Inside the Phillies: Phils reverse course on Howard in hopes of dealing him
More than a month later, 35 words spoken on July 23 by Ryne Sandberg have gained significance. They now offer insight into the strategy of a desperate front office and the dynamics of an unusual relationship between a team's executives and its manager.
That day, Sandberg benched Ryan Howard for Darin Ruf, and explained his plan.
"I know what he can do," Sandberg said of Howard. "I've seen him for 100 games. I know what he can do. I think it's important to see what a guy like Darin Ruf can do also going forward."
Howard sat for three games. Since then he started 30 of the Phillies' last 31 while Sandberg backtracked on his initial comments.
In the immediate future, both Ruf and Maikel Franco could be punished. Ruf has played sporadically in the last month; Franco, one of the team's top prospects who can man both third and first base, may not play much even if he earns a September promotion.
The front office's hope, according to sources familiar with the situation, is that an American League team will take a chance on Howard if he reaches plateaus such as 25 home runs and 100 RBIs. (He is on pace for 23 homers with 99 RBIs.) Howard, who turns 35 in November, is owed $60 million after this season. While the team held internal discussions about releasing Howard, according to CSNPhilly.com, that is viewed as a last resort. Ownership is not keen on the stigma of such a move.
Both general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and Sandberg have denied that the front office exerted pressure to keep Howard in the lineup. But team executives believe a benched Howard cripples their chances of flipping him this winter.
Howard, at the time of his three-game benching, was batting .224 with a .682 OPS. He had a .236 average and .732 OPS in 125 plate appearances since then, before Friday. His season slugging percentage has improved from .377 to .382, still an 83-point drop from last season. That .382 mark ranked 109th out of 151 qualified hitters and 18th out of 20 first basemen.
While Howard could provide some value as a designated hitter, especially if the Phillies pay a large portion of his salary, his flaws are difficult to ignore. He has avoided injury in 2014, but his medical track record is not favorable. He clogs the bases. And forward-thinking AL clubs will contextualize his RBI numbers.
Howard, before this weekend's games, batted with 402 men on base, tying Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria for most in the majors. But Howard drove in those runners at a 15.4 percent rate, which ranked 57th among 159 batters with at least 400 plate appearances.
More alarming is Howard's inability to knock home runners from third base. He has batted with a league-high 82 runners on third; 28 of them scored. That 34.1 percent conversion rate ranked 111th out of 159 batters.
A player who bats cleanup as frequently as Howard is bound to accumulate RBIs. Howard is on pace for 608 plate appearances from the No. 4 spot. There were 316 batters from 1914 to 2013 with at least 600 plate appearances in one season as a cleanup hitter, and 273 of them (86.4 percent) collected 90 or more RBIs.
Just two of those 316 players had a lower OPS as a cleanup hitter than Howard's current .696.
"I think he's shown improvements," Sandberg said last week. "He's had a knack for some RBIs in those types of situations. He's done that against righthanded and lefthanded pitching, and I also see him moving around first base with a little bit more mobility."
"He has had some level of production," Amaro said. "Obviously the batting average isn't there, and he's got a lot of strikeouts. But he's driving in runs, and he's hitting some home runs. I think he can be better, and I think he's working on being better."
No one wants to see a revered player stumble toward an unceremonious exit, like the one Howard faces. It has put Sandberg in a compromising position.
"All you can ask a player, particularly a veteran player who has had success, is to continue to work, and that's what he is doing," Amaro said. "I commend him for that. By and large, he needs to continue to work on things and try to improve."
The Phillies, for now, are happy to provide Howard that opportunity.