CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Phillies' 2014 season can be summed up in one word: If.
Somebody should have tacked up a big sign with "If" on it in the clubhouse as Spring Training opened for this team at the Carpenter Complex on Thursday.
The Phils, who won five consecutive National League East titles from 2007-11 and went to the World Series twice before they tumbled in 2012, have the pieces to contend this season.
On the flip side, if the myriad of ifs don't come through, 2014 will be another disappointment.
For Ryne Sandberg, who replaced Charlie Manuel in August, the spring hasn't gotten off to a very good start.
On Wednesday, lefty Cole Hamels told assembled media he won't be ready for the start of the season because of biceps tendinitis in his left shoulder. Hamels insisted he's not concerned, but I'll guarantee you those in the Phillies' ivory tower are going to watch him closely.
Hamels expects to be back in April, but it's natural to worry a little until he's actually back on a mound. So there's the first "if." If the 30-year-old Most Valuable Player Award winner of the Phils' 2008 World Series championship remains on the shelf for long, there will be problems.
If Hamels comes back strong, along with Cliff Lee and newcomer 37-year-old A.J. Burnett, the starting staff will be of contender-caliber. Burnett, who last year helped the Pittsburgh Pirates end eons of losing seasons, agreed to a one-year contract with Philadelphia about the time Hamels was addressing the media at Clearwater's Bright House Field.
A personal thought: Given the offseason question marks surrounding the Phillies' starting staff, I wonder why general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. didn't make a strong push to sign free agent Bronson Arroyo. To me, he would have been a better fit.
Arroyo was 13-12 with the Reds in 2013, is a year younger than Burnett, who was 10-11 with a 3.30 ERA in Pittsburgh. Arroyo signed a two-year deal with Arizona.
Back to the "ifs."
If the 2014 Phillies can remain healthy -- Hamels isn't a good sign in that department -- they'll be much improved over 2013, when they won just 73 games and were outscored by 139 runs.
For this team to contend against Washington and Atlanta -- the strongest teams in the NL East -- the core of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Carlos Ruiz must not only stay off the disabled list, but must perform up to their career standards.
It was this nucleus that gave the Phils the greatest era in the franchise's history, including the 2008 World Series title, only the second in the long history of the club.
Howard, beginning the third season of his five-year, $125 million contract, is the key. The former NL MVP Award winner has missed much of the past two years because of leg injuries, and he was slow to return from the Achilles tendon he ruptured on the last play of the 2011 NL Division Series loss to St. Louis.
Howard's production has dropped tremendously the past two seasons while he battled injuries. He batted .266 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs last year.
Age of this core is the underlying factor, both in terms of production and injuries. Howard is 34. Rollins, Utley and Ruiz are 35.
Rollins remains an above-average shortstop, but his batting average fell to .252 last year. Utley hit .284 with 18 homers and 69 RBIs; Ruiz .268 with five homers and 37 RBIs.
Amaro's offseason moves were less than spectacular. The GM signed free-agent outfielder Marlon Byrd, 36, to a two-year, $16 million contract, and he is bringing back more old folks in Bobby Abreu, who'll be 40 next month. Abreu, once popular in Philadelphia before he was traded away, didn't play in 2013, and he was signed to a Minor League deal.
In reality, after the 2013 disaster, the Phillies probably should have gone the total rebuilding route. That, however, is an impossibility in Philadelphia.
The club's 257-game regular-season sellout streak at Citizens Bank Park ended on Aug. 6, 2012 -- the longest run in NL history. Attendance fell more than 500,000 to 3,012,403 in 2013, though that was still eighth best in Major League Baseball. That's from an all-time high of 3,680,718 in 2011.
Keeping the fan base intact is a priority. Tearing the Phils apart and rebuilding would be the wrong message to send to the devoted customers.
Firing Manuel, the winningest manager in Phillies history and a huge favorite in Philadelphia, rubbed most fans the wrong way. But Hall of Famer Sandberg, and his right-hand lieutenant Larry Bowa, undoubtedly will pump new energy into the clubhouse.
So, 2014 could be a major improvement in South Philadelphia.
And maybe even a return to the postseason.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less