A problem for Sandberg: What to do with Howard
The changes will occur over the next two weeks, and there are Phillies sure to pursue a postseason berth elsewhere after July 31, while Ryne Sandberg's team uses the final two months of 2014 to plan for 2015. Experiments will engulf Sandberg's lineup, and that is why a player not involved in trade rumors carries great intrigue over the season's final 67 games.
Ryan Howard will still be in Philadelphia after the trade deadline because teams do not seek a 34-year-old first baseman who is owed $72 million and whose OPS ranks 127th among 160 qualified hitters.
Howard's contract is half completed, and how the Phillies handle his situation for the remainder of 2014 could dictate their willingness to rebuild.
General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has not concealed his disappointment in Howard. Sandberg's words from February will be challenged. That is when the Phillies manager declared that a platoon situation at first base was viable - but not until Howard was afforded what the club deemed a fair opportunity to succeed. Through 397 plate appearances, his power stroke is at a career-low level.
There were no candidates to challenge Howard's playing time in June and July. That could change come August.
Darin Ruf has played 13 minor-league games after recovering from a fractured wrist. Power, typically, is the last skill to return following a wrist injury. Ruf has just one extra-base hit in those 57 minor-league plate appearances.
Maikel Franco, the team's best position-player prospect, batted .390 (16 for 41) with nine extra-base hits in nine games before the triple-A all-star break. That streak came after a two-day mental break. The Phillies want to see further consistency before promoting the 21-year-old Dominican. Franco has started 71 games at third base and 15 at first. Amaro labeled him an option at first base.
Before the all-star break, Sandberg expressed optimism about mechanical changes made to Howard's swing, adjustments designed to generate more power. With a .381 slugging percentage, he ranks fifth in the Phillies lineup behind Marlon Byrd, Chase Utley, Cody Asche, and Jimmy Rollins.
"It's just a matter of time for him," Sandberg said July 9.
Howard stumbled to the break with an .098 batting average (6 for 61) and a .378 OPS in the first half's final 17 games. There are 198 players in baseball with more doubles than Howard, who has 10. That is why, despite 15 homers, his slugging numbers are in sharp decline.
Sandberg, last September, implored Howard to spend more time analyzing video and to make the adjustments to combat the pitchers' changes. The manager thought Howard had improved his work ethic in 2014.
"He puts the time in the cage," Sandberg said. "If his batting average went up 20 or 30 points, I think you'd see him increase the doubles on balls hit in the gaps and more hard-hit balls."
Most disturbing is how pitchers have beaten Howard this season. He has seen 53.4 percent fastballs, according to FanGraphs.com, the highest rate since 2005. Breaking balls are his nemesis, but the missed opportunities at fastballs are alarming.
And, to further complicate the situation, a traditional platoon does not appear to be the right solution. Sandberg stressed improvement against lefthanded pitchers; Howard has done that. His OPS vs. lefties in 2013 was .539. It is .711 in 2014. His production against righthanders has plummeted.
Howard has a .724 OPS since 2012, when his five-year, $125 million contract extension was triggered. That ranks 143d among 199 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances during that span. The Phillies paid him $53 million for 244 games; they could not have predicted Howard's devastating Achilles injury at the conclusion of the 2011 season when the contract was signed in April 2010. They invested in a slugger's age 32-36 seasons, a certain risk.
When Sandberg spoke in spring training, he sounded like a man willing to challenge long-established plans.
"If there's some constant struggles and I need to make a change, I mean, that's for the betterment of the team," Sandberg said in February. "But I want it the other way. I want him to hit everybody and be a presence in the middle of that lineup."
That has not yet happened in 2014, and it will be fascinating to see where Howard stands after the trade deadline.
Sizing up the Phillies at the break
Two Phillies - Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley - possess full no-trade rights. Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee, A.J. Burnett, Jonathan Papelbon, Marlon Byrd, Carlos Ruiz, and Ryan Howard hold partial no-trade clauses at varying degrees. Papelbon said he would be willing to leave for a contender while the other players have not been as firm.
Rollins Nears Payday
Rollins needs 35 more plate appearances to trigger an $11 million vesting option for 2015. The team's all-time hits leader produced in May but has slowed since. His defense at shortstop remains above average, even as he approaches 36.
Giles Is Dominant
Ken Giles allowed a home run to the first batter he ever faced and no runs after. His 0.64 ERA - one earned run in 14 innings - is the best 13-game start for a Phillies reliever since Ryan Madson. Madson posted a 0.35 ERA through his first 13 major-league appearances.
Carlos Ruiz will play Thursday for single-A Clearwater and could return to the Phillies lineup sometime next week. The catcher has not played since June 26. He suffered a concussion when he was plunked in the head by an A.J. Ramos curveball.
Wil Nieves, the team's backup catcher, could return Friday from a strained right quadriceps that has sidelined him since June 18.
- Matt Gelb
Ryan Howard BY THE NUMBERS
batting average. His career average is .267.
Howard's strikeout total, the second-highest in baseball behind Atlanta's B.J. Upton.
The amount the Phillies still owe Howard
on his contract.