Phillies 1st Base Dilemma for 2016

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The Phillies regular starter at the 1st base position since 2005, Ryan Howard will likely not record another at-bat in 2015 due to a knee injury suffered early in September. The continued deterioration in overall performance by “The Big Piece” is leading towards a big off-season question for the Phils: will the 35-year-old be a member of the team once again in 2016? Should he be?

There’s no telling what the future for holds for the former MVP. The decision will ultimately rest with club president Andy MacPhail and his still to-be-named GM on returning Howard for a 13th season. The fact that the organization will have a new brain trust with no emotional ties to Howard’s glorious past warrants a real possibility that the Phillies and the slugger may actually part ways.

Howard is set to make yet another $25 million in 2016, with the Phillies holding a club option worth $23 million in 2017, as well as a much more likely $10 million buyout. The organization is well into their rebuilding process. They parted ways with iconic stars Cole Hamels and Chase Utley this year, after trading Jimmy Rollins last off-season, and have gotten a plethora pf promising talent in return.

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The only players remaining from the 2008 championship squad are Howard and Carlos Ruiz, each of whom has seen their playing time drastically reduced due to diminished production and younger options at the respective positions.

Ruiz has taken a back seat to 27-year-old Cameron Rupp, who has made significant strides in his first full MLB season. Howard has become part of a platoon at 1st base, with Darin Ruf starting almost every game featuring a left-handed opposing starting pitcher. However, with Howard’s injury, Ruf has assumed duties as the everyday starter at the position.

“I’m not happy Howie is hurt, but this gives us a real opportunity to get Ruf more at-bats,” manager Pete Mackanin said when Howard got hurt, per Jim Salisbury at CSNPhilly.com. “If we can get him a ton of at-bats from now until the end of the season it will help us make a decision [on Ruf’s future].

The 29-year-old has hit just .218 since taking over as the full-time starter, but has also hit 5 home runs and has a slugging percentage of .527 to go along with a dozen RBI in 63 plate appearances. Over a full season, that pace could see him pass the 40-homer and 120-RBI marks.

Never truly given a consistent opportunity to show what he can do on a full-time basis, this 2015 season is the first where Ruf has recorded more than 251 at-bats. That is in large part because Howard has such a high price tag and has been relatively productive himself. Howard had matched his home run total from 2014 in 102 fewer at-bats, and was on pace for another 90+ RBI season before going down with his knee injury.

While Ruf has seldom been given consistent opportunities, in fairness to the team management the righty hitter has not produced consistently enough, particularly against righthanded pitching, to earn them.

Ruf had posted just a .241 batting average and a .759 OPS in 353 AB’s over the 2013-14 seasons. His numbers against righties are even worse. In 405 career at-bats against them, Ruf has posted a slash line of just .215/.281/.385 with 134 strikeouts. He hasn’t shown any signs of improvement in 2015, posting just a .164 average in 165 at-bats going into last night’s game.

I know Ruf can hit left-handed pitching,” Mackanin said. “This is a good opportunity to see if he can hit right-handers. We’d like to get a better feel for that.

Here’s the truth: the Phillies aren’t doing themselves any favors by milking whatever, if any, good baseball Howard has left in him. The team is deliberately and appropriately trying to rebuild their roster with younger players by replenishing their farm system and cultivating internal talent.

The Phillies have previously attempted to trade Howard, but to no avail. Yes, he is easily the greatest 1st baseman in the franchise’s history. They simply don’t win 5 straight NL East Division championships, back-to-back National League pennants, or a World Series without his historic production at the plate. He’ll no doubt go down as an all-time great, and is a future Wall of Famer. But what does a rebuilding franchise gain by delegating a $25 million-player to a platoon role?

Heading into his 30’s himself now, and continuing to show that he delivers nothing more than occasional power against righties, who make up the vast majority of MLB pitchers, Ruf is not the Phillies’ longterm answer as the future 1st baseman and cleanup hitter.

Still, with all things considered, why not give Ruf a full season worth of work in 2016 without the shadow of Howard and a platoon, in order to finally prove what he’s worth while still in his “prime?” Another platoon year with Howard marks, basically, another wasted season for the quickly aging Ruf. The still rebuilding team, with no other real options, has nothing to lose. 

Mackanin got it right on Howard, in this statement per Stephen Gross at The Morning Call: “He put up some productive numbers but his average is down, not to where we’d want it to be,” Mackanin said. “Very similar to last year. So as far as analyzing his performance, it wasn’t the best performance, it wasn’t the greatest. He needs to get better.

Turning 36 years old next month, Howard getting better is not likely. Still, this isn’t like 2004, when Jim Thome was still here, and a young Howard was knocking at the door. Ruf isn’t a promising prospect expected to take the league by storm, producing multiple 40-plus home run seasons.

The Phillies simply do not have a 1st base prospect on the verge of making the big league roster. Rhys Hoskins enjoyed a nice breakout season in 2015. But he will turn just 23 years old during spring training, and has not yet played above the High-A level. Even if he becomes a real option, that is not likely to be until 2017 at the earliest.

This makes Ruf the best option to bridge the gap until the longterm solution at the position does arrive. And perhaps, just perhaps, Ruf salvages what has been, to this point, a disappointing big league career. Finally given a full-time chance, 2016 could be that season. But first, the Phillies need to cut ties with another ‘Big Piece’ of their glorious past, no matter the cost.

Next: Top 2016 Draft Pick Will Help Advance the Phillies Rebuild

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