The case for keeping Ryan Howard in a Phillies uniform

He’s bad. Really bad. But the growing talk the Phillies should release him doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Ryan Howard got a single on Tuesday.

It was his first single this month. For those counting at home, the month is 24 days old.

This May, the former slugger turned, well, slug has just five hits—three homers, a double and now a single—in 18 games. Howard is batting .096 in 52 at bats. His slugging percentage this month is a paltry .288. On the plus side, his five walks nearly double his on base percentage. To .172.

Howard will never again be the Phillies’ everyday first baseman. Even the platoon situation—protecting him against lefties—has failed. But that doesn’t mean the team should release him. For this season, it might mean the opposite.

His numbers might favor the groundswell of those pushing for his release. Howard is batting .083 in his last seven games, as his terrible season numbers have been trending down over the last 30 games. For the season, Howard is batting .159, with an OBP of .227 and OPS of .592. The only players on the Phillies with more than 40 plate appearances and a lower OPS than Howard are Peter Bourjos—perhaps the worst offensive player in the majors—and Darin Ruf, Howard’s would-be platoon partner who was DFA’d two weeks ago. (Bourjos, for what his meager numbers are worth, is batting .228 in May, some 132 points better than Howard. So at least he’s shown progress.)

We knew going into this season that Howard was going to struggle. Hell, he knew it. Everyone knew it. Last season, Howard hit .229 with an OPS of .720 in 503 plate appearances. He had 138 strikeouts in 129 games. The year before he had 190 fans in 153 games, batting just .223 with a career-worst OPS of .690.

Since hitting 45 home runs in 2009, Howard has a combined 143 dingers…across seven seasons. Since 2012, that number is just 79. In 473 games.

Howard has gone from bad to worse this year, and the Phillies decision to platoon him with Ruf was a necessity that just didn’t work. When Ruf got designated for assignment, the team brought up hot-hitting Tommy Joseph from the minors to replace him; and, presumably, to replace Howard. It’s just going to take a little time.

Through eight games, Joseph is batting .304 with seven hits in 23 at bats, including two homers. Small sample sizes being what they are, his OPS is currently .929 and he has reached base safely in all but one of the games he’s been given at least three plate appearances.

The jury is still out on Joseph as an everyday major league slugger, but so far in his first two weeks in the Bigs, the returns have been positive.

Before Tuesday’s game against the Tigers, Phillies manager Pete Mackanin was asked about giving Joseph more at bats against righties. Per Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly, Mackanin was non-committal, saying, “I’m going to look at it a week at a time. We’ll see. At some point it might come to that, but I can’t say it’s imminent.”

In 10 plate appearances against lefties, Joseph is batting .444/.778/1.278 with four hits and a homer. In 14 plate appearances against righties, Joseph has struggled somewhat, with a .214/.500/.700 line, including a single, double, homer and five strikeouts.

With Howard’s struggles, and the timing of the Detroit series affording Mackanin the ability to put a second slugger into the lineup, the training wheels have come off on Joseph. Everyone is getting a good long look at what the rookie can do against lefties and righties, and that should continue against some of the NL’s best pitching over the next two weeks.

But even if Joseph continues to hit, what’s the point of cutting Howard?

The MLB season is long and daunting. Joseph will need days off, or he could get injured, or he could struggle in extended time against righties and need protecting as he gains major league-level confidence. Sure, Mackanin could probably throw Andres Blanco at first for a few games, but if Howard can handle his demotion well and still be a leader in the clubhouse, doesn’t he deserve better than to be cut in the middle of the season?

Call me a sentimentalist, but I always expected Howard to go out with a late-September curtain call in front of a smattering of die-hard fans, followed by a $10 million buy-out check for next season. Seeing that happen before July will be tough and, for a player who has spent his whole career in Philly and given us so much (in the past) to cheer about, it feels undeserved.

Howard supporters have mentioned that his numbers habitually improve after the All-Star break. He is a notoriously slow starter, as his career batting average improves 23 points and OPS rises from .812 to .923 in the second half of the season. It’s unlikely Howard gets that much better in the second half this year, but traditionally he has improved as seasons roll along.

Moreover, the Phillies have already paid him, so it’s not like in the NFL where a team can cut a guy and save a lot of money. The Phillies are on the hook for Howard’s full $25 million whether he’s with the team or not, so why not keep him around as the most expensive bench coach in baseball history, in hopes he can help the young players develop, and assist Joseph with his transition to the majors? It’s not like there’s anyone in the minors the team would want to bring up right now anyway. And with rosters expanding in September, we’re really talking about three months where Howard will be taking up a spot on the roster, and the bench.

That is, unless they don’t think Howard can be a good bench guy. Longtime Phillies beat writer Ryan Lawrence wrote what might be the most damning point against keeping Howard around:

Mackanin has the aforementioned sunny-dispositioned clubhouse to consider, and it’s not something he will take lightly with many young, impressionable players in that room.

While Howard has to be realistic about what kind of player he is at age 36 – even though he wasn’t just three months ago at the start of spring training – and even though he is one of the more jovial, positive personalities in the clubhouse, it’s difficult to gauge how that might change if he had his playing time cut drastically.

If that’s even a possible factor, though, shouldn’t team president Andy MacPhail or general manager Matt Klentak step in and take care of a potential conflict before it arises?

In other words, Howard has shown no indication in his career of being a bad clubhouse guy, but he might be upset about getting benched, which might leave a bad impression with the younger players. So the team should think about cutting him.

Or is it just that we don’t want to see our heroes struggle, and that we’d rather say goodbye to Howard now than watch him get worse over the next four months, especially if the team is still competitive? This, from an open letter by longtime Philadelphia opinion leader Stu Bykofsky in February:

You’ve gone from the Big Piece to the Big Load.

Since blowing up your Achilles’ tendon in 2011, you haven’t been the same. The comeback year you and we expected never came.

Don’t do this to us, Ryan. Don’t make us hate you. Don’t make the Phillies cut you.

Retire at season’s end. Please.

The irony of a 75 year-old scribe from a bygone era of media telling the 36-year old slugger to retire before we’re forced to turn on him notwithstanding, the idea that anyone making $35 million over the next two years should retire is ludicrous, no matter how much he’s made in his career.

But is that the reason people want the Phillies to release Howard? So we can remember him more fondly?

ryanhoward-dugout
Flickr

Or is it because a guy who has been a great teammate and solid citizen in his time in Philly might not be the best quote anymore? This, from Corey Seidman of CSN Philly back in February:

Howard said…that he didn’t speak with the media last season because he was unhappy with how he was being portrayed. Howard didn’t hold a press conference early in spring training last year. He set a rule early in 2015 that he would not speak before games. He did speak on occasion after games, but he wasn’t his normal, affable self. He was often short and biting, even when talking about players other than himself.

Players decline. There is no harm in accepting it. Why blame the media for the Phillies’ own desires to trade Howard or platoon him? So strange.

What’s strange is that we all knew Howard would struggle, and while, sure, .159/.365/.592 is really bad, the conversation has gone from platooning him to benching him to outright releasing him before Memorial Day, when the only thing that’s changed is the rest of the team isn’t as bad as we expected.

This season is not going to end in a playoff run, no matter how much fun the first few months have been. This is a transition year, and part of that transition is moving on from Howard while developing the next group we hope leads the Phillies to another World Series. Call it Baseball Karma, but Howard deserves better than that, even if the team—and the fans—deserve better too.

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