CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies manager Charlie Manuel spoke at length during his daily media briefing Sunday about the increased competition in the National League East, which he expects to be the Majors' most competitive division this season.

Manuel pointed to the blockbuster offseason moves by the Nationals and Marlins, as well as the Braves' young, talented pitching. He admitted the Mets could "have a tough time," but expects them to be a challenge nonetheless.

Manuel said he wasn't surprised by any of the Marlins' or Nationals' big acquisitions, and he thought Washington might be even more aggressive in pursuing players like Yu Darvish and Ryan Madson.

"I think we've got the best division, definitely, as far as competition," Manuel said. "I think the National League East is probably the best-balanced league in baseball. I know the Yankees and Boston and [Rays] might argue with that, but I think every team in our league is capable of beating you."

But Manuel doesn't look at the tougher division as being an entirely negative thing for his club.

"I think it can help us play better," Manuel said. "We've got to outplay them to win the division."

Phils trainer expounds on Howard's recovery

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Phillies head athletic trainer Scott Sheridan clarified Ryan Howard's condition on Sunday, further explaining the first baseman's seroma and upcoming checkup with foot and ankle specialist Mark Myerson.

On Saturday, manager Charlie Manuel categorized Howard's situation as a "setback," a description that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. disagreed with. Sheridan said Howard is suffering from a delayed reaction to his sutures, but his appointment with Myerson, who performed Howard's surgery, was previously scheduled. Now, Myerson will also examine the seroma before progressing any further.

"He's got an open wound that isn't healing the way we want it to," Sheridan said. "So, with that said, you have to get it evaluated. ... This is kind of a scheduled appointment. It just happens to have a nice little adjunct to it that he's going to have something else to look at. We think it's important that Mark kind of helps us make those decisions."

Howard had been on track in his recovery, doing some work on the field and taking care of himself the best he could in terms of staying in shape, Sheridan said. But Howard's toughest test will come when he begins making quick movements -- running out of the box, starting, stopping and moving side to side.

While Sheridan said Howard's condition is common when rehabbing an Achilles tendon injury, he did not know how it will affect Howard's workout schedule going forward.

"It's just something that happens and part of the rehab process," Sheridan said. "The Achilles tendon is notorious for not healing well, the skin over the top of it. Sometimes these things happen, and that's why when you look at setting timeframes, you never say somebody's ahead of or behind schedule until he's on the field."

Lee shows no signs of abdominal strain

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- After skipping his previous scheduled bullpen session due to abdominal soreness, Phillies left-hander Cliff Lee is back on schedule.

Lee threw about 40 pitches in a side session early Sunday morning, showing no signs of the mild ab strain that led him to scratch his previous bullpen session, and even joking with reporters as he left the bullpen mound. Lee will pitch again Tuesday during batting practice.

"Cliff looked fine," pitching coach Rich Dubee said.

Lee repeatedly referred to the soreness as a "minor deal" on Friday, saying that he did more ab workouts this offseason than ever before. More than anything, Lee said, he was just playing it safe by skipping his last side session.

Extra bases

• Sunday was the first day pitchers threw live batting practice to hitters. Asked whose pitches had the most action, pitching coach Rich Dubee pointed to Jake Diekman, Phillippe Aumont and Kyle Kendrick. "Overall," Dubee said, "it was fine."

• Right-hander Jose Contreras is still on track in his recovery from elbow surgery and is scheduled to throw in the bullpen Monday. He has already thrown two side sessions this spring.