Phillies' batting order: TBA, Howard, TBA

There is uncertainty on both sides of Ryan Howard's spot in the Phillies batting order. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer)
There is uncertainty on both sides of Ryan Howard's spot in the Phillies batting order. (David Maialetti/Staff Photographer) (Jonathan Tannenwald)
Posted: March 30, 2011

THE THIRD HITTER, Chase Utley, took ground balls yesterday without the benefit of a lawn chair, but he and his bum knee are still on the disabled list to start the season.

The fifth hitter, Jayson Werth, went 0-for-2 with a walk yesterday in his final exhibition appearance, but he is still playing for the Washington Nationals.

Between them, the fourth hitter remains.

All around Ryan Howard, the space is defined by change. We are 2 days before the season opener and Phillies manager Charlie Manuel still will not say out loud the names of the people he intends to hit in front of and behind Howard in the lineup. Maybe today.

Some combination of Raul Ibanez, Ben Francisco and/or Placido Polanco figures to slide into the available slots - but who knows? - after which we will go about the business of drooling over the starting rotation. That is what 2011 will be about, the aforementioned drooling - assuming, that is, that the Phillies' lineup replicates some semblance of its output in 2010.

They do not need to score 772 runs again, which was second in the National League. What this lineup does need to do, though, is reach four runs at least as often as it did in 2010. They did it 87 times last year, which was exactly the NL average, which is a much better way of characterizing what went on than the run total.

Repeat: This was an average offense that experienced feasts, famines and a bunch of key injuries. The Phillies' production was significant, and sometimes prodigious, but it was not smooth. It came in bunches, followed by frustrating lulls. It was good enough, given the quality of the starting pitching, but not much more.

Without Werth, without Utley at the start, it is easy to see more of the same - or worse. With that, you cannot look at any of their potential lineups and not fixate on Howard's name.

"I don't know exactly who's healthy and I'm still looking for some balance in our lineup," Manuel said. "The biggest problem that we've got is the third and the fifth hitter aren't here this year . . . Those are run producers. And if you look, I don't see anybody there in the background that knocks in 95 or 100 runs. Those are big, important parts of the order.

"I'm not saying that our guys can't, because we usually have somebody that steps up. I'm optimistic about it . . . but that's a concern of mine."

With time to kill before last night's 8-5 exhibition win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, this was the exercise: to look at the typical NL hitter in each lineup spot and compare him to what the Phillies produced in the same spot last season. Using OPS as the measure, and even with the injuries that hit them in waves last season, the Phillies had a better OPS than the typical NL player at every spot in the lineup except two - the second spot (where Polanco started only 106 games) and the third spot (where Utley was either struggling or injured for much of the season).

Look a little closer and you see that the Phillies really dominated at the 4-5-6 spots in the lineup - Howard, Werth, and Ibanez, mostly - but especially, outrageously, at the fifth spot. The typical NL fifth hitter had a .779 OPS. The Phils' fifth hitters had a .944 OPS.

Whatever the combination of players in that fifth spot this season, it is not likely to come close to .944. Which again leads you to stare at the name in the fourth spot, and to wonder what might be the effect of this uncertainty all around him.

"People say, 'Who hits behind him?' " Manuel said. "I say, 'How many can get on in front of him?' If that makes sense, I think the guys that can get on in front of him are going to make the big difference. If you see the top of the lineup having a hard time getting on, that will make it easier for them to pitch to [Howard]."

The personality that Howard projects is cool. The history of his career - where April is ritually his worst month and September his best - suggests someone who does not panic. Still, the balance will be interesting because, yes, they need his power production more than they ever have but, yes, the worst thing he can do is try to make up for Werth and Utley by himself and begin chasing pitches and getting himself out.

"I think the biggest thing about him is, if he's just a little bit more patient, he'll do better," Manuel said. "He chases bad balls, and I think that's why they pitch to him a lot. In spring training this year, he's seen the ball better. I've liked some of his at-bats, especially the ones where he stays on the lefties, and they throw him breaking balls, and he goes with the ball."

It is a process, and it begins for real on Friday. And, well, if you can imagine a way for this lineup to produce a lot of runs without Ryan Howard doing a lot of the producing, your imagination is better than mine.

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