PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies opened their 2013 schedule with one central belief. Just one season removed from a franchise-record 102-win campaign, they could bounce back simply if everybody remained healthy and performed like they had in the past.
But there were plenty of ifs.
There will be more next season as the Phillies count on those things to happen again. But another year removed from their 2011 success, it will be a little more difficult for things to come true.
The Phillies will hope Ryan Howard, Ben Revere and Mike Adams return healthy, and Antonio Bastardo can pitch successfully following a 50-game suspension for using a performance-enhancing substance. They will hope Cuban right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is a middle-of-the-rotation starter, which they need with so many questions behind Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. They will hope Jimmy Rollins can bounce back from a poor year. They will hope they can find some right-handed bats to balance a left-handed lineup. They will hope young players like Cody Asche, Darin Ruf, Justin De Fratus and Jake Diekman can carry the success they enjoyed this season into a full season next year.
There are other questions, too.
But going forward, they know Ryne Sandberg will be their manager. He replaced Charlie Manuel on Aug. 16 and had the interim tag removed from his title on Sept. 22. He has brought structure to the clubhouse.
If anything, these players will work to be their best next season.
"I like to have the players prepare to play a game," Sandberg said. "It all starts in Spring Training for me, and I think the tone is set in Spring Training, whether it's drills or defensive sessions or outfield sessions. I think the work needs to be done, and I think it needs to be quality and game speed. It's actually work and not going through the motions. I think we can work on things more."
Players bought into it, too. Why wouldn't they?
"I think it's all for the players' benefit to get better, and I think ultimately that's what you see," Sandberg said. "When wins come with that, it works hand in hand. That's what's preached, it's a team strategy and this is how we're going to do it. Like I say, you can have a nice session in 12-15 minutes and then they go stretch. It's not a big time thing. And I think, I've noticed this year, they come out and they have fun with it. I hear them talking. Whether it's with the infield, the pitchers. … I think they like it. I'm just trying to help them get better, help the team get better. I think it's hand-in-hand."
Here is a look at what the Phillies face entering a critical offseason:
Arbitration-eligible: Left-handers John Lannan and Bastardo; right-handers Kyle Kendrick and Zach Miner, infielder Kevin Frandsen and Pete Orr, outfielders Revere, John Mayberry, Casper Wells and Roger Bernadina.
Free agents: Right-hander Roy Halladay and catcher Carlos Ruiz.
Rotation: The Phillies should feel pretty good they have Hamels and Lee atop the rotation next season, but after that, it is riddled with questions. Is Gonzalez really a No. 3 starter? If so, can he stay healthy? Remember, the parties originally agreed to a $48 million contract before health questions arose. Gonzalez ultimately signed a $12 million deal. And then there's Halladay, who has battled shoulder problems the past two seasons; Kendrick, who is eligible for salary arbitration and struggled the final few months of the year as a shoulder injury popped up; and a host of youngsters like Jonathan Pettibone. It might be best for the Phillies to sign a free-agent starter to provide a little more stability going forward. They certainly need good starting pitching with an offense that struggled to score runs this season.
Bullpen: The relievers pitched well at the end of the 2012, which had the front office optimistic about the 'pen heading into this season. But the relief corps faltered badly early. So how optimistic should the Phillies be that they have seen positive signs from young relievers like De Fratus, Diekman, B.J. Rosenberg, etc.? It beats the alternative, but it would make sense for the Phillies to sign a veteran reliever or two. Of course, signing free-agent relievers has been an organizational weakness the past few years, so Philadelphia needs to do its homework and hit on a couple if it does.
Catcher: A couple months ago, it seemed unlikely the Phillies would bring back Ruiz, but he played very well the final months of the season, and when the team looks ahead, it knows Ruiz can be a productive right-handed bat in the lineup. If they don't bring him back, they will be losing arguably the best right-handed-hitting catcher on the market. So look for the Phillies and Chooch to continue their relationship.
First base: Can the Big Piece be the Big Piece again? The Phillies hope so, because they need a big bat in the middle of the lineup. Howard had left knee surgery in July and spent the rest of the season recovering. But the Phillies are counting on him to be in excellent shape and come into Spring Training 100 percent and ready to play. But even if he is healthy, they need him to pick up his game. Howard's .604 OPS against left-handers from 2011-13 ranks 246th out of 267 players in baseball. They need better.
Second base: Entering the season, many wondered if Chase Utley's career was prematurely at its end because of chronically injured knees that sapped him of his power. But Utley started the season healthy and remained healthy, other than a freak oblique injury. He produced, too. Utley signed a two-year extension during the season, which could be a five-year contract if he stays healthy. Utley is optimistic he can.
Third base: Anything can happen between now and Opening Day, but based on his play since his arrival in July, it looks like Asche will be seeing regular playing time in 2014. He has impressed the Phillies with his bat, glove and makeup in the clubhouse, and they expect him to continue to develop and become a middle-of-the-order type of player. If that happens, it would be huge. The Phillies need young players like Asche to inject life into the offense.
Shortstop: Former Phillies manager Larry Bowa said recently he thinks Rollins has a lot of baseball left in him. The Phillies pray Bowa is right, because Rollins suffered the worst offensive season of his career. Having Rollins bounce back in 2014 is critical. When he's playing well, he is a catalyst for the offense. When he is struggling, the offense sputters.
Outfield: Can Domonic Brown replicate his 2013 success? The Phillies are counting on it. Revere is expected to return from right ankle surgery and be ready by Spring Training. He was playing really well when he suffered the injury in July, and Sandberg talks about him like he will be the team's leadoff hitter going forward. Who is going to play the other corner spot? Ruf has received the bulk of the playing time in right field at the end of the season, and it is no secret the Phillies need a right-handed bat. It could be Ruf or the Phillies could go outside the organization for a more proven hitter. They entered previous seasons believing Ben Francisco, Mayberry and Delmon Young could be effective everyday players. None of them panned out. They need to hit on one next season.