CLEARWATER, Fla. - Reports earlier this spring about the Phillies were dire, with the narrative of an aging team that has passed its prime and is ready for another plummeting season.
And while few are picking the Phillies to be a postseason team following a 73-89 season, two scouts who have seen them extensively this spring have a slightly more optimistic look.
Both think the Phillies can be competitive - but only if they stay healthy.
The scouts (Scout 1 and Scout 2 because they requested anonymity), both realize that a major key is Ryan Howard, who hasn't been the same after suffering a ruptured left Achilles tendon at the end of a 1-0 Game 5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 National League division series.
From 2006 to 2011, Howard had a .929 OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage). The last two injury-plagued years, in which he played 151 games, his OPS was .752.
"Howard can still do damage, and late in the spring I have seen the best bat speed I've seen from him in a while," Scout 1 said. "Whether his body will hold up is the question."
Added Scout 2: "He has to have a big year for them, and the concern is how he will do against lefthanded pitching. Howard has always been better when he goes the other way, and he has gotten away from that a little bit."
Another obvious key is 35-year-old Chase Utley, who enjoyed a strong season last year (.823 OPS) after two injury-plagued years.
"When you see Utley, he is a guy you have to pull for," Scout 1 said. "When I first saw him I didn't know how much he had left, but now it looks like he has plenty."
The scout is highly impressed by Utley's all-out hustle and attitude.
"He still runs everything out," he said. "He doesn't have much range at second base, but I think he is one of the keys to if the team does well."
Scout 2 said that 35-year-old Jimmy Rollins also has something left.
"He just has to hit more balls on the ground," he said.
Scout 2 said he was impressed with the serious manner in which the Phillies approached their work under the guidance of Ryne Sandberg, set to begin his first full season as manager.
"I like the way they go out there and do their business, and they are not laying down," Scout 2 said. "It is a focused group."
Both scouts feel that if Cole Hamels comes back by around May 1, as expected, from biceps tendinitis and a fatigued arm, that the top of the rotation, with Cliff Lee, Hamels, and A.J. Burnett, will be formidable.
"Those three, if they are pitching the way they are capable, could make the Phillies competitive," Scout 2 said.
Both scouts agree that Lee is a Cy Young candidate.
"He is commanding both sides of the plate," Scout 1 said.
A key is Burnett, who struck out 209 batters with the Pittsburgh Pirates last year, the second-highest total in his career.
"His stuff is still the same," Scout 1 said of Burnett. "He didn't seem like he had his command this spring, but his fastball and curve are there."
As for closer Jonathan Papelbon, there is some concern.
"He is not what he was, but he still has that [split-finger fastball] in his back pocket," Scout 1 said. "His velocity is not there, and he has to be more of a pitcher."
The scout said the addition of rightfielder Marlon Byrd should help.
"I was also impressed with Byrd," Scout 1 said. "He is a fastball hitter and has swung the bat well."
As do most others, Scout 1 said Washington is the team to beat in the NL East. He said that the Phillies shouldn't be dismissed as a postseason contender, but acknowledged that a lot would have to happen to end their two-year playoff drought.