More Sports:

May 11, 2015

Howard, Asche headed in different directions as Franco's arrival nears

How the Phillies handle his promotion could shed light on rebuilding plan, assuming they have one

Phillies MLB
051215_Asche-Franco-Howard-2 AP Photos/Staff Illustration

Phillies' Ryan Howard, Cody Asche and Maikel Franco

For Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, 2015 has been a tale of two seasons.

You don't have to look any deeper than his numbers, although if you look closely, you can see something's different. Maybe he's gaining confidence, which can happen once you get that first home run of the season under your belt.

It was April 21, the day he hit that home run, when things really began to click for the former MVP. And that's the demarkation line for where Howard's season -- at least to this point -- changed for the better.

of Times 
of Times
of Times
DATES4/6 - 4/194/21 - 5/114/6 - 5/10
TM W-L3-86-129-20*
*The Phillies are 11-22 overall, as Howard did not play in four of the team's games this season.

And while the sudden power surge from Howard has been a welcome addition to an otherwise powerless* offense, it's not really making much of a tangible difference in terms of wins and losses. Perhaps that's due to the team's other corner infielder, third baseman Cody Asche, hitting a slump at the same time Howard began to find his groove.

*The rest of the team has hit 11 combined home runs, only five of which have come after April 21, meaning Howard has more home runs than the rest of his teammates combined since hitting his first of the season.

Asche, who was optioned to triple-A Lehigh Valley following Monday night's loss to the Pirates (more on that later), was hitting .500 after the season's first eight games. When Howard hit his first home run on April 21, Asche was still hitting a healthy .350 with a .409 on-base percentage. But since then, it's been a steady and rapid decline for the 24-year-old. 

Although his splits don't perfectly align with Howard's, let's use the same dates for the sake of consistency, and to see why Howard's strong play hasn't had the impact many expected.

of Times 
of Times
of Times
DATES4/6 - 4/194/21 - 5/114/6 - 5/10
TM W-L3-95-138-22

But despite his sudden drop-off in production, Asche was sent to the minors for a completely different reason: so he could get more in-game experience in left field.

After all, the team needs to make room for Maikel Franco, the team's most MLB-ready prospect and a third/first baseman. And that wasn't going to happen with someone currently occupying the position he is slotted to play. With Howard now seeing the ball much better (not to mention his massive contract makes him nearly un-benchable), Asche was the obvious choice.

Franco, 22, was a September call-up last season, and almost certainly would have been on the Phillies' Opening Day roster if the MLB service time rules* weren't so complex. Through 30 games with triple-A Lehigh Valley, Franco has four home runs and an impressive slash line of .341/.363/.543.

*Remember the Cubs' dilemma with Kris Bryant? A slightly different situation, as Bryant was -- to steal a term from hockey -- standing on his head during spring training (.425 BA, 1.652 OPS, 9 HR, 14 R and 15 RBI in 40 ABs), while Franco (.200 with an RBI in 30 ABs) was merely just standing.

At the risk of boring you, here's the CliffNotes version, via Jim Salisbury of

The Phillies are rebuilding. They are taking a long-range focus. Keeping Franco in the minors for at least 40 days (until about mid-May) would delay his potential free agency until after the 2021 season. If he’s in the majors out of the gate, he could accrue enough service time to become a free agent after the 2020 season.

Is it really worth losing a year of control for a month or so of big-league action on a rebuilding team?  []

He's right. It made much more sense to have Franco start the season with the IronPigs (which he did). But with the clock ticking down toward his inevitable promotion and the team's inability to deal Howard, something needed to be done.

Recently, manager Ryne Sandberg moved Ben Revere from left field to right field, which at the time seemed to be a way to keep a red-hot Darin Ruf in the lineup. But because the team more or less knew the exact date when they would call up Franco -- it will be this Friday, by the way -- perhaps it was in anticipation of Asche becoming the everyday left fielder.

Prior to Monday's loss to the Pirates, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told reporters that the team viewed Franco as a better third baseman then Asche, and that he hopes he will be joining the Phillies "for good" on Friday. Clearly, that means the end for Asche at third base, but his demotion shouldn't have been a surprise, at least not for the player being demoted.

That's why it was revealing to see that he used the word "surprised" to describe his reaction to his GM's decision, because you would think Sandberg and Amaro had engaged in at least one honest conversation with the now-former third baseman, explaining that they still saw him as a major league player and that this had more to do with their faith in Franco than their concert over his recent struggles.

Judging by Asche's postgame comments, that didn't even come close to happening:

“I’m surprised,” Asche said. “I mean, it’s all I really have to explain about that. Surprised, but I understand.”
Then again, Asche wouldn’t have received this opportunity in the first place on most teams. The question now turns to where he goes from here. Sandberg was asked last night if a move to the outfield (and potentially less stress in the field that goes with it) could in turn relax Asche at the plate.
“That’s a possibility,” he said. “I’ve seen that before, and I think that he has the ability to play a solid left field. The early things that he’s done and his foot speed, knowledge of the game, instincts… I think he’ll take to it very good.”
[...] “I’ll never stop believing that I’m a big-league baseball player,” Asche said. “I think whatever challenge comes my way, I’ll handle it fine and I’ll be back in this uniform soon.”  

Slump or not, Asche should be under the impression that he will return to the big leagues as soon as he proves he can man left field on a regular basis. Otherwise, how will he be able to relax at the plate? Rare is the player that thrives while fearing any false step could be his last with the team.

Furthermore, the competition for the starting left field job leaves much to be desired.

After starting eight of the last nine games (six of them in left field) Darin Ruf was out of the lineup Monday. His average is back below .200 for the season (.188) after going 2-for-21 in his last six games (five starts). 

On a macro level, Ruf's declining average is even more alarming. In 2012, during his first stint with the Phillies, Ruf hit .333/.351/.727 in 33 ABs. In 2013, when he saw a career-high in playing time (251 ABs), his numbers dropped to .247/.348/.458. Last season, they took another hit, dipping to .235/.310/.402. 

This season, they're even worse: .191/.243/.338. 

The Phillies other options in left field? 

Revere, who seems to be back in left field for the time being, could easily move back to right when Asche is ready. That wouldn't be good news for Jeff Francoeur and Grady Sizemore, but remember, this team should be focused on getting the most out of their young players and neither veteran -- they're 31 and 32, respectively -- is part of the Phillies' long-term plans.

But age isn't the only advantage Asche has on them. As bad as he's been lately, he's still outplaying both Sizemore and Francoeur, which speaks volumes about the current state of the Phillies offense.

And even if left field doesn't work out for Asche, there's always a chance the Phillies are able to trade Howard, opening up a new position for him to try. Or, more likely, moving Franco from third to first base and opening up his old position.

That's like the baseball equivalent of getting back together with your ex after she cheated on you with a younger, better looking guy. But sometimes you have to swallow your pride. And with the way Asche's been hitting this month, he doesn't have much of a choice.

It just seems unfair that the team didn't fill Asche in on their plan for his future and how that fits into the team's larger plan. 

Unless, of course, they don't have one.