CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryan Howard is leaner, stronger and healthier.
Eager to get back to his old form, the Philadelphia Phillies' slugger arrived early to camp before position players have to report. He's come a long way since last year when he missed half the season recovering from surgery on his left Achilles' tendon.
"My left leg feels phenomenal compared to this time last year, compared to where it was when I came back," Howard said Thursday. "When I came back, there was obviously still a limp. I tried to do what I could. Having this off-season to work out again and build up strength in my leg, my Achilles is a non-factor.
"It was really a non-factor when I came back last year, but it was more about building up the muscles in the rest of my leg again. I'm taking this off-season to do that and it feels a lot better."
Howard was injured making the final out in a 1-0 loss to St. Louis in Game 5 of the NL division series in 2011. He suffered a few setbacks in his road back last spring training and didn't return to the lineup until July 6.
Though he played the second half, Howard clearly wasn't the same player who had averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs between 2006-11.
"It's one of those things where you're just not 100 per cent confident in it," Howard said. "You can't do the things you normally could do. Sometimes you might try to make a cut and you might feel something. Yeah, there is always going to be that fear in that it might do this or it might rupture again. Now it's not even a second thought in my mind."
Howard hit just .219 and struck out 99 times in 260 at-bats. But he also drove in 56 runs and hit 14 homers in 71 games.
"In the box, it was one of those things I didn't think about," he said. "I didn't have the full strength to be able to push off and get up on my toe in the follow-up of my swing. Pivoting on it, it wasn't a problem. It was more about being able to finish up on my forefoot and toe."
The 33-year-old Howard was the 2005 NL Rookie of the Year and the 2006 NL MVP. He was the anchor of a lineup that slugged its way to the 2008 World Series title and won five division titles from 2007-12.
The Phillies need Howard and other key hitters like Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins to carry the offence, even though they're all getting older and declining in production.
"I don't buy into the old thing," Howard said. "It's all about how young you feel inside and how well you take care of yourself. Everybody in this clubhouse goes out and works their butt out. Everybody goes out in the off-season, they train and we do what we need to do to comeback. If people want to call us old, that's fine, but I think going out there this year, we're going to show people that we're not old."
The Phillies finished 81-81 last year and third behind Washington and Atlanta in the NL East. If they can stay healthy and key players perform up to their usual level, the team should contend.
"Myself coming back healthy, Chase coming back healthy, Doc (Roy Halladay) coming back healthy and getting guys to contribute, having everybody go out and play their role, I think big things can happen for this team," Howard said.