CLEARWATER, Fla. — Spring training can't officially start until somebody's adorable puppy dog makes off with a batting practice baseball. Congratulations to this guy, a French Bulldog Boston Terrier belonging to right-hander Tanner Scheppers of the Texas Rangers, for kicking off the 2012 season.
Welcome to another Spring Swing with the Stew, our fifth tour of camps around Major League Baseball. I'm starting on the Gulf Coast of Florida with the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of 102 games during the 2011 regular season and not enough games come playoff time. The Phillies should still be the favorites in the NL East and to get to the World Series, but they also come with some doubt.
• How will they do without slugger Ryan Howard, who is recovering from Achilles' tendon surgery? And when will he return? In May, like the club hopes, or later? And will he be worth the enormous contract extension that starts this season? Is old friend/new guy Jim Thome really up to playing defense even once a week?
• How much of the load can Hunter Pence carry? (Get it?)
• Will the unsettled contract situation of Cole Hamels linger?
• Will the back of the rotation — Joe Blanton, Vance Worley, Kyle Kendrick — even begin to keep up with the best 1-2-3 in the majors?
• Can Chase Utley rebound from chronic injuries and hit like a middle-of-the-order guy again?
• Will the rest of the bullpen effectively set up new closer Jonathan Papelbon?
• How old is too old for Placido Polanco?
• What in the heck is going on out in left field?
And there's more! That's a lot of questions for what's supposed to be the best team in the league. Join me and 'Duk as we cover the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues in search of the answers. We'll be somewhere new (pretty much) every day until the season starts.
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