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April 06, 2016

Ryan Howard on the bench ... but in good spirits

Phillies MLB
011916.Howard Ralph Freso/AP

Ryan Howard will sit out his sixth straight game on Monday night against the Chicago Cubs. He's handled his extended benching (and a beer bottle thrown his way) with professionalism.

CINCINNATI – Over the weekend, after the Phillies returned from spring training and before they boarded a plane for Cincinnati, Pete Mackanin pulled Ryan Howard aside.

He did not want the former MVP blindsided by his lineups in the first week of the season. He wanted to let him know that all of the winter talk about playing a platoon at first base – with Howard set to start against right-handed pitchers, and Darin Ruf against lefties – wasn’t just talk.

It was about to become a reality. Ryan Howard, former All-Star, home run hero and middle-of-the-lineup pillar for some of the greatest teams in Phillies history, was about to become a part-time player.

“I just told him, ‘I think it’s in your best interest because you’re not going to have to worry about that breaking stuff from left-handed pitchers,’” said Mackanin, who had Ruf in the lineup and Howard on the bench on Wednesday in Cincinnati, when the Phils were set to take on lefthander Brandon Finnegan. “ ‘And your numbers are probably going to be just the same as they were. Plus you’re going to get the brunt of at-bats because there are more right-handed pitchers than left.’ … He said, ‘I don’t like it, but I get it.’ I think he’s OK - not OK, but it’s not an issue.”

Howard has maintained a positive disposition throughout the spring. He has no longer looked defeated, deflated or dejected, as he had for most of the previous two seasons.

Howard, 36, was the same way as he stood at his locker before batting practice and answered questions about sitting on the bench for Game 2 of 2016.

“I mean, it’s tough,” Howard said. “But, my mindset is just to continue to prepare myself. I mean it’s no secret that this is what Pete was talking about trying to do. I just have to be ready for when my name is called. It’s easy to get down, it’s easy to get upset and what not. The competitor in me wants to be out there. And I understand the situation. The only thing you can do is stay positive and take advantage of your opportunities when you get them.”

It was then pointed out to Howard that he’s appeared to be a lot more at peace with his place on the roster in 2016 than he was with anything at any time in the last two seasons. 

Howard, always accountable and personable during his decade-long career with the Phillies, was borderline standoffish last year. He’s been in much better spirits this year.

“You understand that this is the game, this is the business. You understand the team has talked about going into a different direction... But at the same time you want to be able to go out there"

“I just don’t let things bother me anymore,” Howard said. “Like, I think last year I let things - I let a lot of things kind of surprise me. And now it’s like, it is what it is. You just continue to stay positive. The situation is what the situation is. You can get down about it, you can get upset about it or what not. Or you can try to make the best of the situation, when the opportunity comes.”

Howard is hardly the first Phillies veteran or icon to have to go through the reality of playing less as he gets older.

Former general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. declared that Cesar Hernandez should be the team’s regular, starting second baseman when Chase Utley was still on the team (and on the DL) early last summer. Carlos Ruiz found himself on the bench a lot more often with Cameron Rupp transitioning into the team’s regular catcher in the final three months of last season.

“You understand that this is the game, this is the business,” Howard said. “You understand the team has talked about going into a different direction and stuff like that. Again, you understand that. But at the same time you want to be able to go out there and be able to participate, and try to do what you're capable of and going out there and playing as well.”

Howard will not be on the team next year. The 2016 season marks the final guaranteed year of his five-year, $125 million contract.

Howard was asked if that’s changed his outlook, taking the year to reflect on all that was accomplished rather than all that went wrong in the four seasons since he fractured his Achilles’.

“There’s always that realization,” he said. “There is no hiding that. But, like I said, you just try to enjoy it. Just enjoy it, whether it’s you or you’re somewhere else, just, for however long it is you get to play, take time to be able to reflect at times what I’ve been able to do, what I’ve been able to accomplish. But, you know, right now I’m just staying in the here and now. Game 2. Be ready today when my name is called and go out there any other time it’s called.”

Mackanin said the platoon will be fluid. Howard will start against right-handers and Ruf will start against left-handers. But if one or the other gets hot (or cold) it could turn into more (or less) playing time overall.

Howard isn’t letting it get him down.

“It’s not really a surprise,” Howard said. “You know, I guess Pete had his mind made up that this is what he was going to do. Whenever that was, that was on Pete. You have to ask him. But it’s the situation we're in right now. And I want Ruffy to be able to go out there and tear it up. And when I get my opportunities, be able to go out there and tear it up. And just see what happens from there.”

There’s also the chance that the two-headed Phillies first baseman could be the most potent part of their lineup (after Maikel Franco). If you combined the respective split numbers last season (Howard vs. RHP and Ruf vs. LHP), Howard and Ruf had an .867 OPS against opposite-handed pitching. Last season, only five first baseman had a better OPS than their combine, split numbers (for what that's worth). 

Howard and Ruf's split numbers, against opposite-handing pitchers, in 2015:

 BA OBP/SLGHR2BRBIBB/K
Howard.256
(94-367)
.304/.49920276722/98
Ruf.371
(36-97)
.447/.660882212/18

“Could be dangerous,” Howard said. “Could be dangerous. And that’s what they’re banking on. I mean, but there are definitely going to be opportunities where I see lefties and he’ll see righties. When he pinch hit for me the other day, and (the Reds brought in a right-hander). There are going to be those times. So I mean I think we’re both going to get opportunities to showcase and show what we can do. Like I said, I want Ruffy to be able to go out there 4-for-4 and tear it up tonight. And when I get out there and get my opportunity be able to do the same thing.”

The argument could also be made, of course, that Ruf should be playing more, period. In the only time in his career he was playing regularly, after Howard had season-ending knee surgery in July of 2012, Ruf performed well against right-handed pitchers

For now, however, the platoon is the way Mackanin plans on going.

“Without question I’m going to continue to do it,” he said. “Like I told Howie, Darin Ruf did so well against lefties I think he deserves an opportunity to see if he can make a little bit of money, too, and have success like he did last year off of them. It’s only fair for him, I think. I think if [Howard] keeps his head on straight, and settles into it, I think he’s going to hit righties better. I’m looking for a big year from him because of it."

As the 2016 begins, Ryan Howard might not be completely happy to be a part-time player. But, after watching him go through his work this spring and hearing him talk on Wednesday, with the regular season underway, it's also clear that he will not be a disgruntled veteran or a negative force in an impressionable clubhouse, either.