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04/02/12 12:00 AM ET

Tone changes, but expectations remain high

Despite injuries, defections, Phillies' formidable rotation returns

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It has been a markedly different spring at Bright House Field.

Last year, the Phillies paraded Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton in front of reporters to introduce one of the greatest rotations in baseball history before the most highly anticipated season in franchise history.

This year, the Phillies had a series of news conferences at the beginning of camp with decidedly different tones.

Ryan Howard talked about his recovery from left Achilles surgery.

Chase Utley talked about his chronically injured knees.

Cole Hamels talked about his impending free agency.

The Phillies won a franchise-record 102 regular-season games last season and a fifth consecutive National League East championship. It is tough to find a better team in the league, but Phillies fans are anxious.

April 5: Phillies 1, Pirates 0
W: Halladay (1-0)  L: Bedard (0-1)
SV: Papelbon (1)
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They see cracks in the foundation.

They see the window of opportunity closing.

The Phillies still see a winner.

"You can't be anything but optimistic," Halladay said. "I've been on a lot of worse teams than this. So I'm not going to go in thinking we don't have a chance. I think that's a realistic way to believe, especially on this team, and in this organization. I'm definitely optimistic. The good thing with this team is I feel we're only going to get better as the year goes on.

"We might be getting some big guys back as the season goes on. We're only going to get better. That's a nice feeling to have."

The anxiety exists largely because of injuries to Howard and Utley. They will open the season on the disabled list, and the Phillies have offered no timetables for their returns. It could be weeks or months, but they insist they will be back at some point.

It's just that nobody knows how effective they will be upon their return.

But lost amidst the medical updates and uncertainties surrounding first base (the Phillies could see John Mayberry Jr., Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix at first while Howard is out), second base (rookie Freddy Galvis gets the nod) and left field (is Mayberry ready to become an everyday player?) is the Phillies still have arguably the best rotation in baseball.

They still have Halladay, Lee and Hamels at the top, and Vance Worley and Joe Blanton in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots.

"No matter if we have a lineup of All-Stars or guys who aren't quite All-Stars, we're going out there to win no matter what," Hamels said. "That's why we're always where we are; we don't let anything else affect us."

That isn't to say it will not be a challenge. They know it is. They just believe they have the talent to overcome however long they play without Utley and Howard.

"I think any time you lose your three and four-hole hitters it's going to affect your offense," Lee said. "But we had to deal with injuries last year. [Jimmy] Rollins was hurt quite a bit, Utley was out the first month and a half or so. We've dealt with these things before, but somehow we figure out a way to get it done. I expect us to do more of the same.

"We've basically got the same guys back, minus Oswalt and [Ryan] Madson and [Brad] Lidge. For the most part, we've got the same guys. And some of the guys got more experience. Worley, what he did last year, if he builds on that I think he can be even better. [Mike] Stutes, the same thing. Those guys know what they're dealing with now and have a chance to build on it. I expect us to be similar. We're not going to try to one-up last year or anything like that. We're just going to go out there and do what we do, and we've got the talent to give the team a chance to win every time. So I like our chances."

The Nationals and Marlins have been talking a big game this spring, causing some of the unrest in Philly. Lidge said the Nationals are more talented than the Phillies teams he played on in the past. The Marlins, feeling high following the signings of Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell, think they could be the team to finally unseat the Phillies.

But it comes back to Halladay, Lee and Hamels.

It comes back to Jonathan Papelbon, who has been arguably baseball's second-best closer over the last several years.

It comes back to an offense that, despite its critics, still led the National League in scoring from July 1 through the end of the regular season.

It comes back to Utley and Howard believing they will contribute at some point this season.

Howard has remained optimistic, despite a setback from his surgery. He made the final outs in each of the last two seasons but said he hopes to be in that situation again in October.

"I figure I'm about due," he said.

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