Phillies Final Season: Ryan Howard Expectations

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Aug 11, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (6) reacts after striking out against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. The Diamondbacks won 13-1. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 11, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard (6) reacts after striking out against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. The Diamondbacks won 13-1. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports /
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A Philadelphia Phillies era will end in 2016 with the final season of their former MVP first baseman, but what should fans expect from ‘The Big Piece’?

2016 will be Ryan Howard’s 13th season as a big league ballplayer and his 13th as a member of the Phillies. And after 13 years of majestic home runs, consistent MVP candidacy and title contention in his first handful of seasons, and frustrating strikeouts, it will also be Howard’s final season in a Phillies uniform.

Howard’s Phillies career probably should have ended a couple of seasons ago. Back in 2010, former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. signed the 30-year-old first baseman to a five-year, $125 million extension despite the slugger’s age and what was likely to be an inevitable drop in production.

Fast forward to 2016: Howard’s $25 million salary accounts for a quarter of the Phillies’ current payroll. And to make matters worse, he will earn that much as a platoon player.

It’s amazing how much of an impact that impulsive contract by Amaro Jr. still has on the Phillies today. At the time, the deal wasn’t viewed as detrimental. After all, the Phillies were still one of the top teams in the National League and Howard, despite a drop in production the season prior, was still one of the game’s most prolific power hitters.

But the team and Howard quickly derailed. By 2012, the Phillies were a .500 ball club with no light at the end of the tunnel. If you blinked, you missed the end of what was a wonderful, exciting run of at least 7-8 year seasons.

The worst of the rebuild is nearly over. Most of the remnants of the old regime have departed and have been replaced by exciting, young talent both currently on the Phillies and waiting in the minor league pipeline. However, the cleanup hitter, perhaps the biggest remnant of that old regime, still remains.

It’s going to be a difficult situation. But decisions have to be made. And I have to do what I think is best for the organization and the team” ~ Mackanin, on Howard

Much credit has to be given to Howard. Throughout his drop in on-field production, the debilitating injury, and off-the-field family issues, Howard has been a class act. He has cooperated with the Phillies every step of the way. His selflessness and willingness to cooperate should be admired, especially in a sports climate that is littered with selfish athletes.

That selflessness will again be on display in 2016 at Citizens Bank Park, as Howard will enter the season in a clear platoon situation at first base, the lefty piece with Darin Ruf serving as the righty side. Again, Howard will surely cooperate, because he knows it’s best for the team, and because he surely hopes to continue his career beyond this Phillies season.

Earlier this month, manager Pete Mackanin spoke to reporters about the reality of Howard’s situation and how he intends on handling it.

It’s going to be a difficult situation. But decisions have to be made. And I have to do what I think is best for the organization and the team,” Mackanin said, as reported by Philly.com’s Matt Gelb.

Last year, Howard was platooned at first base with Ruf as the season wore on for the first time. As will be the case in 2016, he primarily started against righties while Ruf primarily started against lefties. Howard is notoriously bad against lefties and has been for the majority of his career while Ruf has flourished. Of course, the vice versa is true as well, thus the platoon.

In 1,738 career at-bats against left-handers, Howard has a poor slash line of just .219/.296/.419 with an OPS of .715. On the other hand, Ruf has posted a slash line of .300/.390/.556 and an OPS of .946 in 243 career at-bats against lefties.

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Last season, Howard’s .418 OPS against lefties ranked as one of the worst in the majors among players with at 100 at-bats, while Ruf’s 1.107 OPS was tied with Nelson Cruz for the best mark in the Major Leagues against righthanders. Those numbers clearly show the need for a platoon heading into 2016.

“I’m going to make that decision in the spring,” Mackanin said, per Gelb. “But I’m going to have a discussion with Ryan. I’m going to tell him, ‘If you want to face lefties, you have to hit them better. If you don’t hit them better, I’m going to platoon.’ That’s basically what we’re looking at. It’s gotten to that point.

It’s hard for me to justify not playing a guy who led in OPS in the major leagues against lefthanded pitchers, and that’s (Darin) Ruf,” Mackanin continued, per Gelb. “It’s hard for me not to play that guy, when that guy is sitting there. And it could be helpful to Ryan because he is getting a little bit older.

At age 36, it would take an absolute miracle for Howard to suddenly become even a competent hitter against lefties. So while Mackanin can try to motivate Howard to hit lefties in order for the slugger to continue to be an everyday player, both he and Howard probably know it’s a longshot at this late point in his career.

Lefties aside, Howard is still capable against righties. In 367 at-bats in 2015, Howard posted a slash line of .256/.304/.499 with an OPS of .802, to go along with 20 home runs. Ruf was awful against righties in 2015, posting a slash line of .158/.208/.275 with a .483 OPS in 171 at-bats. With those numbers, you can see that the platoon makes logical sense.

So if Howard and Ruf split time, what can we expect from Howard’s swan song season in Philadelphia? ‘The Big Piece’ started 118 games in 2015, with just 10 of those coming against left-handed starters. Howard could see a similar number of starts against lefties in 2016 because Mackanin will at least give him a chance to prove he can  (or cannot) hit lefties.

But the skipper’s leash will likely be a little shorter, and Mackanin will surely use Grapefruit League games and spring training to let Howard show what he can do. With those variables, I don’t expect Howard to start more than five games against lefthanders, barring injury to Ruf.

108 of Howard’s starts in the 2015 season came against righties. I expect that number to decrease slightly as Mackanin will likely try to give Howard more rest than he’s had in the past, in order to keep his aging body fresh. With those rest days included, I could see Howard starting around 95 games against righties. Again, this is barring injury.

So with 95 starts against right handers and five against left handers, Howard would start 100 games in 2016 either as a first baseman, or a DH during Interleague games. With 18 fewer games in 2016 than in 2015, Howard’s home run and RBI totals shouldn’t look too different.

Prediction: 21 home runs and 75 RBI

In terms of batting average, Howard’s decreased playing time against lefties should go a long ways, confidence-wise. Those awful strikeouts on balls in the dirt against lefties had to take a toll on Howard’s confidence. Hearing a roar of boos from the fans after each strikeout probably didn’t help, either.

Less playing time against lefties will equate to fewer strikeouts which should help Howard’s confidence at the plate. Howard has posted an average of .250 or more seven times during his career in seasons where he’s recorded at least 450 at-bats, but he hasn’t accomplished that feat since 2011. With a boost in confidence, I could see Howard reaching the mark in 2016.

Prediction: somewhere around a .256 batting average

So when it’s all said and done, a .256 average with 21 home runs and 75 RBIs appears to be a realistic expectation for Howard in 2016. Considering the situation, those numbers are pretty solid for a platoon player.

Of course, there remains the real possibility that some team could find Howard attractive as the trade deadline approaches, particularly if the Phillies are willing to eat most or all of his salary in order to give their former hero a shot at the postseason.

There was once a time, in the last decade, where Howard could be counted on for 40-plus home runs and 130-plus RBIs. Those days are long gone. Mackanin knows it, and Howard knows it better than anyone.

But If Howard can put up the numbers I laid out, and Ruf can continue his dominance against lefties, the Phillies should have above average production from first base. It won’t be like the days where Howard could carry the offense all on his own, but it’s the best case scenario for the 2016 Phillies.

Next: History Month in Review

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