With Chase Utley and Ryan Howard sidelined, the struggles of the first six weeks of 2012 were largely expected, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said.

But while the hope remains that the two stars can return in time to help the Phillies climb back into contention, even the GM isn't particularly optimistic that Howard and Utley will be in the lineup soon.

Howard continues to make progress, Amaro said, but the first baseman has a long way to go.

Since arriving in Florida nearly two weeks ago, Howard has upped his workouts and begun hitting in the batting cages, but Amaro said the key will be developing strength in his legs after being largely immobile for much of the past eight months.

"To get full strength will take probably a lot longer than a season," Amaro said. "In fact, it may take a long, long time. That's just the nature of the surgery."

Amaro said he still isn't sure when Howard might start playing in extended spring games and echoed a similar timeline for Utley.

Utley has yet to take ground balls during infield practice, something he was doing in Arizona — simulated on the turf with physical therapist Brett Fischer and on the dirt in pregame warmups during a three-game series the Phillies played against the Diamonbacks.

"When he's ready to take grounders," Amaro said, "he'll take them."

Amaro said the decision on how quickly to progress resides completely with Utley, who returned from a similar injury last year on May 23.