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.