Ford: If at first the Phils don't succeed ...

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Phillies' first baseman Tommy Joseph fields Braves' Freddie Freeman's ground ball. YONG KIM/Staff Photographer

ommy Joseph, who is auditioning to be the next regular first baseman for the Phillies following Ryan Howard's 11-year run at the position, might not turn out to be the answer there, of course. In fact, the historical odds are against him.

Since he hit well at Lehigh Valley in a couple of dozen games this season, it's reasonable to give him a try, but as a prospect he's not even as promising as Darin Ruf following a 38-home run season for Reading in 2012.

Ruf had his chances to unseat the declining Howard. Now he's a month away from his 30th birthday, loitering around .260 for Lehigh Valley, and no one still thinks he's going to be the next thing at first base.

Filling the position isn't easy. At least it hasn't been for the Phillies over the years. When Howard became the regular first baseman in 2005, he was the eighth player to hold the position in 12 years, starting with John Kruk in 1994 and continuing through Dave Hollins, Gregg Jefferies, Rico Brogna, Pat Burrell, Travis Lee, and Jim Thome.

Howard's reign at first is the longest in franchise history. Pete Rose was there for five straight seasons, and before that you have to go back to the six-year run of Don Hurst that ended in 1933. Who could ever forget it?

The position offers only a slippery foothold, because it requires a player to hit and hit for power while playing at least acceptable defense. There aren't any good-field, no-hit first basemen, and for half of major-league baseball, there is a name for first basemen who can't field well enough: They are called designated hitters.

Howard lasted, though, to become the greatest at that position in franchise history, even if the last five seasons have described a downward arc that will reach the far horizon at the close of this season.

"He knows where he's at," manager Pete Mackanin said, after meeting with Howard on Wednesday to let him know Joseph would get an extended stretch of starts in his place. "He's accepted what I'm doing."

Finding the next Ryan Howard will be as difficult as finding the first one. The organization has drafted a bunch of first basemen recently, but predicting that any of them will stick in the big leagues, or become regulars at the position for a number of years, is impossible.

Joseph, a converted catcher who moved to first after suffering four concussions, came to the organization in the Hunter Pence trade with San Francisco. The other prospects in the system were draft picks. It doesn't matter if you're looking at Brock Stassi at Lehigh Valley, who hit .300 for Reading last season; Rhys Hoskins at Reading, who combined for a .319 average and 17 home runs between Clearwater and Lakewood; or Kyle Martin at Clearwater, who showed promise in his first season at Lakewood. They are all in the same mix - and none not struggling somewhat as they step up the ladder this season.

Looking at both the landscape for the future, and the one from the franchise's past, it's not hard to place Howard in his proper perspective among Phillies first basemen. He hit 262 of his 365 career home runs during a six-season run between 2006 and 2011 and pounded out a consistent bass line as the Phils enjoyed their most sustained period of winning baseball in team history.

He will forever be a legend here, even though his arrival was delayed by the organization because of Thome, and even though injury and age have tarnished the last five years. It will be interesting to see how baseball history views him. His numbers are borderline low for the Hall of Fame. Howard was great when he was great, but it wasn't for that long. He is definitely behind at least one contemporary at the position - Albert Pujols - and could be behind Mark Teixeira as well. Last year, at the age of 35, Pujols hit 40 home runs, Teixeira hit 31, and both made the All-Star Game. Howard, also 35 last season, did hit 23 home runs, but had six strikeouts for each one of them.

"I'm not going to quit," Howard said last week. "That's the easiest thing to do, quit and give up when things are hard. You've got to continue to battle, and that's what I'm going to do."

Howard has been that rarest thing for this franchise - a first baseman who lasted. Maybe he lasted a little too long, maybe the franchise didn't do enough to locate a replacement, maybe this era could have closed out differently, but it was surely a long way from beginning to end.

So, take what you can from these last four months of having Howard around. It's troubling to see him go, not just because of what he has been at first base, but because of how long it might take someone else to stand there a while.

bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports