CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Years ago, the late John Quinn, the Phillies' general manager at the time, called me aside and whispered: "Remember this: Spring Training performances are never as good as they look or as bad as they appear."

Those words are as credible today as they were 50-plus years ago when I first heard them. They still ring in my ears.

Especially as young phenoms hammer balls out of sight and pitchers look like they're going to win the Cy Young Award. Or veteran players and pitchers struggle mightily in games that don't count.

Call it the rites of Spring Training.

Yet as the Phillies set sail in an uphill attempt to regain the top spot in the National League East, it's difficult, or almost impossible, not to be concerned about the negatives this spring. It says here they're legitimate warning signs.

If the Phillies are to unseat the Nationals, last season's NL East champion, or even pass second-place Atlanta and return to the postseason, Quinn's adage must be proven true.

Start with this: As Roy Halladay goes, so go the Phillies.

There's no way to ignore Halladay's disappointing spring.

Phillies officials, including manager Charlie Manuel, are attempting to put a positive spin on Doc's problems.

There have been whispers that he's hurt, as evidenced by his fastball velocity, which has hovered in the 85- to 88-mph range. Doc works so hard, drives himself unmercifully and is the last person who'll admit something's wrong.

Maybe the wear and tear on his right arm has finally taken its toll -- those 2,687 1/3 innings he's thrown since tossing his first big league pitch for the Blue Jays in 1998.

Halladay, who will turn 36 on May 14, allowed seven runs in just 2 2/3 innings against the Tigers on March 12, then lasted only an inning on Sunday against Baltimore. He left that game because of a stomach virus that caused him to lose 10 pounds.

"I felt like I was going in the right direction before that," Halladay said of his illness. "It was just a bad time to have a setback and not be able to get my pitch count up to where I wanted."

If Halladay weren't coming off a difficult 2012 season during which he was on the disabled list for seven weeks, it would be easier not to fret over this year's Spring Training performance. His uncharacteristic 11-8 record and 4.49 ERA last season contributed to the Philllies' fall from dominance.

When Halladay was hit hard by the Tigers, Manuel was candid.

"Yeah, it concerns me," Manuel said. "But at the same time, I've been in the game long enough to know that if there's nothing wrong with him, you keep working with him. If he's healthy and well, and there's nothing wrong with him, then he's got to get stretched out."

According to pitching coach Rich Dubee, Wednesday's bullpen session went well.

That has set the stage for Saturday's start in a Minor League game at Carpenter Complex. Halladay's performance will be heavily scrutinized, and no matter how we try to avoid putting weight on Spring Training performances, that won't be the case on Saturday.

Halladay is hoping he can throw 75 pitches, then push that to 100 in what will be his final Florida start -- if all goes well.

If he regains his strength, Halladay will face Atlanta in the Phillies' season-opening series at Turner Field during the first week of April.

After Thursday night's game against the Red Sox, the Phillies will have only seven days left in Florida.

I believe it's unreasonable to expect the two-time Cy Young Award winner to return to his form of 2010, when he went 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA in his first season with the Phillies. Or even 2011, when his 19-6 record and 2.35 ERA helped Philadelphia win its fifth straight NL East title.

But if Doc cannot give the Phillies at least 15 wins, they can probably forget about the postseason. He's that important to this team.

For a club that finished third in the NL East in 2012, there's no wiggle room if the expectation is to return to the postseason, given the current makeup of the roster.

The four infielders -- newcomer Michael Young, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard -- are all in their mid-30s.

This could be the last big hurrah for Rollins, Utley and Howard, the homegrown nucleus of the team that won the five division titles, went to the World Series twice and won it in 2008.

Howard, recovering from 2011 offseason surgery on his left Achilles tendon, didn't play his first game last year until July 6. It was obvious he was far from 100 percent, batting just .219 with 14 homers. Howard entered Thursday in the midst of a strong spring, batting .314 with five homers and 14 RBIs.

Utley, out until June 27 last season because of chronic knee problems, batted just .256 after returning. This spring, his first in three years, he's struggled at the plate, batting only .227 with a homer.

Remember what Quinn told me?

The Phillies are hoping that Domonic Brown, who at one time was their top prospect, doesn't fall into that category. If his spring is legitimate, he could solve one of their outfield problems. He's having the best spring of anybody on the team, batting .397 with six homers and 12 RBIs.

"He's definitely gotten better in the outfield, and his hitting is real good," Manuel said. "He's got good balance at the plate. He's lowered his hands some, and he's catching the ball at an angle out front. That's when his power plays for him."

Cole Hamels, armed with a megabucks contract, has been awesome. Before facing the Red Sox on Thursday night, he was 2-0 with a 0.90 ERA in Grapefruit League play, having allowed just one earned run. Cliff Lee, on the other hand, has been so-so.

At dinner one night early in Spring Training, I asked Manuel what his team has to do to return to the top.

"The biggest thing is play the game better," Manuel said. "We just have to play the game better. That means pitching, defense and quality hitting.

"Last year, we didn't play the game right. We have to get back to playing good, solid baseball like we did all those years we won the division."

There have been spurts of that in Grapefruit League games, but there have also been periods of inconsistency that have irritated Manuel.

He believes this is a better team than he had in 2012, but there are numerous question marks, and the biggest one is on Roy Halladay's back.