CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee got the pleasantries out of the way quickly Tuesday at Bright House Field. He wanted to talk baseball.
Dubee is lucky. There might be more to discuss this spring than recent ones, especially on the pitching side of things. First, Dubee will be closely watching Roy Halladay, who is trying to bounce back from one of the worst seasons of his career. Second, Dubee will be trying to find the three best pitchers to fill out the rest of a potentially potent bullpen.
"I'm always excited every year," said Dubee, who will be watching pitchers and catchers work out for the first time Wednesday. "I was excited [as pitching coach in 1998] when the Marlins blew up everybody. What the hell? It's big league baseball."
Sure, but big league baseball is more fun when the team has a legitimate chance to win a World Series. Dubee said he sees potential in this pitching staff, but he is eager to have some questions answered, too.
The first question is Halladay. He has been the undisputed leader of the pitching staff since his arrival in a trade with Toronto in December 2009. But Halladay went 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA in 25 starts last season because of back and shoulder problems. It was his highest ERA since he carried a 10.64 ERA with the Blue Jays in '00.
Halladay turns 36 in May. Maybe the innings have finally caught up to him. Or maybe Halladay just needed to reinvent his offseason training program, which he did.
Dubee is one of the few people to actually see Halladay throw this offseason.
"His spikes are starting to get dirty," Dubee said. "That's all. Really, he's thrown a couple [of bullpen sessions]. ... I know he's talking better. He feels a lot stronger. It's going to take him a while to put all the pieces together in his delivery like anybody, but that's what Spring Training is for. So he's got to find that comfort zone. But as far as his arm feeling well and his strength feeling good, he's progressed nicely."
Of course, talk is cheap. Fans have heard players say how great they feel, only to see little improvement once games start. Asked why he thinks Halladay could be different, Dubee said, "We've got a pretty good rapport. I think he's understanding about being honest on where he's at and what he's feeling. I think he's going to lead us in the right direction in how he's feeling."
But nobody knows how Halladay will perform this season. There is an entire spring to be pitched before the season starts April 1.
"I don't know what he's going to be," Dubee said. "I know one thing: there's going to be an animal on the mound competing. Again, I think all the offseason stuff has put him in a much better position to be who he used to be. Whether he can come all the way back to that, that's what time will tell."
The rest of the rotation is set with Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan. The first four spots in the bullpen are also set with closer Jonathan Papelbon, setup man Mike Adams, left-hander Antonio Bastardo and right-hander Chad Durbin.
The competition for the final three bullpen jobs should be fierce.
"I think we're a deeper staff," Dubee said. "We still have some young, big arms that are going to fit in the picture somewhere."
The Phillies' bullpen had a 2.66 ERA from August 1 through the end of the regular season, which ranked third in baseball. A mix of youngsters played a significant role in that, and they likely will make up those final three spots.
Dubee mentioned Jeremy Horst, Raul Valdes, Jake Diekman and Cesar Jimenez as candidates from the left side. He mentioned Phillippe Aumont, Justin De Fratus, B.J. Rosenberg, Mike Stutes, Juan Cruz and Michael Schwimer from the right side.
"We have numbers," Dubee said. "We have a pretty nice inventory, which you need. Heck, in 2007, we used what ... 29 pitchers? I hope we never have to do that again, but there are injuries in baseball and you can get hit by a bunch of them.
"I like having the veteran guys like Durbin and Adams to try to take some of the heat off the younger arms. We had to do that in the eighth inning early last year. It wasn't very successful, but I think what you saw from the younger players late in the season is they started to get acclimated to Major League Baseball. There's an enormous gap between Double-A, Triple-A and Major League Baseball. A lot of it is getting into that comfort zone and believing you're a Major League player, and trust what is God given. I think those guys finally started to settle in and felt a lot more comfortable. It was a great audition for a lot of those guys."
But the key is Halladay. He takes pressure off everybody if he is effective and healthy.
Can Halladay bounce back? The journey to answering that question officially begins Wednesday.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.