By ROB MAADDI
AP Sports Writer
PHILADELPHIA — For the first time since Jimmy Rollins declared the Philadelphia Phillies were the team to beat in the division before they even won anything, they’ll open spring training with something to prove.
The Phillies’ streak of five consecutive NL East titles that began with Rollins’ bold declaration in 2007 ended last year when they finished 81-81 and in third place behind Washington and Atlanta.
Since winning the franchise’s second World Series championship in 2008, the Phillies have taken one step backward each season. They lost the 2009 World Series, the 2010 NLCS, and were eliminated in the NLDS in 2011.
After missing out on the postseason in 2012, the Phillies hope to make another run. The quest begins Wednesday when pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater, Fla.
Here are five top questions facing the Phillies this spring:
1. Are the injured stars healthy?
Injuries to Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Roy Halladay were a major reason why the Phillies slumped last year. Utley and Howard, the team’s Nos. 3-4 hitters, combined to miss 160 games to start the season. Halladay, the No. 1 starter, missed a two-month stretch in the middle.
Utley hasn’t played a Grapefruit League game since 2010 because of chronic knee problems. He was more active this offseason and is expected to be ready for Opening Day, barring any setbacks. But, Utley’s production began to decline before the injuries. His batting average has dropped every year since he hit a career-high .332 in 2007. His power numbers also are trending downward.
Utley averaged .301 with 29 homers and 101 RBIs between 2005-09 and made five straight All-Star teams. Since 2010, he’s averaged .264, 13 and 51. The 34-year-old Utley is entering the final year of his contract, so he needs a solid year to get another lucrative deal.
Howard returned to the lineup right before the All-Star break last season after recovering from surgery on a torn Achilles’ tendon. He hit just .219 and struck out 99 times in 260 at-bats. But the three-time All-Star first baseman also had 14 homers and drove in 56 runs in only 71 games.
Howard is entering the second season of a $125 million, five-year extension. The Phillies need the former NL MVP to be the player who averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs between 2006-11.
Halladay, a two-time Cy Young Award winner and eight-time All-Star, was plagued by a shoulder problem last year. He’ll be 36 in May and has thrown nearly 2,700 innings. So, his days as a dominant pitcher may be over.
Halladay won 40 games, and threw a perfect game and a postseason no-hitter in his first two seasons with the Phillies in 2010-11. He was 11-8 with a 4.49 ERA in 25 starts last year.
There may be no player in the majors with a stronger work ethic and more dedication to his craft than Halladay. He’s determined to regain his old form, and those who know Halladay wouldn’t bet against him.
2. Who plays the outfield?
The Phillies used to be loaded in the outfield with former All-Stars Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Raul Ibanez and Hunter Pence. They also had slugger Pat Burrell in ‘07 and ‘08. Now they’ll have at least two and possibly three new starters.
Ben Revere was acquired from Minnesota to play center field. Delmon Young was signed as a free agent to play right field, though he hasn’t played there regularly since 2007. Left field will be up for grabs between rookie Darin Ruf, former top prospect Domonic Brown and John Mayberry, Jr.
Ruf, the minor-league home run champion in 2012, is making the transition to the outfield after playing first base. He hit 38 homers in Double-A and Triple-A last season, and has potential to be a legitimate slugger in the big leagues.
Revere is a singles hitter, but his speed is an asset. Young could provide much-needed balance to a left-handed heavy lineup if he stays in shape and out of trouble. He hit .267 with 18 homers and 74 RBIs for Detroit last season, and was MVP of the ALCS against the New York Yankees.
3. Will Michael Young be a solution at third base?
The Phillies acquired the seven-time All-Star infielder from Texas to replace Placido Polanco at third base. Young, a former Gold Glove winner at shortstop, hasn’t played third regularly since 2010. He’s also coming off a down year at the plate by his standards (.277, 8, 67).
The team expects the 36-year-old Young to benefit from being able to concentrate on playing one position after filling a utility role the last two seasons. The peace of mind could not only help his defense, but his offense. From 2003-11, Young hit at least .300 seven times and averaged 17 homers and 90 RBIs.
4. Can pitching get the Phillies over the top?
The Phillies slugged their way to the postseason in 2007-09 and then relied on their aces and a strong bullpen in 2010-11. Their lineup clearly lacks the punch it once had, so the Phillies have to do it with pitching. Halladay, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, if they’re all healthy, are still as formidable as any top 3 on any staff. Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan round out the rotation, which has dropped off since Roy Oswalt was the No. 4 starter.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon is coming off an All-Star season in his first year in Philadelphia. Giving Papelbon leads to protect was the problem. The Phillies improved their late-inning situation by signing Mike Adams. The righty has been one of the best setup men for several years. If Antonio Bastardo pitches the way he did in 2011 and some of the young arms step up, the bullpen could be the team’s biggest strength.
5. How will Charlie Manuel handle lame-duck status?
Manuel enters his ninth season as the team’s manager. He’s first on the franchise’s all-time list in wins and is one of only two managers — Dallas Green was the other in 1980 — to lead the Phillies to a World Series title in 130 seasons. But Manuel is in the final year of his contract and his potential heir apparent — Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg — will be in the dugout this year.
The Phillies promoted Sandberg from Triple-A manager to third-base coach. Manuel’s success gives him some leeway, but there certainly will be plenty of speculation about his job if the Phillies struggle early or endure a long losing streak.