The Ryan Howard Question

Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

The Phillies were in the midst of a hot streak, and I was in the midst of a sweltering summer day in St. Louis, sitting on a plastic chair and staring into a camera near the on-deck circle on the visitor’s side of the diamond. This was Philly Sports Talk on Comcast SportsNet, and everybody back in the studio seemed pretty jazzed to finally be able to entertain some shred of hope for a sustained baseball season. That left me in the position of a storm cloud on somebody else’s sunny day, which is, believe it or not, something that makes me feel bad inside. So after droning on (and on, and on) about the case for tempered expectations, I added a hopeful note. Everything I said could be wrong if Ryan Howard goes on one of his summertime tears that we saw nearly annually from 2005 through 2011.

Howard was in the middle of a week or so of solid play, so I was mostly covering my flank. But it was an honest statement, and, sure enough, Howard hit a home run and drove in three of the Phillies’ four runs that night. But as we approach the All-Star Break, we are also approaching a time when we must consider the possibility that there will be no summertime run, and that Ryan Howard circa 2014 is a .235/.310/.403 hitter. And if we consider that possibility, we must also consider the question that it sets up:

Where do the Phillies go from here at first base? Or, is there anywhere to go?

To pin the Phillies’ offensive futility solely on the big guy is obviously unfair. But we have already paid plenty of attention to the other problems, most notably centerfield and left field. But the thing the Phillies are most lacking is the thing they thought they had when they gave Howard a five-year, $125 million extension that essentially locked him up to a seven-year, $165+ million contract in the spring of 2010. The Big Piece. Virtually every serious lineup has one. And the Phillies’ lack of one is one of the biggest reasons to doubt their ability to compete over the next couple of seasons.

Since 2012, the Phillies have a .766 OPS out of the No. 4 spot in the order, which ranks 19th in the majors and fourth in the National League East. This year, they have a .706 OPS, which ranks 10th in the National League. Howard’s 2012 and 2013 campaigns were shortened by surgeries, which is why the Phillies believed this was going to be the year that showed why he was still worthy of that hefty contract. He was healthy. He had lost weight. He was back where he would usually be at the start of the season.

But the numbers speak for themselves, particularly the power numbers. Only 6.8 percent of his plate appearances have resulted in extra base hits, which is below the MLB average of 7.8, and well below his numbers last season (10.4 percent) and in his career (10.7 percent). He is walking and striking out at about the same pace that he was in 2010 and 2011, but he is hitting .235, and only 32 percent of his hits have gone for extra bases. Over the course of his career, 46 percent of his hits have gone for extra bases.


Which Phillie would bring the most in a trade?

This season, 27 first basemen in the majors have at least 200 plate appearances. The following are Howard’s ranks among those 27 players:

OPS: 21 (.713)

HR: T-8th (14)

OBP: 21 (.310)

SLG: 18 (.403)

RBI: 8 (51)

SO: 1 (103)

This is the lowest OPS Howard has ever carried this late into a season (the only exception 2012, when he returned from his ACL surgery on July 6.

The point is, Howard isn’t even an average offensive fist baseman right now, and he was barely average in the 151 games he played in 2012-13 with a 103 OPS+ (100 is average).

We don’t mention all of this in order assign blame. The Phillies stated goal is to not be awful for the next five years, and they are awful right now, which leads us to believe that they will need to improve on their current roster in order to avoid being awful in the future. That conclusion leads us to questions of supply and demand. At what positions do the Phillies have the most ground to make up? At what positions will there be available upgrades? Clearly, the second question is depended on the first, because the worse the Phillies are at a given position, the more players there are who would represent an improvement.

The easiest position to upgrade is left field, assuming Domonic Brown’s struggles continue and the Phillies are not willing to enter 2015 with him as their left fielder. Relative to the league average, Phillies left fielders have a 57 OPS+, where a 100 OPS+ is the league average.

Where else can they upgrade? They are league average at shortstop and catcher and, taking away Cody Asche’s stint on the disabled list, third base. They are above league average at right field and second base. That leaves center field, where they are an 82 OPS+ relative to league average, and first base, where they are an 84 OPS+ relative to league average. But centerfield is a premium position and first base is not, which means there tends to be a greater supply of first basemen, which means it could be easier to upgrade at first base than centerfield. 

Now, all of this assumes that the Phillies really do think they have a chance at competing in 2015 and 2016, and they really would consider signing a Melky Cabrera or a Nelson Cruz to play left field, or a Colby Rasmus to play center field. But given Rasmus’ similarity to B.J. Upton at the time Upton signed a five-year, $75 million contract with the Braves, it could take a foolish investment to land the lone free agent upgrade in center field. Cruz and Cabrera both had PED suspensions, and Cruz will be a 35-year-old who wasn’t very good at defense when he was 33 years old. 

Again, if the Phillies are really serious about having a fighting chance in 2015, their wisest move might be to spend the bulk of their available resources on pitching while prioritizing value on offense. And they would have a lot more options if first base was part of the equation. If moving Chase Utley to first base was an option, they could consider Ben Zobrist (although he has a $7.5 million option), or take a flier on a Kelly Johnson or Rickie Weeks, completely shuffle the infield and consider J.J. Hardy or Jed Lowrie or Asdrubal Cabrera or Chase Headley, with Rollins or Asche moving to second.

All of this might seem like an exercise in the absurd, but, then, the Phillies’ belief they can compete in the short-term puts them on that path.

The reality, of course, is that Howard isn’t going anywhere. He is owed $25 million in 2015 and 2016 and has a $10 million buyout of a $23 million option in 2017. He can’t be traded, and the Phillies would stun everybody if they brought in a replacement. Which leaves them two positions to upgrade the offense while keeping everything else the same. 

Which suggests that, for the foreseeable future, the results will be the same as well.

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