The Afterthought Lies In Wait

This has been a ripe year for trivia questions we’ll ask ourselves years down the line. Can you name every player who played center field? How many players had first names starting with J? Who were the two Steves that saw playing time? Test your friends!

It’s a forgettable year, but one that was expected by everyone this side of the Marcus Hayes Line. Even the rosiest glasses were scuffed by the letdown of 2012, and the possibility that 2013 would play out just as it has was far from the craziest of suggestions.

Aside from meaningless minutiae and realized disappointments like that, the hope is that the next question asked alongside those will go something like this: remember that time we forgot about Ryan Howard?

A key player from a World Series-winning team will never actually be “forgotten,” not in the literal or even loose interpretation of the word. Still, in the middle of a career twilight that’s already longer than many hoped, Howard finds himself something of an afterthought. Among the insular Phillies-centric circles of water cooler talk and print journalism in all its forms, Howard’s name still comes up. But it no longer comes up attached to things like “cornerstone,” or “elite” or…”preeminent.” No, the years of “only” being above average, followed up by injury-hampered traipses through partial seasons, have stripped Howard of his crown jewels and left the once-hulking figure in search of redemption.

And perhaps a dimmer spotlight is what Howard needs. The focus hasn’t been on him for months (aside from intermittent rehab updates; his last game was July 5), and things won’t be any different this winter. We’ll get the updates as Howard ramps up his conditioning, takes infield and begins running the bases, but with so many other cracks in the hull of the franchise in need of puttying, Howard’s exploits will be back-burnered from the get-go.

This isn’t to say Howard is irrelevant, not by any stretch. If the Phillies are indeed aiming to be a competitive team in 2014 after finishing low enough to draft at their highest position since plucking Gavin Floyd fourth overall in 2001; coincidentally, the same draft in which they snagged Howard in the fifth round, 140th overall. Howard, at presumed full health, is a better player than the amalgamation of imitation first basemen trotted out in his stead in the season’s latter months. He can still hit right-handed pitchers with authority, too. Considering his hobbled self managed to crank out a .302/.357/.522 line in 230 PA against righties this season – admittedly BABIP-inflated – shows that all is not lost.

But there are bigger fish to fry. If Howard is healthy, he’s going to be the everyday first baseman. There’s no controversy or debating it, it’s truth and fact and inevitability. He will be put in the fourth spot of the order, regardless of the opposing starter’s handedness. None of this is nail-bitingly tense stuff.

No, this is a list of what’s more worrisome:

  • How comfortable are you with three of the five rotation spots?
  • Who’s playing right field?
  • Who’s catching?
  • Who, in heaven’s name, can be a reliable relief pitcher?
  • Can Cody Asche hold third base? Can Chase Utley’s rather triumphantly full 2013 see replication in 2014? Can Jimmy Rollins hold off the relentless march of athletic aging for one more year?
  • And on and on

For once, Howard is not and will not be front-and-center. There are simply too many other concerns to focus too much energy on a player whose role as a key player has evaporated. Besides, a healthy Howard does not fix a lineup that ranks in the lower half of the National League in runs, hits, extra-base hits, steals (and SB efficiency) and each of the triple slash numbers all by himself. Nor does he overcome every blown lead by a bullpen that has wasted its fair share in ’13.

Baseball is an individual sport disguised as a team game, to be sure, but not player leads a team to success without help. In the case of the yet-to-come Phillies, the help is more important than Howard.

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8 comments

  1. joecatz

    September 27, 2013 01:55 PM

    * Pretty comfortable
    * Hopefully Brown (with someone other than Ruf in the other corner)
    * Chooch
    * Martin, Diekman, Rosenberg, Bastardo and Papelbon
    * Yes. Yes. Probably not.
    * I put my hands up in the air sometimes….. (sorry that made me think of that song.)

  2. Kevin

    September 27, 2013 02:47 PM

    *comfortable
    *Ruf
    *Ruiz
    *Ethan Martin
    *Yes, Yes, No

  3. Bob

    September 27, 2013 04:12 PM

    *Uncomfortable
    *Dom Brown
    *Ruiz
    *No one currently on the roster
    *Until Franco gets here, slight decline, no

  4. tonybps1

    September 27, 2013 08:27 PM

    *not at all. lee is same age roy started breaking down, cole was a true ace 1 year, mag is unknown, kendick is a quad-a player.
    *brown..but what brown? pre-asg or post-asg?
    *carlos. with amaro at the helm, he’ll get a 3 year, $39m contract
    *none unless they trade lee to the cardinals for some of theirs
    *no.. hes more like a nick punto-type rather than a major leaguer, utley will be fine, rollins cant reverse father time or suddenly stop popping up or striking out at this age,
    *its not going to be a good 10 years, thanks to ruben’s ineptness. even is franco does turn out to be good, who else will hit?

  5. Jerome

    September 27, 2013 09:27 PM

    How comfortable are you with three of the five rotation spots?
    meh…let’s see what happens this off-season – but right now, uncomfortable

    Who’s playing right field?
    Nelson Cruz? I wouldn’t be opposed…

    Who’s catching?
    Ruiz

    Who, in heaven’s name, can be a reliable relief pitcher?
    Bastardo, and Papelbon (but he’s still overpaid and a complete @$$)

    Can Cody Asche hold third base?
    Well, probably…he can’t be much worse than most of the 3rd basemen the Phils have thrown out there over the last few years…Feliz, Nunez, Bell, Polanco (the second time), etc.

    Can Chase Utley’s rather triumphantly full 2013 see replication in 2014?
    Probably not, but he’ll still add value

    Can Jimmy Rollins hold off the relentless march of athletic aging for one more year?
    He’ll bounce back, but not all the way back.

    I think the next time this team could be really good is 2017.

  6. EricL

    September 27, 2013 11:42 PM

    *Pants-crapping uncomfortable. After Lee and Hamels you’ve got nobody you can count on.

    *Brown. Choo in LF, Revere in CF

    *Ruiz

    *Diekman, Bastardo, Papelbon, De Fratus(?), Martin, for starters.

    *Eh, better than M. Young. Possibly; I don’t rule out the possibility of a bounce-back year from J-Roll.

    The big issues are solidifying the bottom of the rotation, finding a supplemental OF so that you don’t have to run Ruf out there every day, as he’s much better suited for a platoon/bench/400 AB role and the bottom of the rotation. Did I mention spots 3-5 in the rotation?

  7. Pencilfish

    September 28, 2013 02:03 PM

    If Asche, Utley and Brown are the answers for 3 positions, and with Lee/Hamels fronting a rotation, who’s front and center if not Howard and the BP?

    Howard is and remains the cog that drives the offense until some other player proves otherwise. If one looks at Howard’s 2011 season (644 PA and .835 OPS in last healthy full season) and combine his 2012/2013 seasons (609 PA .752 OPS *and* assume he’s somewhat hampered by injuries), one can estimate he will perform somewhere in that range in 2014. That’s 25-33 HR and 99-116 RBI. Anyone who thinks the Phillies don’t miss his production (even if that’s a diminished Howard) is out of his mind.

    The 2013 Phillies couldn’t hit, score, pitch (when Lee or Hamels were not on the mound) or field. A full, healthy season of Howard (plus a RH power-hitting bat like Bautista) can go a long way to address the first two problems.

    The BP is a disaster. I don’t trust any of the good performances from August to now. It reminds me how Aumont and Horst fooled us in late 2012. Until these guys replicate it next year, this could be another mirage. With Adams availability in question, RAJ may have to get another BP piece via trade or FA.

    The Phillies 3-5 spots in the rotation is not as important as rotation depth. One could argue the Phillies need 10 SP in the majors and minors to play a full season. We only 6 right now (Lee, Hamels, MAG, Cloyd, Morgan and Biddle).

  8. Mark66

    September 30, 2013 03:33 PM

    It’s going to be an interesting off season. If they stand pat then expect another long and uneventful year(2014). If they make changes, let’s hope for the best. It’s way too soon to speculate.

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