Howard's a sleeker version of himself, with no less power.
"That's what we need," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said, pointing out Howard. "That's what I'm talking about."
The Phillies are showing no signs of complacency, and the new, sleeker version of Howard is Exhibit A. The former MVP, Rookie of the Year and now world champion (a pretty good early trifecta) has been powering the ball all over Florida, with a spring-high nine home runs. He looks primed for yet another huge season, even if he's not quite so huge. That's why he's my pick for NL MVP (OK, so I'm not exactly going out on a limb there).
"You want to be hungry," Howard said, meaning in a figurative sense.
To get leaner and lighter, he said he eats smaller and earlier. Howard signed a nice $54 million, three-year deal to give him plenty of security, so his new shape isn't about winning a paycheck.
"I know what it's going to be like this year," Howard said. "Teams are going to be coming after us. We're going to be the marked team this year ... If I can score from first on a double, that can change the outcome of a game."
With some championship teams, you can sense the satisfaction. With the Phillies, you sense they're ready to defend their title. "Good, real good," one scout said in assessing the world champions, not at all dissuaded by their 12-17 spring.
The Phillies did what they could this winter to give themselves their best chance, and that means the front office, too. New general manager Ruben Amaro, who filled the biggest free-agent shoes in the game as Pat Gillick's replacement, bought out the arbitration years of many of his young and productive players with multiyear contracts (including Howard and star pitcher Cole Hamels, who signed for a very reasonable $20.5 million over three years), giving everyone a strong feeling the front office backs them.
The Phillies' outside moves mostly made a lot of sense, too, though the call to sign Raul Ibanez for $31.5 million comes with a couple questions. Ibanez was a chic pick this winter, but the key for the Phillies is that he has more range in the outfield than Pat Burrell. (They won't say this aloud, but Ibanez is an easier personality than Burrell, who was still given a chance to return mid-year for $20 million over two years, but was only offered one year by the Phillies come winter.)
Ibanez is an upgrade, but one competing executive opined, "They're going to find Ibanez isn't a great defender, either." But that's nit-picky. This is still an excellent team
Amaro acknowledged that optimally they would have preferred a right-handed hitter in left field, but noted that Ibanez, who's a solid .268 career hitter against left-handers, had too many other things going for him to look elsewhere. Amaro, though, has spent the spring looking to replace left-handed bench players Geoff Jenkins (finally released Wednesday) and Matt Stairs with right-handed hitters, and Amaro revealed that he reached out to the agent of new free-agent Gary Sheffield. (My opinion: That wouldn't be a percentage call at all. Sheffield isn't even happy as a starter and could prove downright uncooperative as a role player.)
As things stand, their clubhouse is a winning environment, between dedicated stars such as Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley (who's ready and back sooner than anyone expected after winter hip surgery, though his bat speed is still coming) and great pros like Brad Lidge, Hamels (slated to start April 10 after an early elbow question and a slow spring), Shane Victorino, Pedro Feliz and Jayson Werth. They are solid enough that Sheffield probably couldn't hurt them. But he isn't needed, either.
"We're the same. I don't think we're any different," Rollins said.
"If we keep the attitude as last year. I think we're going to be all right," Manuel said. "I think we're ready for it."
In some ways, Rays manager Joe Maddon has an even harder job than Manuel. The Rays' 2008 season might be considered even more of a victory in certain aspects. So satisfaction could be a real enemy of theirs.
"We can't expect everything to break as great as it did last year. So we've got to build a new road this year," said Maddon, adding he sees no signs of complacency.
"The only sign I've seen is that guys are really motivated to get back [to the playoffs] again," he said. Though, about 10 days ago, he did notice one drill being run wrong. "I didn't like it," he said. "That might have been part of the culture of the past. But we don't do that anymore."
If Maddon likes his team -- and he does -- the scouts like it almost as much now. "They're real good, too" said a scout who's been following them all spring.
Here are some reasons they won't fall down ...
