Sandberg stresses the importance of Howard returning in baseball shape

Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Phillies interim manager Ryne Sandberg feels first baseman Ryan Howard has the ability to be a major run producer despite two subpar and injury-plagued years, provided he is in the best possible baseball shape.

Howard hasn’t been the same since tearing his left Achilles tendon in the final playoff game of 2011, a 1-0 loss to the visiting St. Louis Cardinals.

He returned and played in 71 games last year. This season he was hampered by a sore left knee that finally caused him to have surgery on July 10.

Howard has begun working on baseball activities in Clearwater, but Sandberg sees no need for his first baseman to return to the Phillies before season’s end.

“At this point I think it would be counterproductive,” Sandberg said before Thursday’s game with the Colorado Rockies at Citizens Bank Park. “I don’t know what playing 10, 12 15 games (would do).”

Sandberg says the most important thing is for Howard to be his absolute fittest when spring training beings. He says that isn’t going to happen between now and the end of the season.

 “It is really about Ryan getting into the top baseball shape he can be in,” Sandberg said. “I think he was hampered some with the injury and I don’t know if he ever got back in true baseball shape.”  

Sandberg expects this to happen.

“I think he can get to that baseball shape, get trimmed up to a weight that is a playing weight that he can be productive along with having his knee behind him,” Sandberg said. “I think he favored that this year, not really having his leg strength all the time with his batting.”

Howard, who turns 34 in November, averaged 132 RBIs per season from 2006 through 2011. Sandberg feels there is no reason why he can’t remain a productive run producer.

“He still has a knack for getting RBIs even if isn’t totally swinging the ball or hitting the ball out of the ball park,” Sandberg said. “He still gets RBIs in situations.”

So it all goes back to Howard being in baseball shape.

“Start with that first and then allow his ability (to take over) and what the numbers are, just let those fall into place,” Sandberg said.