Ryan Howard Has Come Full Circle

I remember when Ryan Howard first made his mark on the Phillies. I was thirteen years old, and he was called up to replace an injured Jim Thome. I love Jim Thome; he’s my favorite player of all time. So when Howard hit 22 home runs in about half a season, and I read reports that Howard was ready to replace Thome permanently, I was not happy. Then he won Rookie of the Year. That offseason, Thome was traded to the White Sox for noted face-smasher Aaron Rowand and a couple prospects, including Gio Gonzalez.

This was before I paid attention to the minor leagues and before I knew anything about advanced stats. All I knew was that I loved Jim Thome, and Ryan Howard forced him off the team. I was furious.

Then Ryan Howard came out in 2006, hit 58 home runs, and won the MVP. All with that charismatic smile and swagger. Being a fickle young fan, my opinion immediately changed. I still loved Jim Thome, but there was room in my heart for Ryan Howard too. And there was plenty of room for his trademark booming opposite field home runs.

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

(Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Howard has been a fixture in the Phillies lineup ever since, for better or for worse. Lately, it’s been for the worse. I don’t need to recite the statistics to you; I’m sure you know. But let’s just say this is his third consecutive year running a negative WAR tally, and each year has been negative-er than the last. But over the last 12 years, he’s provided fans with more than enough memorable moments. He hit 48 homers in 2008; I think it’s safe to say the Phillies wouldn’t have won a World Series without him. But he’s a shell of that explosive hitter now, and his career arc has come full circle. He’s now the aging veteran with an injury history blocking an up-and-coming prospect.

Tommy Joseph is the closest thing the Phillies have to an in-house replacement, and there has been some level of confusion or, dare I say, tension regarding his current role with the Phillies. He was supposed to take the role of Howard’s right-handed caddie; he’d start when there was a lefty on the mound, roughly 30% of the time. The thing is Howard has been terrible against righties too, and so logically the Phillies should be giving the 24-year-old Joseph some opportunities against same-handed hurlers as well.

Recently, Pete Mackanin said Joseph would be seeing more starts against righties. Slightly more recently Ryan Howard indicated to the media that he was not pleased about that. Even more recently still, Mackanin back-tracked on his comments, saying that Howard would not see a significant reduction in playing time, no matter that Joseph has produced more fWAR this season in 39 PAs (0.4) than Howard has in the past 7 seasons combined (0.2).

I want to go back to Jim Thome for a second. In 2005, after Ryan Howard’s rookie year, Jim agreed to waive his no-trade clause, with the condition that the Phillies trade somewhere near Chicago so he could be with his family. He saw that Ryan Howard was the future of the Phillies, and bowed out gracefully. And that man could still hit. In 2006, while Howard was winning the MVP, Thome hit 42 home runs and accumulated 4.8 fWAR for the White Sox. Not bad for being run out of town.

(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

I think Ryan Howard could take a lesson from his own early career roadblock. Imagine if Jim Thome had taken the stance that Ryan Howard is now. He had the right to; he’d earned his position and his paycheck, and despite his injuries, he was still a very productive player (he’d go on to hit another 182 home runs in his career).

The Howard-Joseph situation is not exactly analogous to the Thome-Howard situation. For one, Joseph only has 39 career plate appearances and is not a can’t-miss prospect. And there’s no Chicago to trade Howard to. The best he could hope for this offseason is a minor league deal with an AL club and an outside chance to be a DH. But let’s also acknowledge that 2016 Ryan Howard is no 2006 Jim Thome.

I’ve been thinking about that situation a lot this season. Jim Thome could see the writing on the wall, and the Phillies were better off for it. Ryan Howard cannot, and the Phillies are suffering.

However, I don’t think the vitriol directed at Howard is justified. Now, of course, he is the one who cannot seem to grasp his declining ability, but that’s just the nature of the hyper-competitiveness that propels players into the MLB in the first place. Do you think Howard could have hit 198 home runs in four years without that fire? He believed every time he came to the plate that he could go yard, and he still thinks that. From an outsider’s perspective, I’d guess that’s why he’s been as ornery as he has in the media about the prospect of being relegated to the bench.

