“Homeward bound, I wish I was, homeward bound. Home, where my thought’s escaping. Home, where my music’s playing. Home, where my love lies waiting silently for me.” ~ Paul Simon
Thanks to a couple of recent developments that have a “stars aligning” quality to them, Philadelphia’s longtime 1st baseman Ryan Howard may indeed soon find that you can go home again.
Home in Howard’s case is the city of Saint Louis, Missouri, where the baseball Cardinals are the National League version of the New York Yankees. The Cards have won 11 World Series titles, two in the past decade, as well as 19 National League pennants.
Howard was born in Saint Louis on November 19th, 1979. He starred at Lafayette High School in the western Saint Louis suburb of Wildwood, Missouri and then at Missouri State.
Following his collegiate career, Howard was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 5th round of the 2001 MLB Amateur Draft, and made his MLB debut in the 2004 season. In 2005, he was both the National League Rookie of the Year and the NL’s Most Valuable Player.
That kicked off a span of 7 seasons during which Howard was one of baseball’s most feared sluggers. He finished among the top 5 in the NL MVP voting each year from 2005-08. From 2005-11, Howard averaged 43 homers and 133 runs batted in. He helped lead the Phils to 5 consecutive NL East crowns, back to back NL pennants, and the 2008 World Series. In 2009, he was the MVP of the NLCS.
Howard’s career famously began to deteriorate at the very end of the 2011 NLDS, ironically against the Cardinals. Howard made the final out, grounding out weakly to 2nd base. But as painful as that final out was, there was an even more painful development back at the plate.
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After hitting the ball, Howard crumpled to the ground as he took his first steps. It turned out that he had blown out his Achilles tendon. He would officially miss the opening months of the 2012 season. But realistically, the injury would begin a chain of events that would see Howard go through a 2-3 year period at less than full health as he aged towards his mid-30’s.
Adding insult to injury was the fact that Howard had signed a longterm contract extension at 5-years, $125 million dollars. The extension was set to begin with the 2012 season, meaning that the injury took place just as the contract was kicking in.
His time missed due to the injury, and then his dramatically decreased production upon his return, were certainly at the very least contributing factors to the Phillies sharp decline from the top of the baseball world which they had occupied ever since his arrival a decade earlier.
Howard returned to a level of productivity a year ago, with 23 homers and 95 RBI. This past off-season, the Phillies finally set out on a publicly acknowledged rebuilding program that included dealing away Howard friend and longtime franchise icon shortstop Jimmy Rollins.
With rumors swirling this off-season of potential trades involving all of the team’s veterans, including him, and even rumors at one point of a potential outright release, Howard got to work, getting himself into his best physical condition in years.
After a dreadfully slow start, Howard has taken off at the plate. From a low of .177 on May 2nd, he has raised his average nearly 80 points to its current .256 mark. And his power has returned as well. He has 10 home runs, 9 of those in the last calendar month. He is once again a feared slugger, albeit in the middle of a weakened overall Phillies lineup than surrounded him in past years.
Just this past week, the Cardinals found out that they have lost their own 1st baseman, Matt Adams, for what is likely to be the rest of the season. Adams tore a quad muscle that is likely to require surgery, and he will miss at least 3-4 months.
At the time of his injury, Adams was hitting for just a .243/.281/.375 slash line, with 4 homers and 20 runs batted in. Howard’s numbers are .256/.298/.519 with 10 homers and 24 RBI in roughly the same number of plate appearances.
The combination of Adams injury and Howard’s return to production, combined with the great shape that the man known as “The Big Piece” has gotten himself into, as well as the Phillies willingness to subsidize most, if not all, of his contract in any deal, has begun to generate trade speculation across the industry.
This would seem to be a no-brainer of a trade match. The Cards have a need that the Phillies can fill. The Phils are willing to virtually give Howard away financially, in exchange for a prospect who has a chance. The Cards have a good enough system that they can provide such a prospect.
Would Saint Louis be willing to part with someone like young reliever Sam Tuivailala? Maybe a starting pitching prospect like Tim Cooney or Luke Weaver? These are prospects who fall outside the club’s top 10, but are attractive enough to make the Phillies pull the trigger.
But there are indeed a number of factors that could delay or derail such a deal. First is that Saint Louis can afford to take a little time in making a decision as to how they wish to proceed. They have built up a 5.5 game lead on the rival Cubs and a 6.5 game lead on the two-time playoff Pirates.
For now, they are stop-gapping the position with veteran slugger Mark Reynolds. If they wait a little longer, a few other options might become available in trade, if they aren’t already. The more obvious alternatives include Justin Morneau in Colorado and Adam Lind in Milwaukee.
But none of those options can be considered as potentially season-altering as a healthy, fit, happy, determined Ryan Howard. The Missouri kid would love to be homeward bound, and back on top as a key contributor to a World Series contender. He has worked hard to put himself in position for just such a chance, and the fickle finger of fate may just have provided the perfect opportunity.