

"It puts guys in the right spots," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "Anytime you take (Utley and Howard) out of the lineup for an extended period of time, it puts a lot of pressure on some other guys. Some of the other guys didn't adjust to it too well. It wasn't their fault. It wasn't their role and why they were on the club."

But both players appear healthy. Utley has the extra motivation of this being the final year of his contract. Howard hit seven home runs during spring training.

Many fans wonder if Howard, Utley and shortstop Jimmy Rollins, 34, are just too old to reach the heights they did in 2007-09.

The Phillies don't think so.

"We have some core players who know how to win," manager Charlie Manuel said. "People talk about their age, but we've been through the ringer before."

Is Domonic Brown for real?

Brown began his career as one of baseball's top prospects.

But while rookies Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have become major-league stars, Brown struggled.

He batted .235 last season and played in just 56 games, spending most of the season in the minor leagues.

Brown appeared to begin fulfilling his enormous potential this spring training with seven home runs, 17 RBIs and a .356 batting average.

If the 25-year-old can produce that way during the regular season, he will energize a lineup that struggled to score last season.

"I put in a lot of work in the offseason, and I'm excited," Brown said. "It feels good to have a good spring and carry that over to the regular season. I have a lot of confidence. I'm just going out and having fun and making sure I'm prepared every day."

What's going on with Roy Halladay?

Halladay, 35, missed long stretches of last season with a shoulder injury, He finished the year 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA - the second highest of his career.

Halladay struggled this spring. The velocity on his pitches has been down. He had a 6.06 ERA in just 16� innings in spring training.

But the Phillies insist Halladay is ready to pitch. He will start Wednesday against the Braves.

"He looked sharper in his last outing," Amaro said. "I think he feels positive about his last outing. I think he's going to get stronger as he goes. He doesn't feel any discomfort. He doesn't have any pain. It's just a matter of him getting his mechanics together and being a little bit more consistent."

The Phillies remain a team built around the starting pitching of Halladay, Hamels and Cliff Lee. If Halladay pitches poorly, it could be tough for the Phillies to overcome. They couldn't do it last year.

"We have three guys who can be considered No. 1 pitchers," Amaro said. "Whether they pitch like No. 1s, we'll see."

Will the new guys make a difference?

The Phillies' opening-day roster features 15 different players from opening day 2012.

Some of the changes are in key spots.

Ben Revere starts in center field, and Michael Young at third base. Delmon Young will see substantial time in the outfield once he completes his recovery from offseason ankle surgery. John Lannan will be the No. 5 starter. The Phillies signed reliever Mike Adams to pitch the eighth inning in front of closer Jonathan Papelbon.

"I'm ready for the season to get started," Revere said. "I have butterflies in my stomach. The Philly faithful is ready to go. They're ready for the baseball season, and we are, too."

Both Manuel and Amaro said the new players have mixed in well.

"We have some young guys with some good energy," Hamels said. "When you have a guy like Michael Young come over, he's a really good presence in the clubhouse. We have some good pieces in the bullpen. It's really going to fill out our team."

Prediction: The Phillies regain some of their youth. They win 88 games - not good enough to win the division but enough to grab the second wild-card spot.

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