CLEARWATER, Fla. -- When the Philadelphia Phillies usually arrive on Florida's Gulf Coast in early February, there is a sense that they could be a serious World Series contender.
When the 2014 Phillies arrived in Clearwater to begin workouts on Feb. 13, those expectations were not there -- even if most of the players that made up the most successful era in Phillies history are still there.
In fact, this group has been picked to finish fourth or fifth in the National League East by most national pundits after a relatively quiet winter and an 89-loss season in 2013.
It's a far cry from the five-time NL East champions, two time National League pennant winners and 2008 World Series squads. Yet, the remaining core players of this team feel they can climb the mountain one more time.
"We had to prove to each other and everyone else that we had the capability to go out and win (back then)," Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels said. "It's a good situation to be in -- to have to fight your way back to the top. It's something that we'll cherish more when we are able to do it."
The changes are few. Ryne Sandberg replaced Charlie Manuel as Phils manager in mid-August and got the job on a permanent basis in mid-September. Marlon Byrd will start the season as the new right fielder and chief right-handed power threat. A.J. Burnett was reportedly signed late in camp to fill in a hole in the third spot in the rotation.
"The expectations for spring training were to come here to prepare for a championship season, a winning season, and get their work in," Sandberg said. "We're here to win baseball games, do it as a team. That's what I'm stressing. The fact that we do fundamentals again, and again, and again, there is a reason for that. We are setting the tone for what spring training is like."
The biggest piece of the puzzle could be the return of the player they call the "Big Piece." First baseman Ryan Howard has played roughly half of the last two seasons after getting injured during the final out of the 2011 National League Division Series loss to St. Louis.
The club has pretty much put its eggs in the basket that Howard -- who is down 25 pounds and running steadily at spring training camp in Clearwater -- is good to go for a full year.
--RHP Mike Adams continues his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery that cut short his 2013 season. Adams, who signed a two-year contract with the Phillies prior to last year to be Jonathan Papelbon's set-up man, has been throwing off a mound and still believes there's a chance that he will be available for the March 31 opener at Texas.
--LHP Cole Hamels said before Phillies camp opened on Feb. 12 that a bout of tendinitis in his left bicep has delayed his throwing program. Hamels said that he doesn't think he will be available for Opening Day, but shortly thereafter.
--CF Ben Revere is being counted on to bounce back from an ankle injury that ended his season in mid-July. "It may have helped make me faster, because of my form now," Revere said. "I've been running a lot since rehab, and I'm working on getting out of the box. I think I'm getting out of the box a lot quicker."
--LHP Antonio Bastardo returned to the Phillies after serving his 50-game suspension at the end of the 2013 season for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. "I can tell you one thing. I can control what I can control. Things that happened that I can't control, I can't do anything about it. They made the decision they were suspending us. We had to take it. They said if you guys appeal, you guys are going to get 100-game suspensions. I'm not going to do anything to make me suspended for a longer time. That's what I did. Just take the 50 games."
--RHP Chad Gaudin, who was signed to a minor league contract over the winter, was released on Feb. 13 after failing the team's physical. "It hurts," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "Obviously the roles he can fill as a long guy, a guy who can sit for 10 days and not pitch and then pitch as a starter, all of those things you like to have a veteran guy to be able to do, we have to find out if that guy is in our camp."
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have a pretty good idea of what it takes and number one on that is health. And from what I saw in the offseason, guys were working out like crazy and you could see the excitement and determination that I don't know if we had in the past. You have to ask the other guys about that. But I can see the excitement again." -- LHP Cole Hamels, on what it will take for the Phillies to contend.
LHP Cliff Lee
LHP Cole Hamels
RHP A.J. Burnett
RHP Kyle Kendrick
RHP Jonathan Pettibone or RHP Miguel Gonzalez or RHP Roberto Hernandez
The Phillies staff is bolstered by two premier starters in Lee and Hamels, who announced on Feb. 12 that he was behind on his throwing program and may not be available for the start of camp.
The club reportedly signed Burnett to fill the No. 3 spot in the rotation. Kendrick was signed to a one-year deal to avoid arbitration. The fifth spot is up for grabs between Pettibone, Gonzalez and Hernandez.