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Phillies counting on veteran core to lead way in '14

Club seeking rebound years from Howard, Rollins; third-base job up for grabs

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies left the Winter Meetings earlier this month proclaiming any future offseason moves would be of a more minor nature.

They have signed Marlon Byrd to play right field, re-signed Carlos Ruiz to catch, acquired right-handed reliever Brad Lincoln in a trade to help the bullpen, signed Wil Nieves to back up Ruiz, and signed right-hander Roberto Hernandez to help the rotation. Those moves have not electrified the fan base, but the club believes its high-priced core of Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Jonathan Papelbon, Byrd and Ruiz are more than capable of winning if they are healthy.

The Phils enter the new year with plenty of questions.

Here are 10 of them:

1. Can Howard be the Big Piece again?

It might be coincidence, but the Phillies were 77-63 (.550) the past two seasons when Howard started games. They were 77-107 (.418) when he did not. Howard has been a presence in the middle of the lineup, but he has missed significant time the past two seasons because of left leg injuries. He said recently those problems are behind him. But Howard must not only get healthy and stay healthy, he must improve his performance against left-handed pitching.

"Can I be a 30-100 guy?" Howard said. "Yeah, I definitely think so. I believe in my ability. I hear what people say. It's cool. You guys are all entitled to your opinions. But let's say I come back and I do what I do. Then what? If I come back and put up numbers like '07, '08, '09, then what? Are we having these conversations?

I've never been one to make excuses. I've always tried to get things done, but when you're hurt, at times you're a different player. For me, finally being able to be healthy and play ... I was trying to compensate so I didn't feel pain, but still give whatever it is that I had. I'm just going to try to come out pain free and do damage."

2. Can Rollins stay motivated and bounce back?

Rollins hit .252 with 36 doubles, two triples, six home runs, 39 RBIs, 65 runs scored, 22 stolen bases and a career-low .667 OPS last season. He ranked 12th out of 17 qualifying shortstops in OPS and 131st out of 140 qualifying players. He acknowledged the team's losing ways affected him on the field.

"I think anybody wants to play for something," Rollins said on the final day of the season. "Not that you're not playing for anything, but when it's out there and it's attainable, you play better. You lock in, you turn on and you stay on. You have times where you feel like the energy is gone, the excitement is gone. You have some games you get excited for, but when you're doing well, you get excited every day."

Rollins needs to get his mojo back, especially if manager Ryne Sandberg wants to hit him atop the lineup.

3. Who will be the everyday third baseman?

The Phillies like what they saw from rookie Cody Asche in 179 plate appearances. He hit .235 with five home runs, 22 RBIs and a .691 OPS, but that included a 1-for-18 start. They liked the potential in his bat. They liked his glove. They liked his mental makeup, which more than a few likened to Utley. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Asche could compete with top prospect Maikel Franco for the job, but Asche enters camp the favorite.

4. Who is the real Ben Revere?

Revere finished April hitting .200 with an alarmingly-low .456 OPS, but he hit .347 with a .784 OPS his next 65 games until he broke a bone in his right ankle in July. If those 65 games are an indicator of what Revere can be, Philadelphia has a spark at the top of its lineup. If he is anywhere close to what he was in April, the Phillies lose one of their few players with speed.

5. Which Byrd did the Phillies sign?

It is not often a player has the best year of his career at 35, but Byrd did just that last season with the Mets and Pirates. The concern is he couldn't find a job late in 2012 following a 50-game suspension for using PEDs. He had to resurrect his career playing winter ball in Mexico before the Mets signed him to a Minor League deal. So which Byrd are the Phillies getting? The guy that hit a combined 24 home runs with 88 RBIs and an .847 OPS last season? Or the guy who had a combined .719 OPS from 2010-12? The Phillies need him to live up to his two-year, $16 million contract.

6. Can Jonathan Papelbon succeed despite a diminishing fastball?

It is no secret the Phillies have been trying hard to trade Papelbon, but they have found no takers because of the $26 million he is owed the next two years, plus a potential $13 million more if a 2016 option automatically vests. Nobody wants to take that risk, considering Papelbon has lost nearly 3 mph on his fastball the past two seasons. The drop in velocity might explain why he averaged just 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings last season, easily the lowest mark of his career. Papelbon has expressed his displeasure with the direction of the team, but if he opens camp with the Phils, they will need him to produce.

7. Is Mike Adams going to contribute?

The Phillies signed Adams before last season to be their setup man, but he missed much of the season following right shoulder surgery. There is no guarantee he is ready by Opening Day, but they will need him to return to form to strengthen a bullpen that proved too inconsistent.

8. Following Hamels and Lee, what do the Phillies have in the rotation?

Kyle Kendrick had a 6.45 ERA in his final 14 starts last season before he stopped pitching because of a shoulder issue. If he is healthy, the Phils hope he can pitch like he pitched in 40 starts from April 29, 2012, to June, 25, 2013: 16-14 with a 3.50 ERA. Amaro has downplayed any expectations for Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, whom they signed to a three-year, $12 million deal. He has not pitched competitively in quite some time. But Phillies scouts believe he can at least be a No. 3 pitcher. And Hernandez has a combined 5.19 ERA in 67 appearances (59 starts) from 2010-12. They at least need him to eat innings.

9. Can Domonic Brown build off his breakout season?

The Phillies are starved for young productive players, and Brown filled the void last season. He hit 27 home runs with 83 RBIs and an .818 OPS, earning his first trip to the All-Star Game. Brown battled injuries late in the year, hitting one homer with a .667 OPS in his final 34 games. If Brown can put together back-to-back seasons, the club can feel a little better about the future.

10. Can the young relief pitchers finally fulfill their promise?

Ask Amaro about the bullpen and he will say he liked what he saw late in the season from Justin De Fratus, Jake Diekman and B.J. Rosenberg. The Phillies will need those or others to step up and pitch consistently, putting away the "inexperienced" label for consistent productivity.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for

Philadelphia Phillies, Mike Adams, Cody Asche, Domonic Brown, Marlon Byrd, Cole Hamels, Roberto Hernandez, Ryan Howard, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, Ben Revere, Jimmy Rollins, Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley