Is there any reason to be optimistic about the coming season? Is there any basis for thinking the team will be in the title hunt?
-- Steven I., Arlington, Va.
This has been a common question in my Inbox: Why should I be excited about the upcoming season? It is crazy to think, but just two years ago, the Phillies entered Spring Training following a franchise-record 102-win season. They were the team to beat in the National League. But they enter this spring following a 73-win season, and the team has countless questions and concerns.
Reasons to be optimistic are difficult to find because of injuries and recent performances. But if you're looking for a reason to be optimistic, I will mention that during the Winter Meetings, Ryne Sandberg seemed genuinely excited about his lineup. He really seems to believe if everybody is healthy, the club will score runs. If Sandberg's gut proves correct -- and the pitching holds up -- they could take a run at a postseason berth.
I know that isn't much, Steven, but much stranger things have happened in baseball. And Spring Training begins in a few weeks. Who wants to be a Debbie Downer now? Give them a month or two.
Will Jesse Biddle be given a look this spring? There seems to be a lot of uncertainties with Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and Roberto Hernandez, so it can't hurt to see how close Biddle is to being Major League ready.
-- Dan T., Mays Landing, N.J.
The Phillies enter Spring Training with Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, Kyle Kendrick and Hernandez as locks for the rotation. Ruben Amaro Jr. said Gonzalez and Jonathan Pettibone will compete for the fifth spot, with Biddle in camp as a non-roster invitee. Biddle is expected to open the season in the Minors, but a strong camp could help if there are breakdowns in the rotation. And there will be breakdowns in the rotation. There always are. The Phils used 10 starters last season, so Biddle needs to position himself for a callup.
Of the Phillies' top prospects, who will make an impact at the Major League level during the 2014 season?
-- Steve B., Carlisle, Pa.
Biddle has a chance for the reason I just mentioned -- if there is a breakdown in the rotation and he proves to the organization he deserves it. But keep an eye on Maikel Franco's spring. If Cody Asche should struggle and Franco continues to impress with his bat, Franco could get a look. Right-hander Ethan Martin and infielder Cesar Hernandez are still listed as prospects, although they played with the Phillies last season. Both could have roles on the team this season: Martin as a reliever (although the Phils said last month he will be stretched out as a starter this spring) and Hernandez as a utility player.
What can we expect from Ryan Howard in 2014?
-- Rich D., Philadelphia
Howard sounded very motivated and optimistic in a conversation in November. He said this is best he has felt in a long time. But talk is cheap and Howard is a couple seasons removed from his last productive year. If the Phillies have any chance to succeed this season, they will need a healthy and productive Howard hitting cleanup. I do think if Howard can stay healthy, he can be a 30-100 guy again, but that means he not only must stay healthy, he must improve against left-handed pitching.
I'm planning to go to Clearwater this spring for a couple games. Any suggestions?
-- Greg P., Hoboken, N.J.
If you can swing it, stay near the beach. Yes, there are plenty of cheaper hotels near the ballpark, but you are surrounded by strip malls and chain restaurants. You didn't come to Florida to be surrounded by that, did you? Plus, traffic to the beach can be brutal at times, so why not just wake up near the beach and walk there? Get a grouper sandwich at Frenchy's. Get breakfast at Lenny's. Like coach Bobby Finstock once said, "You stick to that, and everything else is cream cheese."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com.