CINCINNATI - Ryan Howard will attempt to keep his baseball career alive with the team he seemed to haunt as the former Phillies slugger signed a minor-league contract on Thursday afternoon with the Atlanta Braves.
Howard, who played his final game with the Phillies last October, will report to Atlanta's extended spring training in Disney World. He lives near Clearwater, Fla. Howard, 37, will then be assigned to Atlanta's triple-A affiliate in Gwinnett, Ga.
The Braves are desperate in the majors for a lefthanded hitter on the bench, and Howard could fill that role. He also could be used as a designated hitter when Atlanta plays seven road games next month against American League teams.
The Gwinnett Braves do not visit Lehigh Valley until July. Howard would hope to be in the majors by then. The Phillies visit Atlanta in June, which could be Howard's reunion with his old team.
"He wanted to continue to play, and now he's going to get the opportunity," said Tommy Joseph, who split time as a rookie last season with Howard. "I'm sure he's really looking forward to getting the opportunity to go do that. I'll try and get a hold of him shortly and see how he's doing and what the plan is for him.
"I think that's great. I saw him during spring training, and he was really excited about trying to get the opportunity to do this."
The Phillies declined Howard's $25 million option for this season and instead paid him a $10 million buyout. His contract with the Braves — which he will earn at a prorated portion of if he reaches the majors — is worth $750,000, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Howard batted .196 last season but said he still planned to play and continued to train in Florida. Howard's future looked bleak when the season started without him.
"To me it wasn't as much about his hitting as it was his mobility, defensively speaking," manager Pete Mackanin said. "I'm happy for him."
Howard batted .262 with a .932 OPS in last season's second half after hitting .154 with a .567 OPS in the first half. The Braves will have to hope Howard found something in the second half. The 37-year-old hit 382 homers in 13 seasons with the Phillies. He hit 52 homers against the Braves, more than any other opponent.
Howard joins Chase Utley (Los Angeles Dodgers); Jayson Werth and Joe Blanton (Washington); Cole Hamels (Texas); Ryan Madson (Oakland); Carlos Ruiz (Seattle); Kyle Kendrick (Boston); and J.A. Happ (Toronto) as 2008 Phillies who are still playing. Jimmy Rollins was released by San Francisco after spring training but may still be looking to join a team.
"Just a no-risk proposition for a player with a good makeup who was excellent in the second half last season," Braves general manager John Coppolella told the Journal Constitution. "He's in good shape and has been training and waiting for an opportunity."