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March 31, 2015

No present or immediate future for Phillies, just sad reminders of past

Opinion Al Morganti
033115_howard_aP Rex Arbogast/AP

How much Ryan Howard plays (or sits in favor of Darin Ruf) this spring will be among the more interesting storylines for the Phillies in Clearwater. (Rex Arbogast/AP)

We interrupt the constant prattle about the Philadelphia Eagles to bring you this public service announcement – the Philadelphia Phillies are back in town this weekend and the 2015 season opens Monday at Citizens Bank Park against the Boston Red Sox.

Hold the balloons.  This Phillies team has the distinction of entering the season with lower hopes than a Republican running for the office of mayor in Philadelphia. The organization will have all the required bells and whistles for a season opener, but it’s not the same vibe as it was a few years ago, or even last year for that matter.

From every level of the club’s front office, fans have been given fair warning that this is not going to be a summer to party at the ball yard as you watch the Phils mount a charge toward October. In fact, instead of hoping for a sequence of big baseball games after Labor Day, the best case scenario appears to be in some sort of contact with the best teams in baseball as late as Mother’s Day.

So, all you are left with is the sad reality of watching what is left of a once-great team; one without much hope for the future. The ultimate optimist might try to fool himself into thinking there is a nucleus of young players ready to come in and start the rebuilding process, but not even general manager Ruben Amaro is trying to sell that shaky gospel.

[Howard] is at once a reminder of how great things used to be not so long ago, and how quickly they have fallen apart. And he is not the only one.

You might what to question Amaro’s ability to rebuild his team, but you can’t question his honesty. And he was brutally honest early this week when he said he might be more concerned this season with the progression of the Phils minor league system than what happens with the varsity.

In other words, get ready for a very long season … and the guy who could be in for the longest season of all is first baseman Ryan Howard. In the history of Philadelphia sports there might not be a single athlete who will ride the escalator from top to bottom faster than Howard.

Even with players like Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, there was no individual as overwhelming as Howard was during the Phils’ run as division champs, with the crowning moment coming in 2008 with the World Series title.

Ryan was the man who provided the long ball. He was the guy who demanded attention every time he stepped to the plate. No matter where you were, if Howard were approaching the plate you had to stop and watch.

Nowadays, when he comes up you are just as likely to cover your eyes. There is still some pop in the bat, but after battling though an Achilles injury, he is a hollow reminder of the feared hitter he once was.

One of the questions coming into this season is not how many home runs and RBI he would account for during the campaign, but whether or not he will even be with the team at midseason -- either by trade, or by the embarrassment of a contract buyout.

For the sake of all involved, we should all hope that Howard can bank on the interest he has accrued through so many great seasons, and he doesn’t become the target of a fan base that just wants him off the roster.

He is at once a reminder of how great things used to be not so long ago, and how quickly they have fallen apart. And he is not the only one.

The Phils are scheduled to send ace Cole Hamels out to the mound on Monday, and the real drama around this season will center on just how long Hamels will stay in Philadelphia. In fact, the expected sold-out crowd at Citizens Bank Park might not be as interested in how Hamels pitches as much as the fans of the opposing team, as there is a good chance the Red Sox will revisit their attempt to acquire Hamels before the trade deadline.

Over the winter, the Phillies dealt away long-time shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who will be trying to win a pennant with the Los Angeles Dodgers. And ace pitcher Cliff Lee is dealing with an arm injury that might end his career.

It would be one thing if there were star young players ready to step in and take their places, but that is hardly the case. Dom Brown, the once-promising outfielder who has not delivered on that promise, personifies the living proof of that problem.

If you ask the fans of Philadelphia, Brown should be featured in the current TV ad where Pinocchio tries to tell a room full of people that they all had potential ... as his nose grows as he points to one individual. The Phillies have been lying to themselves about Brown’s potential, and he will come into this season as the player most likely to draw the ire of the crowd.

There are still the familiar faces of Utley and Carlos Ruiz, and some real hope for relief pitcher Ken Giles, but even that situation is problematic. Although most fans would like to see a young fireballer like Giles get his chance as closer, the Phils employ one of the best closers in baseball in Jonathan Papelbon.

The problem there is that Papelbon is NOT a fan favorite, and despite his solid numbers the general opinion is that the team would be better off without his arrogance. Ironically, if the Phils were a contender that arrogance might make him a rock star, but in the current scenario he is perceived not as a rock star, but as a rock head.

Perhaps opening day will arrive bright and sunny, the temperatures will leap into the 70s, and the Phils will win with a couple of bombs from Howard and Utley; a great effort by Hamels, a strong eighth inning from Giles, and a three-strikeout save by Papelbon.

Then again, there will be the 161 games to follow, and the best we can hope for is nice weather to watch a ball game in a beautiful ballpark.