PHILADELPHIA — Ryan Howard and his teammates have heard critics say the window has closed for the Philadelphia Phillies.
They just don't believe it.
After a dominant run that included five straight NL East titles, two pennants and the 2008 World Series championship, the Phillies have missed the postseason two consecutive years. They have an aging core of players who've been declining.
Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz are the remaining regulars from the group that led Philadelphia to its best era of baseball from 2007-11 under former manager Charlie Manuel.
They're determined to make another run.
"We've had a bad couple years and had injuries and all that stuff, but I don't think it's over," Howard said. "People are entitled to their opinions and that's fine, but it's up to us to go out there and show them otherwise and go out and play our game and do what we do."
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. refused to start the rebuilding process after the Phillies' first losing season since 2002. Instead, he re-signed Utley and Ruiz and added veteran outfielder Marlon Byrd and right-hander A.J. Burnett in free agency.
If the older players live up to their hefty contracts and younger guys like 2013 All-Star Domonic Brown, Cody Asche and Ben Revere continue to develop, the Phillies should be in contention.
"I think we're positive. We're expecting to win and plan on doing everything we can to ensure that," ace lefty Cliff Lee said.
Here are five things to know about the Phillies going into the season:
STRONG ROTATION: It was only three years ago when the Phillies' starting rotation featured four aces. Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt headlined a staff that helped the Phillies win a franchise record 102 games only to lose in the NL division series. Halladay and Oswalt have retired, but Lee and Hamels are joined by Burnett to form a formidable top three. Hamels had a shoulder problem in spring training, but expects to return in May. Newcomer Roberto Hernandez, formerly known as Fausto Carmona, and Kyle Kendrick add depth at the back end. If Hamels is fine, starting pitching will be the team's strength.
POWER STRUGGLE: Howard averaged 44 homers between 2006-11, but has a total of 25 in only 151 games over the past two seasons. He hasn't hit more than 33 since 2009. It's hard to believe in hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park the Phillies only had one player hit more than 20 homers last year. Brown led the club with 27. Rollins, who once hit 30 as a leadoff hitter and averaged 19 over the previous seven seasons, had a career-low 6 homers. In 2009, the Phillies had four guys hit 30. If two guys do it this season, it'll be a major boost.
POSITIVE PAPELBON: Closer Jonathan Papelbon is coming off a tough season in which he blew seven of 36 save chances. The velocity on his fastball was down and he rarely dominated hitters the way he used to in Boston. Papelbon also was critical of teammates, management and didn't endear himself to fans. He's taking a different approach in 2014. "This year, I'm definitely trying to be a lot more of a positive influence and be more upbeat," he said.
STRESSING FUNDAMENTALS: Manager Ryne Sandberg, who replaced Manuel last August, has stressed fundamentals since the first day of spring training. The Phillies were sorely lacking in that department the past few seasons. From running the bases properly to hitting cutoff men on relay throws, Sandberg emphasized doing the little things. "I know the importance of fundamentals," Sandberg said. "We're going to stress them and we're going to do them daily. We're going to repeat them. That's going to be a routine set in spring training. We will do them throughout the season. It's really creating a routine so the players will adapt to it and get used to it."
J-ROLL VS. RYNO: Rollins, the 2006 NL MVP, was benched for three days in spring training by Sandberg, the Hall of Fame second baseman who wants everyone to play hard and be a positive influence. Rollins often drew the ire of fans and Manuel for failing to run hard on routine outs. He has a no-trade clause and has repeatedly said he won't accept a trade before he breaks Mike Schmidt's team record for hits. He needs 60 more. If Rollins' production continues declining, Sandberg may give Freddy Galvis more playing time at shortstop.