ATLANTA -- Ryan Howard can say he never reads the newspapers, checks the Internet, listens to the radio or watches television, but he still hears the criticism.
He hears his best days are in the past, and the remaining three years and $85 million on his five-year, $125 million contract extension contract will weigh heavily on the Phillies' fortunes in the future.
"I think it drives people," Howard said Thursday afternoon at Turner Field. "I think a lot of guys say they don't listen to it -- and you try not to -- but, you know, it trickles in. You become motivated, a little fired up as far as that is concerned. But the main focus is for me to be fired up for myself, wanting to prove it to my teammates more than someone else."
So, yes, Howard is out to prove something next season.
"That I'm healthy, No. 1," he said. "And that I'm capable of doing the things I can do."
Howard joined the team for the final four games of the season after spending the past several weeks in Clearwater, Fla., recovering from left knee surgery, playing in simulated games and facing live pitching. He said he wanted to be here to support his teammates as they finish their first losing season since 2002.
The past two seasons have been a disappointment for the Phillies and Howard. The Phils will miss the postseason for the second consecutive year. Howard, meanwhile, missed much of 2012 recovering from left Achilles surgery before he had left knee surgery this July.
Howard has played just 151 games since he ruptured his Achilles in Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series, hitting .244 with 25 home runs, 99 RBIs and a .752 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 609 plate appearances.
"It's not what you sign up for," he said. "It's the unfortunate side of the game where sometimes injuries happen, freak things happen. You try to continue to play through it until I just got to the point where I couldn't play through it anymore. For me, it's just about getting 100 percent healthy, getting back to where I know I can be, how I know I can play and come out and put all my focus on that this offseason and come out ready for 2014."
The Phillies have said several times in the past few weeks that Howard has dropped weight and is in much better shape than he has been in the past. Howard said he weighs about 248 pounds after being about 260 pounds earlier in the season.
But he also has toned up.
"It's more that I got leaner," the slugger said. "Muscle weighs more than fat."
Asked if he was out of shape because of his leg issues, Howard said, "I think it all plays a factor. Obviously, when you can't use your legs, it's tough to do cardio -- unless I'm running on my hands, or something like that. The goal is to have my legs this offseason and do the cardio and everything that I need to do -- work on speed and agility. My goal is to come back and be as efficient as I can be for 2014, in all aspects."
There is plenty work to do. Even before Howard ruptured his Achillies, his production had started to slip. He had a .931 OPS in 2009, but it dropped to .859 in '10, .835 in '11 and .718 in '12, before bumping up to .784 in limited action this season. Howard's .604 OPS against left-handers from 2011-13 ranks 247th out of 267 qualifying hitters in baseball.
"I was hitting left-handers in Spring Training," Howard said. "I think it is one of those things that comes back to the knee and being comfortable in the situation. I don't think it's something that could've been that far off if I was doing what I was doing in Spring Training. I think if I come back and I'm healthy, I'll hit lefties."
Manager Ryne Sandberg has preached plenty about pregame preparation since he replaced Charlie Manuel on Aug. 16. He said the other day he would like to see Howard implement more video work before games. It is something Howard hasn't done much in the past.
"There are some times when I go in and look at video," he said. "I understand it, and I think it's something I will try more to incorporate next year. Before it was one of those things where if I felt good, I didn't feel like I needed to look at video. But I think it is something I'll incorporate more next year."
But most important is Howard's health. The Phillies want Howard to enter camp in February healthy and ready to play. They want him in baseball shape.
"I'm looking forward to it," Howard said. "I've kept my ear to the ground and really have just tried to stay focused so I can come out and get this team and this organization back to where we belong, and that's on top."
Sandberg weighs in on Braves-Brewers brawl
ATLANTA -- Brewers outfielder Carlos Gomez caused quite a stir Wednesday at Turner Field, when he admired a long home run, then jawed with Braves fielders on his way around the bases.
Atlanta catcher Brian McCann blocked his path to home plate, inciting both benches to clear.
Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg was one of the more mild-mannered players in the game when he played with the Cubs. He was jokingly asked if he ever admired a home run and got a teammate drilled as a result.
"Did I? No. I never did," Sandberg said. "No, because I always thought I was going to be the one to get beaned, not a teammate. That's how it used to be. Back in the day, you could pitch inside, you could hit guys. There wasn't any rule that you couldn't hit a guy."
So Sandberg never flipped a bat and admired a home run?
"No, that wasn't my style," he said. "Because I always knew there was another at-bat coming, whether it was that game or it was two weeks from now or next year. I always had that in the back of my mind."
• The Phillies have not yet announced who will start against the Braves on Saturday at Turner Field. Roy Halladay's season ended Monday in Miami, which means the Phillies will use their bullpen to pitch the game. Sandberg said Thursday's series opener against the Braves will help them determine that.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.