• Their defense is superb. Maddon said he has stressed defense this spring, suggesting they could play it even better than last year. "If we can repeat our defense last year, and maybe do a little bit better, that can get us back to the playoffs in and of itself," he said.
• They needed a right-handed hitter, and they got Burrell, who should provide needed power (33 home runs last year in Philly).
• They're a lot younger than the Red Sox or Yankees.
• They'll have Evan Longoria, generally viewed as an emerging superstar, the whole year.
• They'll have the great David Price for maybe 150 innings (after he begins in the minors, partly to limit his innings)
• According to one scout, there were three great young outfielders training on the East Coast of Florida. That would be Cameron Maybin (Marlins), Adam Jones (Orioles) and Colby Rasmus (Cardinals).
• The Tigers look pretty iffy, but Justin Verlander has been light's out two starts in a row.
• One scout on Cardinals new second baseman Skip Schumaker. "Not too good there."
• As for third baseman David Freese, who's slated to replace Troy Glaus (who's out 'til June), he "may run into some balls" at bat, said a scout. But on defense, the balls may run into him.
• I still say the Cardinals will surprise a few folks. So might the Royals.
• While others knock the WBC, Rollins endorses it. "There's nothing I don't like about it," he said. Two of the things he likes best are 1) no alarms, and 2) better ballparks than spring parks.
• No matter what anyone thinks, the WBC isn't going anywhere, anyway. The ratings were "phenomenal" in Japan, according to one MLB official. TV was up 14 percent, attendance up eight percent.
• The Giants like Xavier Nady and wouldn't mind bringing the University of California product home at some point.
• Josh Hamilton leads the spring in RBIs, just like he led the AL last year. He has 26 RBIs, tied with Cubs prospect Micah Hoffpauir, who doesn't get the attention he deserves.
• The Angels just keep 'em coming. Brandon Wood and Matt Brown look like they're going to be good ones.
• The Mets are saying outfield prospect Nick Evans is only up for a little while after originally saying he wasn't going to be on the team. But if they do send him down, that's a waste of a lot of power.
• The Mets have talked to a few teams about middle relief and outfield help just in case there's anything better out there.
• When I talked to him recently, Carlos Beltran loved the idea of bringing back Pedro Martinez.
• Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo's endorsement sealed Andruw Jones' spot on the Rangers. And Nolan Ryan's didn't hurt, either.
• Frank Catalanotto should work as a pinch hitter somewhere in the NL. But there's getting to be plenty of supply out there, with Geoff Jenkins also released.
• Gary Matthews Jr. was a backup player most of his career, but now that the Angels are paying him crazy money ($33 million for three years), he thinks he should start. I have an idea if he doesn't like being a backup: Tear up the contract and become a free agent. I liked Matthews a lot better before he ordered the HGH he claimed not to have taken.
• The Yankees love their starting pitching. And why not? Everyone but Joba Chamberlain looked great this spring. "It's all about pitching," Derek Jeter said. "Tampa Bay didn't win almost 100 games last year because they scored 1,000 runs. It's pitching."
• Very convenient, isn't it, that the attention-getting A-Rod's going to Tampa right after the Yankees leave Tampa?
• Plenty of good seats left at the new Yankee Stadium, that is if you happen to have several hundred bucks lying around (who does now?). Funny, as a kid back in the '70s I used to get in for $1.50.
• Tom Hicks' buddy and neighbor George Bush will throw out the first pitch at the Rangers' opener, and it will be interesting to see how many there recall him as the fellow who got their stadium built or the guy who wasn't quite as successful in recent years.
• It's been reported that three teams are showing interest in Sheffield. In addition to the Phillies, apparently one of them is the Reds. It's funny to see that the majority of teams looking at him are in the National League, even though he looks like a DH to most. Perhaps it's because those teams haven't been watching him as closely the past few years.
Speaking of Gary Sheffield's job prospects, one baseball official said, "It just depends how many people are going to want a 40-year-old pain-in-the-ass aging slugger with bad shoulders."