May 21, 2016
Despite the endless overcast sky above Citizens Bank Park, it’s been a perpetually sunny environment inside the Phillies clubhouse through the first two months of the 2016 season. And, as Pete Mackanin would say, why not?
A team expected to be one of the worst in baseball was still six games over .500 entering their 43rd game of the year. Only six teams in baseball had won more games: Washington, Boston, Baltimore, San Francisco and both Chicago teams.
But it’s not difficult to see a time in the near future where they will be tested, and not just by a schedule that includes games against the Nationals, Cubs and Toronto Blue Jays in 16 of the next 23 games after this weekend. But tested in how everyone reacts to a situation that could reach a boiling point after Memorial Day weekend.
Is it time to bench Ryan Howard full-time, transition him to a Matt Stairs-like role as a pinch-hitting home run threat in his final four months in a Phillies uniform?
Will Howard be OK with that? Should the front office take the decision out of Mackanin’s hands?
It’ll be fascinating to see how it plays out.
Here’s what we do know on a rainy Saturday afternoon when Howard was in Mackanin’s starting lineup for the third straight game (and the fifth time in eight games since Tommy Joseph joined the 25-man roster): Howard is hitting .164 this season.
No one in baseball (of the 185 qualifying hitters) has a lower batting average. Only 19 of those players has a lower OPS than Howard’s .625.
Among the 24 qualifying major league first basemen, Howard’s .388 slugging percentage ranks 20th. His .237 OBP ranks 24th out of the same 24 players.
Meanwhile, Howard is six months away from his 37th birthday. That comes in November, the same month the Phillies will cut him a $10 million check (a buyout of the 2017 team option in his contract) to take his career somewhere else, or retire.
Meanwhile, a 24-year-old Joseph, one of the International League’s best hitters before his promotion a week ago on Friday, sits on the bench and waits for an opportunity.
Something has got to give, right?
“He’s got to start giving us better at-bats,” Mackanin said, diplomatically, of Howard’s struggles on Saturday morning.
Howard is hitless in his last 12 at-bats. He’s hitting .095 in May.
That’s right, Oh-Ninety-Five. (Which, oddly enough, doesn’t even crack the worst May a major league hitter has had in the last 50 years).
But unlike many of the players on that list (including a 22-year old, not-yet-Rule 5 pick Shane Victorino) Howard has been trending downward for some time.
And yet, Mackanin isn’t comfortable benching Howard full-time and is currently platooning his first baseman (as he did when it was Darin Ruf, and not Joseph, was his right-handed option). But there are fewer left-handed starters in baseball, and, thus, Howard plays a lot more often than his right-handed hitting counterpart. (Both are expected to play when the designated hitter is in effect this week in Detroit).
Mackanin has considered splitting the playing time more evenly between Joseph and Howard. But it doesn’t appear that handling Howard as the team did fellow veteran Carlos Ruiz last summer – transitioning him to a backup role – is under consideration.
Mackanin has the aforementioned sunny-dispositioned clubhouse to consider, and it’s not something he will take lightly with many young, impressionable players in that room.
While Howard has to be realistic about what kind of player he is at age 36 – even though he wasn’t just three months ago at the start of spring training – and even though he is one of the more jovial, positive personalities in the clubhouse, it’s difficult to gauge how that might change if he had his playing time cut drastically.
If that’s even a possible factor, though, shouldn’t team president Andy MacPhail or general manager Matt Klentak step in and take care of a potential conflict before it arises?
With all due respect to Howard’s career – and he should be remembered as one of the greatest players in franchise history, not as the guy who never fully recovered from an Achilles’ injury – what’s the point of a rebuilding team holding onto an underperforming 36-year-old hitter, especially when you’re trying to evaluate what you have in younger players, like Joseph?
So perhaps the criticism currently being leveled on Mackanin (for writing out the daily lineup) should be directed at MacPhail and Klentak.
When asked last week, when Joseph was promoted, how much the rookie would play, Klentak said, “like any player, his performance up here will dictate how often he plays, how long he stays, things like that.”
When pressed further, and asked if Joseph would warrant a longer look than Ruf, who barely played in April despite outplaying Howard this spring, Klentak put the decision on his manager.
“As I’ve said all along, Pete is responsible for making out the lineup and it’s no secret, we’re looking for an offensive jolt,” Klentak said. “And if Tommy can provide that, he’ll work his way into the lineup.”
But here’s another interesting thing Klentak said that afternoon, something in reference to the surprising play of his team at large, and not about any one player.
“A lot of really good baseball people will talk about 'the quarter pole,' somewhere in the 40 game neighborhood,” Klentak said eight days ago. “We're a week away from that, and I don't know that a lot is going to radically change in the next week. I don't know what our record will be after 40 games versus 35.
“But I think ... we're able to see some things that have taken place in the first six weeks that are positive. And some things that are not. But I think we have a pretty good sense in the way this team is shaping up.”
One way you could certainly translate that when relating it to Howard: I’ve seen enough to know he is what the numbers in the last three years suggest he is, and I can’t think that’s going to change dramatically in the last three-quarters of the season.
Two years ago, Klentak’s predecessor, Ruben Amaro Jr., was loyal to Howard, which isn’t surprising since Amaro was the general manager (backed by ownership, of course) that signed the former MVP to a $125 million contract and who was also emotionally tied to Howard. Both rode in a float along Broad Street in that Halloween afternoon parade eight years ago.
In July of 2014, Ryne Sandberg benched Howard for three games. The embattled manager, in his first full year on the job, had seen enough and knew it was time for a change. Howard was hitting .224 with 15 home runs and 118 strikeouts in 371 at-bats through his first 97 games.
But on the third day of Howard’s benching, Amaro emerged to meet the media. He defended Howard, said it was just one bad month “people were focusing on” and said he “fully expected” Howard to be the team’s starting first baseman at the start of the next season, 2015.
What Amaro and the front office actually did wasn’t defend Howard; they undercut any control Sandberg had over his roster and in his clubhouse.
The Phillies cannot let history repeat itself with Mackanin, who deserves better after getting this team to play as well as they have seven weeks into the season.
Neither Klentak or MacPhail have any emotional ties to Howard, not that that should be an excuse anyway. And neither can say that they “fully expect” Howard to be the team's starting first baseman in 2017.
It’s time for the front office, and not the manager, to make a move.