- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The question people keep asking injured Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard is when he'll be back in the lineup. But Howard said Wednesday that, "I'm not putting a time limit on it."
"I'm just going to listen to my body," Howard said, "and we'll see where we are."
The Phillies have said they hope to have their cleanup hitter back by early May. But when asked if May was realistic, Howard replied: "We'll see. Ask me in May."
Howard took live batting practice Wednesday for the first time since rupturing his left Achilles tendon on the final play of the Phillies' National League Divisional Series loss to the Cardinals last October.
His manager, Charlie Manuel, said Wednesday he believes Howard is ahead of schedule. But Howard said: "I feel good about where I am right now. I don't know what everyone else's expectations were, but I feel good."
As encouraged as Manuel is by what he's seen from his first baseman so far this spring, the manager added that, "at the same time, I'm not ready to project when he's ready to play."
Manuel said any thought about Howard being back by Opening Day is "still a reach."
The Phillies haven't spelled out what Howard's progression will be in spring training, and Howard said he's just playing that by ear.
"Right now, I probably won't be participating in games this spring," he said. "But we'll see."
Manuel said he will take a look at Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix, John Mayberry Jr. and Jim Thome at first base before deciding how the Phillies will fill the position in Howard's absence. Mayberry played 18 games at first for the Phillies last season, but he's also competing for the left-field job in the wake of Raul Ibanez's departure as a free agent. So Manuel said Mayberry will "probably play more in left field than anywhere."
Howard is looking forward to spending time with Thome on the bench and in the clubhouse.
"First and foremost, he's a great guy, a first-class person," Howard said. "And it's funny because when I heard we signed him back, I was like, man, everything comes around full circle. I was excited for him because he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer and I'm definitely going to be picking his brain as soon as he gets back here.
"He's a great guy for a clubhouse, great guy for a team."
Howard has delivered in the clutch quite often for the Phillies, though his numbers have gone down in recent years. The 2006 NL MVP batted .253 with a team-high 33 homers and 116 RBIs last year. But he was just 2 for 19 (.105) with a homer and six RBIs in the NL division series against the Cardinals.
From 2006-09, Howard averaged 50 homers and 141 RBIs while hitting .278. He hasn't matched that production since signing a $125 million, five-year contract extension in April 2010. Howard has averaged 32 homers and 112 RBIs with a .265 average over the last two seasons.
Told that Manuel said Howard's best years are still ahead of him, the 32-year-old first baseman said: "I would like to think so. Just continuing to learn and to grow as a hitter and a player. Just taking care of my body, stay healthy, I feel like I can go out there and do some damage."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
28mAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com