Spring Storylines: The First Base Black Hole

Well friends, we’ve finally come to the end. This season will be Ryan Howard‘s last in a Phillies uniform. He’ll receive his $25 million salary, then a $10 million buyout, and he’ll take his 380± home runs to an American League city (I’m assuming he hits about 20 homers in 2016). Until then, the Phillies will deploy Howard as the exceedingly expensive half of a first base platoon, which is just about the worst use of two roster spots on a young team I can imagine. That’s not a knock on Klentak & Co., as their hands are tied by a sunk cost incurred long before their stewardship of the local nine.

We’re hopefully approaching the point where it’s no longer en vogue to openly mock the Phillies, but it’s been fashionable for so long that by now you’ve been saturated with reasons why your favorite baseball team stinks. So I’m not going too far down that rabbit hole — after all, I’ve been Captain Optimism for quite some time now — but I am going to respectfully remind you that in 2016, the Phillies will be spending (effectively) $35.5 million on a first base platoon. Woof.

Ryan Howard, despite his well-documented and precipitous decline, managed to have the 8th-best ISO among 20 qualifying first basemen last year. That’s not saying a lot, but it’s decidedly nonawful. Hey, that was better than Jose Abreu, Miguel Cabrera, and Buster Posey. Of course, ISO isn’t an all-encompassing valuation of a hitter, but if you want to know if your first baseman is hitting the ball real hard, it’s a pretty good metric. Unfortunately, for that “empty” ISO — Howard registered -0.4 fWAR and a 92 wRC+ along with a 27.4% strikeout rate — the Phillies are paying Howard more money than any other first baseman in baseball not named Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols. If you tack on the buyout, Howard’s effective 2016 salary is tops among all players at his position. That is absolutely brutal considering Howard was 20th out of 20 qualifying first basemen in 2015 fWAR, and 40th out of 44 1Bs who had at least 250 plate appearances. Again, a sunk cost, but one that still carries a keen sting.

I’ve already written my thoughts on Darin Ruf, in my 2015 report card, and nothing has changed since then. In admittedly limited and spotty playing time, he hasn’t shown he can consistently hit right-handers. Well, in a technical sense, he can physically make contact, but as I said in November, “.212/.281/.380 against righties isn’t going to cut it, especially for a first baseman.” Nonetheless, Ruf isn’t a free agent until 2020, so until one of the prospect catchers or outfielders (Andrew Knapp, Dylan Cozens, or perhaps 1B Rhys Hoskins) hits so well that he forces the franchise to clear the way at first, Ruf is presumably here to stay.

If by some stroke of good fortune the Phillies are able to pay an American League club to take Howard at some point this season, perhaps Darin Ruf will get two or three months to play every day and maybe even hit righties a little bit. I want to make it abundantly clear that when I say good fortune, I don’t bear any ill will toward Howard. I want him to succeed, have a renaissance even. Badly. I’ll always love him for who he was, but it’s painful to now see the onetime superstar as the albatross around the neck of the franchise.

John Stolnis of The Good Phight recently made the case that the Phillies should pursue free agent Pedro Alvarez on the cheap. I respectfully disagree with John as there really doesn’t seem to be a point in signing Alvarez, who managed just 0.2 fWAR in 2015 amidst a 26.7% strikeout rate and a .243/.318/.469 triple slash line. It’s possible he isn’t even an upgrade over Howard, whose 2015 was strikingly similar at .229/.277/.443. Considering the Phillies have already surrendered $35 million to this black hole, why bother spending a penny more for a player who’s not going to move the needle much, if at all? Besides, it wouldn’t align with the organization’s new approach of letting their younger players prove themselves while the team is still down in the dumps. First base can be an option for other players who need at-bats, like Cody Asche, or perhaps Maikel Franco on occasion when Pete Mackanin wants to fit Andres Blanco and Franco into the lineup on a Howard/Ruf off day.

What’s done is done. If the sun shines a little bit on Ryan Howard this season, I’ll be first in line to cheer. If Darin Ruf proves me wrong and forces his way into 400-plus plate appearances, that’ll be great too. But realistically, we’re just looking to power through one more season before the real fun starts in 2017.

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