The lineups are out for tonight’s opener in the Phillies 4-game set in Washington, D.C. against the defending division champion Nationals, and for the first time in almost a decade, Ryan Howard will be hitting in a spot lower than 5th in their batting order.
Manager Ryne Sandberg, finally giving in to reality, has pushed the long-struggling former MVP and World Series hero down, but not out. The likelihood is that there has been an organizational decision, one coming from over the manager’s head, to try to keep Howard in that lineup in some way, hoping to showcase him for a trade.
“I do see bat speed. Now it’s about going up and being on the pitch.” ~ Sandberg, on Howard
Of course, to this point anyway, there is not much to showcase. While it’s admittedly early yet, Howard has appeared in 7 of the club’s first 9 games, making 28 plate appearances. He is hitting for a putrid .148/.148/.259 slash line. This is following a Grapefruit League campaign where he put up a .176/.247/.228 line across 74 at-bats.
There likely remains a certain amount of power in the bat of the man who from 2006-09 was one of the most feared sluggers in the sport, and who remained a productive rbi bat for a couple of years thereafter.
The 2014 season was his first real full, healthy season since recovering from the devastating injury he suffered at the close of the 2011 NLDS. He put up 23 homers and drove in 95 runs. If you extrapolate his 2015 Grapefruit League power numbers of 3 homers and 10 rbi out to a full regular season, he produces close to those same numbers again.
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While those are not wholly insignificant numbers standing by themselves, they are also not $25 million numbers, and that is the salary Howard is being paid this year, and is again guaranteed for next season as well. The following year, the club will certainly exercise their option to cut him loose for a $10 million payout, rather than pay him an additional $23 mill he could have earned had he remained elite.
In a statement to local reporters following the Phils 6-1 loss to the Mets, their 4th straight defeat, Sandberg seems perplexed at Howard’s approach, with pitchers pumping fastballs past him regularly, wondering why the big man doesn’t just start looking fastball right off the bat. “I do see bat speed. Now it’s about going up and being on the pitch.”
The bottom line for the Phillies bottom line is that no one is going to take on much, if any, of Howard’s salary. A 36-year old who is locked in to 1st base, and can’t even play that well, and who is now a poor hitter who can pop out a homer now and then is not someone who is in great demand.
The Phillies are going to pay Ryan Howard $60 million over the next few years, likely most of that in another uniform. What they hope now by keeping him in the lineup is that he will go on some type of tear, and that some team is willing to part with a decent prospect to acquire his services, with the Phils willingness to eat the salary.
So the team keeps running him out there on a frequent basis, and that is entirely understandable. Fans may wish for something else, but the fact is that this is a bad team, with Howard in the lineup or without him there. The team loses nothing for now in continuing to give him a shot at getting hot.
Sure, they could play Darin Ruf at 1st instead. To me, that’s another waste of time. The nearly 29-year old Ruf is not some up and coming prospect, and is not likely to produce much more than Howard. Maikel Franco could get time at 1st base in the minors, perhaps making him an option next month.
Dropping Howard down in the lineup is certainly a competitive move by the manager. While mandated perhaps to keep Howard getting regular AB’s, Sandberg doesn’t have to make things even tougher on his team than it already is to produce runs and win some games.