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Inbox: Who will follow Lee, Hamels in rotation?

Beat reporter Todd Zolecki answers questions from Phillies fans

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Inbox: Who will follow Lee, Hamels in rotation? play video for Inbox: Who will follow Lee, Hamels in rotation?

Seriously, can the Phillies win without a true No. 3 starter?
-- Joe P., Springfield, Pa.

A.J. Burnett remains a free agent, and the Phillies have been talking with his agent. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said last week he expected to open camp with no significant additions to the roster, but the longer Burnett is available, the more one wonders if the Phils could still sign him. Something has to be holding up these negotiations, right?

Failing that, Cuban right-hander Miguel Gonzalez is the biggest name to watch in camp. Remember, the Phillies originally agreed to sign him to a $48 million contract last summer, but following his physical, he signed for only $12 million. The Phils say Gonzalez is healthy, and if that is the case, they certainly hope he pitches like a $48 million man.

If Gonzalez is the real deal, he could be the No. 3 starter. But if Burnett signs elsewhere and Gonzalez is not ready for prime time, the rotation could be a problem. Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee might be one of the best 1-2 punches in baseball, but Kyle Kendrick had a nightmarish second half last year and Roberto Hernandez has a 5.19 ERA the past three seasons and a 5.03 ERA the past six. Those are the team's No. 3 and 4 starters at the moment.

Why not platoon Darin Ruf and Ryan Howard at first base? It would keep Howard fresh, keep Ruf at his normal position and get the best out of both. Thoughts?
-- Ric F., Plano, Texas

I get questions regarding Howard's struggles against lefties every week, which is a legitimate question. But here is the thing: they are paying him $125 million, so he is going to get every chance to succeed before they consider a platoon.

Howard has missed much of the past two seasons because of leg injuries. The Phillies believe if he is healthy, his performance will improve. But if not, manager Ryne Sandberg said he has the personnel to play against lefties. But do not expect this to happen immediately or quickly. Howard is the team's only legitimate power threat. The Phils need him to be successful if they are going to return to the playoffs. So if he starts slow, save the questions about putting him on the bench, etc. The club is going to try every way imaginable to get Howard on track.

Is Adam Morgan out for the season? A passing reference to him in an article indicated he would not pitch in 2014.
-- Chet A., Wilmington, Del.

I wrote Jan. 10 that Morgan had left shoulder surgery. Phillies assistant general manager Benny Looper said he might not be back until August at the earliest.

What do you expect from the core of the Phils: Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Howard?
-- Ben S., Danville, Pa.

Is it too much to call this a make-or-break year for this trio? Probably not. The Phillies and Howard have been saying for months he hasn't produced the past couple of seasons because he hasn't been healthy. But there have been nothing but glowing reports about him from Clearwater, Fla., where he has been working out. If Howard is finally healthy and doesn't produce this year, it will be a big blow to the organization.

Rollins is trying to rebound from the worst offensive season of his career. He needs to bounce back or the Phils might have to start thinking about their next shortstop earlier than anticipated. Utley had a nice season last year, but can he get better? And can his knees stay healthy a second consecutive year? In terms of what I expect, it's not a stretch at all to see Howard and Rollins rebound a bit, but everybody needs to stay healthy and get on the field first.

How is the catching depth at Triple-A if injuries occur? Are the prospects now healthy?
-- Tim S., Granville, Ohio

One suspects Wil Nieves will be Carlos Ruiz's backup to open the season, but the Phillies have Cameron Rupp and Tommy Joseph waiting in the wings. Rupp impressed Sandberg and others late last year. Joseph is finally healthy after dealing with concussion issues last year.

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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