In the coming weeks and months Philly Sports Rant is going to be examining what the 2014 Phillies will look like and what players we’ll be rooting for next year. There are some spots up for grabs, but many of the position players have already been decided, due mainly to contractual obligations. Others positions appear to have an heir apparent, but we’ll be exploring these positions nonetheless to see what hope the 2014 team will bring us.
For the time being we’ll disregard unlikely mega-trades or huge free agent acquisitions, which is not to say these are out of the realm of possibility, but we’ll be focusing on the likely opening day roster barring these events. We know there will be some changes to what we expect, but probably not too many in the starting eight. Some starting pitchers will certainly return as will certain bullpen pieces. With little help in the Free Agent market in the Phils positions of need, many Phillies spots are set for at least next year. We begin our series at first base with Ryan Howard.
The Phils will hope that Ryan Howard is healthy and can stay healthy for the entire 2014 season. Some say he’s never been 100% since rupturing his left achilles tendon on the final play of the 2011 season, in game five of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals. Howard’s play had already begun to decline before that injury however, as 2011 was the first time the power-hitting 1st baseman failed to slug over .500. That was just one of many statistics that indicated Howard’s skills had already began to erode.
Howard finished the 2011 season with a slugging percentage of .488, his lowest output since arriving in the majors in September 2004. Many fans, writers, radio talk show hosts and others believe Howard began his descent in the 2010 season shortly after signing his $125,000,000 contract. The contract extension was announced on April 26th, 2010. In the weeks leading up to the signing Howard was off to an uncharacteristically hot April. Through ten games, on April 16th Howard had a slash line of .362/.388/.702 with 3 HR’s and 14 RBI’s.
The criticism Amaro received at the time was widespread. Most everybody had the same question…why extend a 30 year-old player who had two years remaining on his current contract for an additional 5 years for $125,000,000? Where was the urgency to get it done then? Howard would then be signed through his age 36 season. At the time it was 2nd highest Average Annual Value contract next to Alex Rodriguez’s massive 10-year deal with the Yankees. Of course no one could predict the injuries Howard would endure to his Achilles tendon and subsequent knee problems, but Howard was a big man, and though he was a prolific hitter it seemed as if he was often times overweight and out of shape during his career here in Philly.
General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. had all the answers for his critics in the form of Howard’s character, recent success and the historical context of the player he had just extended. In the four years prior to the extension, Howard was one of four players in MLB history to hit at least 40 home runs and have 130+ RBIs in four straight seasons. In fact, the numbers Howard put up were even better. In 2006-2009 Ryan Howard averaged 49.5 HR’s, 143 RBI’s and 102 runs scored. His slash line those 4 years was .278/.379/.589. Two of the four years Howard lead the league in HR’s and three times he lead the league in RBI’s.
In 2007 the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres had identical records of 89-73. A one-game winner take all game was set for the Monday following the regular season to determine the wild card team that year (there was only one wild card in 2007). In game 163 of the “regular season” the Rockies hosted the Padres at Coors field and won by a 9-8 score. In that game Rockie Matt Holiday had two RBI’s to finish the regular season with 137. That season Ryan Howard had 136 RBI’s, but because this “play in” game was considered part of the regular season and not a playoff game, Holiday finished with one more RBI than Howard, who finished second.
Without that game Howard would have been the RBI champion in 2007. Instead of leading the league in RBI’s three of four years, Howard would have stood alone in the baseball annals by winning four straight RBI titles. That’s right, no player in the history of the Major League Baseball has ever lead the league in RBI’s four straight years. Not the Bambino, The Splendid Splinter, Double X, Stan the Man…nobody. Superstar Willie the Say Hey Kid Mays never lead the league in RBI’s though he twice broke the 50 HR barrier, is a two-time MVP and 11th all-time in RBI’s with 1903. Howard would have been breathing rarified air, that’s for sure.
Amaro saw how salaries were skyrocketing year after year and contract lengths were beginning to grow beyond five years. Amaro saw the 10-year, $275,000,000 contract the Yankees had recently given Alex Rodriguez and he wasn’t about to get caught up in numbers like those in future dealings with Howard. He was afraid if Howard hit free agency the Phillies may be outbid by one of the maniacal owners who ruled the day in Major League Baseball. He wasn’t taking any chances on losing his slugging superstar first baseman and made Howard an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Amaro thought locking Howard up at that time, for that price, would eventually save the Phillies money and keep a huge slugger in the middle of their lineup for years to come. Amaro was also enamored with the number of runs Howard drove in, though the sabermaticians of the day began to wonder aloud just how good Ryan Howard was. Sure he drove in a lot of runs, but many aspects of his game left much to be desired. When Ken Rosenthal of Foxsports asked Ruben Amaro Jr. how he views RBI’s – and included in that question the opinion of the sabermetric crowd who believe RBI’s are over-weighted by baseball’s mainstream thinkers, Amaro’s reply was unambiguous to say the least. “The sabermetricians are welcome to have their opinions about our business; however, I choose to ignore their opinions.” In retrospect it reminds me of how he answered the question about the team Amaro was assembling for 2013 when a writer suggested there may not be enough high OBP hitters taking walks in the lineup. Amaro’s reply was that he doesn’t care about walks…ignoring the sabermatricians yet again.