And let’s be clear here; Ryan Howard, for all his shortcomings, is an all-time Phillies great. On the Phillies franchise leader board, he’s second in home runs; third in RBIs; fourth in extra-base hits; sixth in total bases; ninth in PAs. He’ll be a worthy induction to the Phillies Wall of Fame when he retires. He’s done all that and believes he can do it again; there’s something admirable and tragic about that mindset, as frustrating as it can be to an outsider. But if that mindset is what propelled him to be great in the first place, well, would you trade a World Series for to avoid this?

I wouldn’t, and it seems the Phillies wouldn’t either.

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12 comments

  1. Chris S.

    June 01, 2016 10:16 AM

    Mackanin’s job is to put his team in a position to win the game he should have told Howard to hit the ball to get his lineup spot back.

  2. GB

    June 01, 2016 10:48 AM

    I fault the Phillies much more than Howard for letting it get to this point and allowing if not pushing the double standard regarding his playing time/role.

    The Phillies should have traded or released Howard several years ago once it was clear the run was over and a rebuild was necessary. Unfortunately, the Phillies resisted the rebuild until last season and, by then, Howard’s performance had hit bottom, his value was nil, his contract was unmovable and the PR hit was considered to be too great by the Phillies to release him.

    Thus they have put themselves in an untenable position where they need to play Howard to mollify him and keep up PR appearances until his contract ends and they can walk away “cleanly” in their minds. But they also have an obligation to identify the next 1B for the team as part of the rebuild they are now engaged in. IMO, it is obvious their fear of anger from Howard (dating back to Sandberg who dared bench Howard and was swiftly put in his place by management) and PR in general currently outweigh their interest in finding a young talented replacement who can help the team.

    Most of the case has been built on the “Howard is not blocking anyone legit” argument. This has been easy to use since the Phillies have made sure no one else gets a fair shot to outshine Howard at 1B and have not traded for or signed any FA to compete with Howard. Joseph is the first one who has even been talked about as maybe taking away starts and we recently have seen Mackanin, just like Sandberg, have to backtrack on that process. He may have changed his mind, but more likely management again stepped in and quietly reminded Pete how the situation will be handled.

    It is a shame for the team, for Howard, for Mackanin and for the fans. We want to remember Howard as the great player he was and what he did to help us win, but instead we have to watch him struggle for the 4th year in a row and try to square that reality with the party line from the Phillies that the “best players will play” and that building for the future is the sole priority. Howard has to stumble his way through this last season and then hope some other team will take a shot at him. The team’s development of the next 1B is also delayed unnecessarily at a time when we desperately need offense and should bring up other prospects later in the season to audition at 1B.

    Hopefully, the Phillies & Howard get together soon and work out his release. He’ll get all his money regardless and both parties can move on. This is normal for all athletes in all sports; time is undefeated for a reason.

    • Morris

      June 01, 2016 04:29 PM

      Sadly, his contract was immovable when it was signed. I always hoped we’d be able to deal him to one of the dinosaur-style GMs like Ned Colletti, but I think even in 2010 80-90% of teams would’ve rejected any trade for Howard right off the bat.

  3. chris

    June 01, 2016 11:03 AM

    It’s about time all the negative articles on Howard stop. We all know he is done. All the media likes to do is pile on the guy. For all accounts, he comes and tries to do his job. He is a great teammate. He was one of our best players in our history.

    In his final season, I guess it is more important for the media and a lot of fans to take shots at him than to remember him for all the great years he gave us.

    Shameful.

    • Major Malfunction

      June 02, 2016 12:56 PM

      I concur that he was one of the best Phils player on some teams from 10 years ago. But I think you are missing where the frustration is. He’s made $125 million dollars the last 5 or 6 years and literally has delivered nothing. In fact, he’s worse than replacement level. In a blue collar fan base with a short memory, that just ain’t going to fly.

      If you break down all 1B since 2011 with at least 200 PAs, Howard is dead last or 2 or 3 from the bottom is pretty much every measurable category that adds any value to the team. He’s dead last in WAR with a -3.2. $125 for worse than replacement level!

      Yes, the articles are irrelevant at this point, but on the other hand, you cannot expect the avid fans to just pretend this “robbery” hasn’t been taking place the last few years.

      In 5 years when they have a ceremony at CBP for his Phillies HoF plaque, he’ll get a standing ovation and nobody will remember this stuff.

