Howard Outage

Ryan Howard won't be in the lineup until at least May, so Phillies have to find a cleanup hitter who can come close to his production.
Ryan Howard won't be in the lineup until at least May, so Phillies have to find a cleanup hitter who can come close to his production. (YONG KIM / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

Phillies will have to fend with Ryan on the mend

Posted: February 13, 2012

FEW PLAYERS IN the game of baseball inspire such divergent opinions as Ryan Howard, particularly in light of the 5-year, $125 million contract extension that begins this season. But general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said definitively this offseason that he has no second thoughts about the deal, which Howard signed in April 2010, and such hindsight is irrelevant at this point anyway.

Whatever your opinion of the first baseman's monetary worth, the fact is that the Phillies as currently constructed are a far less potent team without their marquee cleanup hitter in the lineup.

The great unknown, then, is what the unit will look like during what is expected to be an absence of at least 2 months as Howard recovers from surgery to repair the ruptured Achilles' tendon he suffered while making the final out of a season-ending loss to St. Louis in Game 5 of the NL Division Series.

Spring training, which opens on Sunday with the first workout for pitchers and catchers, is not built to answer such questions. It will be impossible to tell what identity the Phillies' lineup will take - starting with who will replace Howard in the cleanup slot - until Opening Day.

Unlike fellow veterans Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Placido Polanco, Howard has never missed a significant chunk of time due to injury. A sprained ankle held him to 143 games in 2010, but he played in 162 games in 2008, 160 in '09, and 152 last season. The fourth spot in the lineup is the one thing Charlie Manuel has rarely needed to worry about.

Compounding matters is the fact that the void in the middle of the lineup would never have appeared as gaping as it will this season. In 2009, four Phillies finished the season with at least 30 home runs, and five finished with at least 20. But over the last two seasons, that power has steadily waned. Jayson Werth left via free agency after the 2010 season, while injuries helped limit Utley to a career-low 11 homers in 2011.

Last year, Howard was the only Phillie to crack the 30-homer plateau. Finishing second behind his 33 was Raul Ibanez, who hit 20 despite struggling to reach base with any sort of consistency and currently is an unsigned free agent. Now, the only other proven power threat in the lineup is Hunter Pence. who has hit at least 22 home runs in each of his first four full seasons in the majors. In 2011, he hit 11 after the Phillies acquired him from the Astros (he finished with 22 between the two teams).

The two biggest wild cards on the roster are Utley and 28-year-old outfielder John Mayberry Jr. Mayberry hit 15 homers in just 267 at-bats last season, batting .273 with a .341 on-base percentage and a sparkling .513 slugging percentage. But he has never played regularly in the majors and is a career .258/.328/.457 hitter in the minors. If he can give the Phillies production anywhere in that range over 500 plate appearances, Manuel should be happy with his offense. And if Utley can somehow return to the production levels he displayed from 2005-09, when he averaged 29 homers and 101 RBI while hitting .301/.388/.535, the Phillies would likely score more than enough runs for the type of pitching they are likely to get.

But Utley's slugging percentage and home-run total have dropped in each of the last three seasons as the wear and tear on his body has mounted. After returning from a 2-month absence at the start of last season, he hit just .259/.344/.425 with 44 RBI.

The biggest question might be whether any of the aforementioned players can replace the production Howard has always showed with runners in scoring position. Last season, Howard hit .298/.422/.497 with 78 RBI in those situations. His career numbers are just as gaudy: a .281 batting average, .413 on-base percentage and .559 slugging percentage.

Despite their struggles in the final few games of the NLDS, the Phillies appeared to have found a groove after acquiring Pence from the Astros in late July. They led the NL in runs over their final 81 games of the season and Howard and Pence thrived when stacked together in the lineup. After the trade, Howard hit .269/.368/.557 with 13 homers in 167 at-bats. Pence, meanwhile, hit .324/.394/.560 after joining the Phillies, numbers that are well above his already solid career averages.

After the season, there was plenty of talk about the Phillies wanting to alter their approach at the plate, to focus on reaching base and making contact instead of hitting home runs. But Amaro's public comments to that effect changed over the course of the offseason, and the club's bench additions showed little evidence of an imperative on a new skill set. Laynce Nix, Jim Thome and Ty Wigginton are all players in the mold of the "old" Phillies, players who have made home runs and extra-base hits their calling cards throughout their careers.

Asking veterans to change their approach might be a futile effort. Whether any of them can replace Howard remains to be seen.


For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese. Follow him on Twitter at

http://twitter.com/HighCheese.

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