Personally I see the value of sabermetrics in baseball, but don’t allow them to rule my opinions and don’t discount statistics like RBI’s when evaluating a player’s worth. I see the advanced statistics of today as one more tool in assessing players strengths and weaknesses, but there’s not one single statistic that dominates my thinking about a position player or pitcher.
Having the advantage of hindsight, which is always 20-20, we see that Howard’s production did begin to slip with the signing of his contract extension. After the incredible four-year run Howard put together he had five-year lows in most every category. Prior to the amazing four years that preceded the 2010 season was Howard’s rookie campaign, in which he only played 88 games but still won Rookie of the Year honors with a .288/.356/.567 slash line that included 22 bangs and 63 RBI’s.
In 2010-11 combined Howard’s slash line was .265/.350/.495 while averaging 32 HR’s, 112 RBI’s and 84 runs scored. These are still very good offensive numbers but a far cry from the numbers he put up the previous four seasons. He averaged 17.5 less HR’s, 31 less RBI’s and 18 runs scored per game while watching his slugging percentage drop .094 from the hey day that was 2006-2009.
Lingering issues to his achilles tendon, and more recently a meniscus problem requiring surgery on his left knee have marred Howard’s 2012 and 2013 campaigns. We know the 71 games he played in 2012 was basically played on one leg. This year he was supposedly healthy to start the season. Though his numbers did improve over his 2012 stats his power numbers, particularly HR’s was down – and down bad. In the glory days of 2006-09 Howard averaged one bang per 11.8 AB’s. In 2010-11 that number dropped to one per 17.3 AB’s. In 2013 Howard was only averaging one HR per 26 AB’s before going on the DL for the remainder of the season.
Howard’s fall from grace is definitely traceable back to 2010, before the injuries started to mount and right after he signed his massive contract. I for one am not going to attempt to read Howard’s heart and mind. I don’t know the man. I’m not going to attack his integrity, work ethic or motivation to play great baseball and win another World Series. I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves and you, the reader, can draw your own conclusions as to why Howard has had such a precipitous fall from the top of baseball’s slugging world.
The past is just that, the past. This purpose of this article is intended to look forward, specifically to 2014, but Ruben Amaro Jr. must understand the history of Howard’s performance in order to properly plan how he intends to use him next year. Although Amaro hasn’t completely ruled out platooning Howard next year, when speaking on the subject you get the impression he see’s health as Howard’s only obstacle in rejoining baseball’s elite power hitters. He doesn’t dismiss the possibility of platooning him, but you can feel his desire to have Howard return to some semblance of his former self and to play every day.
It would be tough to explain to Monty and the other owners why the Phils are paying $85,000,000 over the next three years for a platoon player. I expect Howard will get every opportunity and then some to be the every day 1st baseman for the Phils next year. His recent performance, injury history and massive contract make him virtually untradeable, even if the Phils are willing to take back a good amount of the money owed to Howard. How much would they have to take back to even begin drawing interest from other teams – especially AL teams who could possibly use Howard as a DH? With his recent injury history I’d say that’s a moot question for the time being, as what can Howard add to any team from the bench or DL? He must first prove he’s healthy to even entertain the idea of trading him. Also, I’ve never known the Phils to take back a large portion of any contract in their history to facilitate a trade. The amount they’d have to take back on a healthy Howard may still be enormous.
The Phillies and Ruben Amaro Jr. are betting that with an entire offseason to get healthy and in baseball shape, Howard can still be a force in the middle of their lineup. It may just work out that way. A healthy Howard that could be a 30 HR/100 RBI player would still have a strong impact in the middle of the lineup. No one expects Howard to be the beast he was in 2006-09 again. Those days are in the rear view mirror and will always be remembered fondly.
With Manuel now gone all eyes are on Amaro. Him and Montgomery became smitten with the “Phillie for life” mentality that lead to Rollins 3-4 year deal in the 2011 offseason. That philosophy was more recently brought to the fore with Chase Utley’s recent extension. Several of the homegrown core favorites from the 2008 team are still with the Phillies (Hamels, Howard, Rollins, Ruiz & Utley) as they head into the twilight of their careers, with the notable exception of Cole Hamels who is in his prime. Was it nostalgia, jersey sales and selling tickets that drove this mentality or is it more deeply rooted in winning baseball games – as the goal should be?
Spring Training 2014 will hopefully address these questions with strong baseball answers. Do these one-time superstars still have enough tread on the tires to produce a team capable of challenging for another world championship. A healthy and rejuvenated Ryan Howard will go a long way in the team achieving it’s goal of reaching and playing deep into the playoffs. The question that won’t be answered until next April when regular season games begin is this…is Amaro’s strategy a road map to success?
An offseason or spring training injury that sets Howard back and doesn’t allow him to start next season healthy won’t necessarily cripple the Phils chances, but it would hurt…and hurt bad. Here’s hoping The Big Piece will be driven to prove his doubters wrong. A player that is a home run threat every time he steps to the plate is always an asset. That’s who Ryan Howard was. Now the question is who will Ryan Howard be on opening day 2014?