      • chris

        June 02, 2016 01:31 PM

        He didnt give himself the contract, he didnt offer it. Anyone would have been a fool NOT to sign it.

        What I also hate the most is how people forget about how massive his injury was. That injury ends careers. But it didnt deter him from working hard and getting back on the field and by all accounts, being a great teammate.

        People who blame him for his contract are/were/will always be oblivious that it was a Montgomery/Amaro failure not Howard. He didnt hold out, he didnt hold the Phillies hostage. All you can ask of a player is to give 100%…. and IMO, he has. The injury ruined his career. The contract ruined his reputation.

        If “avid” fans have disdain for Howard because of his contract, I question how “avid” they really are.

  4. Michael C Lorah

    June 01, 2016 11:37 AM

    I’m not sure I see the point of this article. Howard almost certainly sees the writing on the wall and would accept a trade, just as Thome did, but no team is willing to take him.

    What stance is Howard taking the Thome didn’t? Thome didn’t offer to ride pine to make way for Howard. Howard wants to play and he should want to play. It’s not his call whether or not he actually does – it’s Mackanin’s, with the backing and support of the front office.

    Nothing here is in Ryan Howard’s control. He shows up, he does his job to the best of his abilities. It stinks to see him struggling as he is, but sometimes life stinks. I hope for the best from him and expect nothing. When his option is bought out after the World Series, the situation will finally be resolved and we’ll all move on.

  5. Nathan Fisher

    June 01, 2016 11:44 AM

    Ryan Howard IS a great Phillie who deserves the utmost respect from his teamates, the Phillie organization, and the fans! Unfortunately, his skill’s are no longer at a major league level. It is time for the organization and Howard to work out a plan which honors his past contributions and allows him to retire or to be released or to be traded; the sooner, the better!

    • Romus

      June 01, 2016 01:04 PM

      I believe the honoring is a foregone conclusion with his Wall of Fame induction at some point in the next few years. Not sure how else you would honor him in the last 4 months of his Phillies career, other than not ignominiously release him. I think he deserves better than that fate that seems to be what many call for.
      .

  6. ryan

    June 01, 2016 03:57 PM

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article and feel like he could do nothing better for his place in Phillies history than by negotiating a buy out or outwardly attempting to be the best power threat off the bench since Matt Stairs.

    To all of the commenters who think the Phillies owe him something, I’m very confused. The premise seems to be that he used to be good, and is some sort of good teammate, so he deserves a front row seat towards the end of his career. How exactly does decreasing the chances that your current teammates win games now (by sucking) and in the future (by taking away MLB development ABs) make you a good teammate? He’s objectively been a whiny brat for the past 4 months, preemptively telling reporters that he “should be able to hit lefties at .300 this year” in spring training and now acting indignant that he wasn’t consulted about Joseph getting more starts. In 23 May games, he hit 101/160/261. There’s your consultation. I agree that leadership should have handled this sooner, but come on, you can’t go complaining to the media about playing time when it’s just so apparent that your play is hurting your team.

    I’d release him today if I were in charge and not lose any sleep over it. Even for the league min, I really couldn’t see any team picking him up on a MLB contract. That would leave him with the decision to accept a MiLB assignment or hang em up, which is exactly the decision he’s going to have to face in October. So basically, the only decision the front office has is weighing Howard’s ego over the next 4 months over the actual harm he’s doing by playing baseball games (and inexplicably batting 4th).

  7. Major Malfunction

    June 02, 2016 12:42 PM

    He’ll be on the Phillies HoF wall and honestly , its going to be nostalgic and grand when the key 2008 pieces start getting enshrined there.

    But this car crash has been going on for like 3 years now. EVERYBODY knows the contract is bad and his skills have been deteriorating since his heel blew out. That is, everybody but him.

    I wish no ill will on the guy and his 58 HR season was incredible in every way. But that was over 10 years ago now. Its done, over, kaput, bye bye.

    He’s doing his legacy a disservice but more importantly, his team. Walk away…come back for the cake and plaque in a couple of years at CBP. Please.

    • chris

      June 02, 2016 01:33 PM

      Would you walk away from nearly 30 million dollars? Surely, you jest. It’s pure patheticness of fans to ask a man to step away from the game he obviously loves with 30 million left for him to receive.

      Again, the contract is NOT his fault.

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