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June 02, 2016

Inside the Ryan Howard drama: Wednesday's benching offered clarity for future

The end may be nearing for Ryan Howard, but he is not unaware of it. He will not be getting blind-sided.

He understands the business of sports, the weight numbers carry in baseball, the importance production has in any sport … or in any business, really.

Howard, benched for the next three games (at least) in favor of rookie first baseman Tommy Joseph on Wednesday, handled a half dozen minutes worth of questions with professionalism and grace. The jaded sports fan will say that’s the least he could do for cashing paychecks that add up to $25 million this season, but that’s certainly not the way it always works with the sizable egos in pro sports that often rival the sizable dollars.

Howard will sit – but he won’t quit. He’s not giving up his job without a fight, although Joseph has been given a chance to claim it this week, so Howard may have already lost his chance to battle (and, of course, he has already received ample opportunity to do so in the last couple of seasons).

But it was interesting how Howard spoke on Wednesday, the way he chose his words, and the body language he showed throughout his session with reporters. Gone was the near-defiance from the last two years and this spring’s inability to accept what he has become as a hitter, too.

Manager Pete Mackanin made one decision on Wednesday, one that’s been coming for some time, and what better time to do so then when the team is mired in a season-long five-game losing streak. He benched the former MVP with the worst batting average in all of baseball (and the third worst OPS among major league first baseman) because he wanted to get a longer look at the promising rookie in a season when that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen.

But the events spanning no more than 20 minutes on Wednesday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park offered more clarity on the uncomfortable situation that anyone could have expected, and from the Phillies perspective, more than they could have hoped for.

Some of that clarity:

It’s Tommy Time

Just as Freddy Galvis stepped in to replace Jimmy Rollins at the start of the 2015 season and how Cesar Hernandez took over for Chase Utley last summer – granted when neither of the elder players were on the roster at the time – it’s time for a change at first base and Joseph has enough promise in his bat (it’s been there since he was traded for Hunter Pence) to warrant a longer look. It’s difficult to imagine the current audition being limited to “three to four games,” or else it’d mirror the very small window the previous administration gave Darin Ruf in July of 2014 when Howard was benched for three games. The Phillies never really found out about Ruf and now, less than two months away from his 30th birthday, it’s too late anyway.

Joseph has a higher ceiling offensively than Ruf. He was one of (if not the best) hitters in the International League for the first six weeks of the season. Letting him sit on the bench for a prolonged period doesn’t allow him the best chance to keep his bat where it was at in Allentown, or the opportunity to test it against major league pitching.

If he hits or shows promise regularly with smart plate appearances, he’ll play. It’s pretty simple, really.

'Howie' Can Become 'Chooch'

Throughout the winter, anytime I was asked about what would happen to the 36-year-old Howard in 2016, his final season with the Phillies, I thought it would be pretty simple, too: he would begin the season as the starter and, like Carlos Ruiz in 2015, transition into a complementary or back-up role as the season progressed. Whether it was Ruf stepping in and building off an impressive spring, or solving the eventual catching logjam (prospects Andrew Knapp and Jorge Alfaro) by having someone play first base in the season’s final two months, I envisioned a scenario where Howard simply began playing less often, perhaps getting two to three starts a week, tops, even before Joseph jumped back onto the radar.

But there was reason to fear that might not work, at least in terms of keeping harmony in an impressionable clubhouse. Do you think Rollins or Utley would be happy if they were still on the roster but told they’d be sitting more often than playing?

“We’re all competitors here,” Howard said Wednesday. “If you don’t want to be out here to play, then you probably should just pack it up and go home.”

And Howard said that’s not an option.

“No, I’m not going to quit,” he said. “That’s not in the vocabulary. That’s the easiest thing to do, is quit and give up when things are hard.”

And if this continues beyond a half of a week, and he spends the season’s final four months as a complementary player, will he be OK with that?

“I’m going to do my best to keep that from happening,” Howard said. “I’m not even going to try to think like that. Like I said, just work on me. Just try to get things together, support my teammates out there and then when I get the opportunity to go play, try to go do what I can.”

The most telling part of that last answer? The last 22 words. Does that sound at all like a guy who could potentially be a disruptive force in what’s currently a young, upbeat clubhouse populated with positive energy?

I sure don’t think so.

Much Ado About Nothing

After sifting through all of that, and listening to what everyone said, and considering where this team is and where each of their first basemen are, both physically and mentally, in their individual career arcs, it’s pretty easy to come to this conclusion: there’s a very good chance everything is going to work out.

Howard does not seem bitter or angry; instead, he’s both self-aware and understanding. The Phillies, led by Mackanin, have the bigger picture in mind but are also cognizant of Howard’s place in the recent, successful history of the franchise. Is there any real reason to release him if he’s OK transitioning to a Matt Stairsian role as a pinch hitter with pop off the bench? Who exactly would he be blocking on the roster at that point?

And much like Ruiz (and many veterans before him, including Stairs back in the glory days) Howard is a good teammate. If he accepts what could very well be his new role, and it sounds like he’s open to it more than ever, he can actually be a positive force on the bench and in the clubhouse. Take the way he handled passing on the news to Joseph (scroll down, it's there) on Wednesday, for one.

For all that’s been talked and written about this subject (this space included), it might not even be that big of a deal. If Joseph hits, Howard sits. Mackanin will still surely run the former MVP out once or twice a week (in what's likely the worst case scenario, from Howard’s perspective), but Joseph will get the brunt of playing time, as he should, if he produces or at least shows the promise of future production. That’s what this season is about – seeing what the team has in its young players in order to formulate a better plan for 2017 and beyond.

Howard won’t be here in 2017. He realizes that. And he also realizes where he’s at in 2016, and that was as important as anything else that happened on Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21