CLEARWATER, Fla. - It's an interesting question, especially when you consider what happened a year ago and what is happening now in this spring training.
Which position player can the Phillies least afford to lose for a prolonged period of time?
A couple of big-league scouts responded to that inquiry Saturday before the Phillies played another Grapefruit League game without first baseman Ryan Howard and second baseman Chase Utley.
An American League scout concluded that Utley was the man because of his quiet leadership and determination.
A National League scout said he'd go with catcher Carlos Ruiz.
"I think the obvious answer is either Howard or Utley, especially given the fact that it doesn't look like either one is going to be ready for the start of the season," the N.L. scout said. "I'm going with Carlos Ruiz because I think he's the glue that keeps that pitching staff together and I don't think they have anybody to replace him if he goes down."
That's a sound argument, although the Phillies went 28-8 when Brian Schneider was behind the plate last season, including 27-3 in his first 30 starts. Still, Schneider's 35-year-old body is not built for the long haul and you'd lose a lot offensively, too.
Others might argue in favor of shortstop Jimmy Rollins because he brings the swagger more than any other player on the roster.
No one would think you were crazy if you inserted centerfielder Shane Victorino into the debate. Based on his numbers a year ago, he was the team MVP.
What's truly amazing is that all of the above and third baseman Placido Polanco dealt with significant injuries a year ago and the Phillies still managed to win a team-record and league-best 102 games.
Consider all these injuries:
Utley missed the first 46 games and the Phillies went 28-18 without him. He was not in the starting lineup 62 times and the team still managed to go 38-24 in those games.
Rollins had one stint on the disabled list with a strained groin and was not in the starting lineup for 28 games last season. The Phillies went 20-8 in those games.
Polanco, who left Saturday's game with a finger injury, had two stints on the disabled list - one with a lower back issue and another with a sports hernia - and was out of the starting lineup for 47 games. The Phillies went 27-20 in those games and still managed to score nearly five runs a game with his assorted replacements.
Victorino went to the disabled list twice - once with a strained hamstring and another time with a sprained thumb - and was not in the starting lineup 34 times. The Phillies were 19-15 in those games.
Howard dealt with a heal issue for most of August and all of September and was out of the starting lineup for 17 games. The Phillies went 8-9 without him.
Thanks to the best starting pitching in baseball, the Phillies weathered all those injury storms a year ago. You can get away with a lot offensively when you have three aces - Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels - and Vance Worley, the best rookie starting pitcher in the league.
If this debate were about the most valuable part of the team, the conversation would begin and end with the starting pitching.
But this is about the regulars and the strong suspicion here is that the Phillies are about to find out that Howard is the player they can least afford to lose.
Among the core group of Rollins, Utley, Victorino, Ruiz and Howard, the power-hitting first baseman is the only one who has never missed more than 19 games in a season. In the 17 games he did not start last season, the Phillies averaged fewer than four runs per game.
They did manage to fill the void in 2010 when Howard was out for 16 games in August with a severe ankle sprain. During that time, a combination of Ross Gload, Mike Sweeney and Greg Dobbs filled in and the Phillies went 12-4 and averaged nearly five runs per game.
The moves made by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. this offseason were executed with Howard's prolonged absence in mind. They're hoping that the trio of John Mayberry Jr., Ty Wigginton and Jim Thome can fill the vast power void for at least the first two months.
Thome has dusted off the cobwebs from his first baseman's mitt and is making every effort to get his name in the lineup as often as possible while the Phillies are without Howard. He spent Saturday testing his creaky old back in a minor-league game at the Carpenter Complex, but it may be nothing more than Manuel's wishful thinking that his protégé can find the fountain of youth at 41.
Wisdom, however, does also accompany age and Thome offered some sage advice when asked about Howard.
"He's the big guy here," Thome said. "Let's not deny the fact that he is a 45- to 50-home run guy. You don't just hand pick those guys off trees."
Inside the Phillies: Out But Not Down
The Phillies dealt with a lengthy list of injuries last season to their regulars and still set a team record with 102 wins. Here is how they fared without some of their regulars in the starting lineup:
PLAYER GMS OUT (REC.) RPG* 3 RUNS/LESS
Chase Utley 62 (38-24) 4.35 40 of 62
Carlos Ruiz 48 (31-17) 4.83 21 of 48
Placido Polanco 47 (27-20) 4.94 18 of 47
Shane Victorino 34 (19-15) 4.24 17 of 34
Jimmy Rollins 28 (20-8) 4.89 12 of 28
Ryan Howard 17 (8-9) 3.76 9 of 17
* RPG - Runs per game - Bob Brookover
Contact Bob Brookover at email@example.com or @brookob on Twitter.