The Philadelphia Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 seems further away than ever as the team begins its 2014 spring training.
The Phillies finished 81-81 in 2012 and 73-89 in 2013.
The core of the team is aging.
Ace pitcher Cole Hamels showed up at spring training in Clearwater, Fla., last week and announced a shoulder injury would prevent him from being ready for opening day. The Phillies' best offseason signing was Marlon Byrd - a 36-year-old outfielder who served a 50-game suspension in 2012 following a positive test for Tamoxifen, which can reduce side effects of steroids use and increase testosterone.
Still, every major-league team is optimistic this year. Here are five questions that confront the Phillies as the full squad reports today for spring training. If the team finds the right answers, Philadelphia could again be playing postseason baseball in October.
How good is starting pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez?
The Phillies' struggles on the mound were a big reason for their lack of success last season. The team ERA was 4.32, which ranked No. 14 in the 15-team NL.
"Numbers don't lie," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "The rotation was very, very short at the end of the year."
The Phillies signed Gonzalez, of Cuba, last summer. If the 26-year-old pitches well, it will boost the rotation.
Ideally, the Phillies see Gonzalez as a No. 3 starter. But with Hamels' shoulder troubles, Gonzalez might have to be even better than that. However, the signing of pitcher A.J. Burnett this past weekend takes some pressure off Gonzalez.
"He has the stuff (to be a No. 3 starter,)" Amaro said. "But you just don't know. He hasn't pitched in the major leagues yet. When you take risks on foreign pitchers, you just don't know. But from what our scouts saw, he has a chance to be very, very good.
"He's a quality kid and a hard worker. But how is he going to react pitching in front of 40,000 people in Philadelphia? Who knows."
Will Ryan Howard be healthy?
Howard missed most of the last two seasons with leg injuries. The Phillies are 77-63 the past two seasons with Howard in the lineup and 77-107 when he doesn't start.
No one on the Phillies - and few players in baseball - can replace Howard's power when he's out of the lineup. The Phillies need 30 home runs and 100 RBIs from Howard.
"When he's in the lineup, we win," Amaro said.
Will the bullpen be better?
Manager Ryne Sandberg says he believes it will be. Closer Jonathan Papelbon blew seven saves last season.
"We'll have a healthier Papelbon," Sandberg said. "He wasn't healthy the second half of last season, and I believe that affected him."
Sandberg said young relievers such as Jacob Diekman, Justin De Fratus and B.J. Rosenberg gained valuable experience last season.
And the return of Antonio Bastardo (from a PED suspension) and Mike Adams (from injury) should also bolster the bullpen.
"Adams is one of the better set-up men in the game," Amaro said.
What will be the impact of Sandberg and the new coaching staff?
This is Sandberg's first full season as manager. His staff includes former Phillies standout shortstop and manager Larry Bowa and pitching coach Bob McClure.
"No disrespect to Charlie (former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel), but I think a change was needed," Amaro said. "I love our staff. It's a great mix of personalities and guys who know what it takes to win."
Which Jimmy Rollins will show up this season?
The 35-year-old shortstop batted .252 with six home runs and 39 RBIs last season.
That's in contrast to 23 home runs and 68 RBIs in 2012.
Rollins already created some controversy by being one of the last position players to arrive in Clearwater, but the Phillies obviously need Rollins to perform as he did in 2012.
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