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May 30, 2016

Ryan Howard's nightmarish month is nearly over – but what's next?

The worst month of Ryan Howard’s 13-year major league career will come to an end tomorrow.

But it remains to be seen if he’ll get to play out the final at-bats of his nightmarish May in the lineup or relegated to a pinch-hitting appearance off the bench.

Howard was back in the fourth spot in Pete Mackanin’s lineup on Monday night against Washington after sitting out of the starting lineup in two of the three games the Phillies played over the weekend at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

But after being drilled for more than 10 minutes about the Howard dilemma – how often he should start rookie Tommy Joseph in Howard’s place, how much longer of a leash he planned to give Howard, etc. – Mackanin said he still planned to evaluate the situation day by day, and base his decisions on matchups while attempting to keep both players’ bats in gear.

The Howard storyline, which we wrote about more than a week ago, picked up steam on Sunday when Mackanin told reporters that the Phillies “brought Joseph up for a reason” and that he couldn’t let him “stagnate on the bench.”

But Mackanin clarified his words on Monday, saying that he never said anything about benching Howard.

“I said I was going to start mixing in Joseph to face some right-handers, I didn’t say I was going to bench Howard,” Mackanin said before the Phillies took batting practice on Monday. “Howard’s got good numbers against (Washington’s Monday scheduled starter, right-hander Tanner Roark). He had bad numbers against (Cubs Sunday starter John) Lackey.

“So if I’m going to pick spots for Joseph to stay sharp, yesterday seemed like a good time. And that’s good because I just don’t want him to go three or four days without seeing action. Howie’s still in the picture, he’s not being benched, we’re just going to give a little more playing time to Joseph.”

The 36-year-old Howard entered Memorial Day hitting .154 in 44 games this season. His batting average ranked 228th of the 229 major league players with at least 125 at-bats this season; his .563 OPS ranked 218th among the same group of players.

Howard’s batting average and OBP (.219) ranked 32nd among the 32 major league first basemen that have accumulated at least 125 at-bats this season.

"Age has to be a factor. Let’s put it this way, I’m not at the point where I’m giving up on him. I’m not going to give up on him. I’m hoping that he’s going to come out of it.”

Those numbers are all bad, obviously. But Howard’s month of May (he was 6-for-62 entering Monday) has been historically terrible.

In the last 100 years, only one player in major league history has had at least 60 at-bats in the month of May with fewer hits: in 1949, Detroit’s Eddie Lake went 5-for-61 in May. Lake, 33 years old that month, barely played in June and was out of baseball the next year.

Lake is one of just five players in the last 100 years to hit under .100 with at least 60 at-bats in the month of May, along with Adolfo Phillips (.097, 1968), Danny Ainge (.098, 1981), Royce Clayton (.083, 2003), and Howard (.097, 2016).

“I’m hoping every time he goes out there he’s going to get three or four hits, it’ll click and he’ll get back to where we think he can be,” Mackanin said. “I’m hoping he’s better than, you know what I mean. I still see something there. He started the season pretty good. He had eight home runs out of the gate. Everybody goes through slumps or periods where they’re not hitting.”

Mackanin brought up Giancarlo Stanton, who went through a stretch in the last two weeks when he went 0-for-17 with 15 strikeouts. But Stanton is also 10 years younger than Howard and hasn’t been trending downward as a hitter for the last four years.

“Everything is a factor,” Mackanin said when that very point was shot back at him. “You consider everything. Age has to be a factor. Let’s put it this way, I’m not at the point where I’m giving up on him. I’m not going to give up on him. I’m hoping that he’s going to come out of it.”

Mackanin said he has not spoken to Howard about the issue recently because nothing has changed. He’s still working Howard into his regular lineup, while also making sure he (and the front office) gets a look at Joseph to see what he can do at the major league level, too.

Joseph homered for the third time in 11 games since his promotion on Sunday; he’s hitting .286 (10-for-35) with 11 strikeouts and one walk overall.

Mackanin was asked if deciding who to play at first base on a daily basis was as tough as a challenge as he’s had as a manager.

“Hell yes,” he said. “I think about it all the time.”

Does he get enough feedback from the front office about it?

“That’s a tough question,” Mackanin said. “They don’t tell me who to play. I know they want me to mix in Joseph against right-handers so he doesn’t stagnate. That’s pretty much all. A good example, as bad as (Tyler) Goeddel looked early in the season, they asked me can you try to mix him in? And I said, ‘Sure.’ I did it, and he started hitting better, so now he’s playing more. Here we go, if you want to play more, you’ve got to hit, and he’s starting to hit a little bit better. There’s nothing set in stone.”

Again, as we mentioned in this space nine days ago, the front office should probably intervene and take the problem out of Mackanin’s hands. But it won’t be easy there, either: Howard is still owed the remainder of his 2016 salary (just under $17 million) plus the buyout option for his 2017 salary ($10 million).

Howard isn’t likely to retire and walk away from that amount of money. But will the team release him, and run the risk of fracturing a relationship with a player who will undoubtedly have a place on their Wall of Fame in the near future?

Maybe at some point in the next month the two sides should meet in the middle and cut a deal that leads to Howard’s retirement.


Cody Asche should return to the Phillies this week.

Asche hit a solo home run in Triple-A Lehigh Valley’s 6-4 win over Norfolk in Allentown on Monday afternoon. It was the second consecutive game Asche homered during his rehab assignment.

Asche is hitting just .160 in 13 minor league games, but four of his eight hits have been home runs. Asche missed the entirety of the spring training schedule and the first two months of the regular season with an oblique injury.

The Phillies will have to make a decision on Asche before Thursday, when his 20-day rehab assignment ends. If they do not activate him before Thursday, the front office could option him to Lehigh Valley if they want to keep him there to get more at-bats.

Asche, who has been limited to playing left field during his rehab assignment, would likely take the roster spot currently being held by rarely-used utility man Emmanuel Burris.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @ryanlawrence21