Phillies say they're prepared for Howard's absence

Posted: March 01, 2012

CLEARWATER, Fla. - Charlie Manuel will often joke that his general manager has stopped listening to him when the subject is trade talk. It's not that Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't value Manuel's opinion. He just knows Manuel will usually ask for a bat - and the best one at that.

So the manager took it upon himself to plant the idea in a different manner.

"It's something Ruben heard during the summer," Manuel said. "He watched us play, but he also heard us during the summer. When games are over, he drops by the coaches' office and my office. I'm sure he heard what we were talking about."

Even before the Phillies discovered they would experience life without Ryan Howard for an undetermined period of time, upgrading the power potential of the bench was a priority. That is just one reason team officials said they are equipped to sustain at least a month - and probably more - without Howard in his cleanup spot.

The Phillies prepared for Howard's vacancy by acquiring Ty Wigginton, Jim Thome, and Laynce Nix. That they survived 46 games without Chase Utley to begin the 2011 season also provides a template. And another easy early-season schedule offers faith that Howard's absence won't derail a season.

Howard was not present at camp Thursday, but he did return to Florida after a procedure Monday to remove sutures that once held his repaired left Achilles tendon together and clean an infection from his surgical wound. A Phillies official said Howard needs time for his newest wound to heal, and there was no sense in his coming to the complex, where there is nothing to accomplish.

This winter, the Phillies at least had an idea they would be without a star for an extended period. With the air of uncertainty that followed Utley's every move last spring, the Phillies stuck Wilson Valdez, a light-hitting utility player, at second base by default. Luis Castillo's nine-day tryout was eminently forgettable.

Manuel has options in 2012 to replace Howard.

"We definitely have more offensive weapons," Manuel said. "I thought Wilson Valdez played steady defense for us. When you're losing Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Placido Polanco for periods of time, the defense definitely comes into play. But from an offensive standpoint, I think we're definitely better equipped right now."

Even then, without Utley, the Phillies were 28-18 to start the season. That team had the advantage of a weak early schedule, just as the 2012 Phillies do.

In 2011, only seven of the Phillies' first 31 games were against teams with .500 records or better in 2010. Eighteen of their first 31 games were at Citizens Bank Park.

In 2012, nine of the Phillies' first 39 games are against teams with .500 records or better in 2011. ESPN's Buster Olney recently rated it the easiest early schedule in the National League.

That only softens the blow of losing Howard. Only six players accounted for a higher percentage of their team's home runs in 2011 than Howard's 20.1 percent. And the Phillies hit 153 home runs, only 10 more than the league average of 143.

In 2011, Howard hit a home run every 16.9 at-bats. The team's top three bench power threats from a season ago - Ross Gload, John Mayberry Jr. and Ben Francisco - combined to hit a home run every 30 at-bats.

The new bench triumvirate of Wigginton, Thome, and Nix hit one home run for every 22.8 at-bats in 2011. All three could be used differently in 2012 than 2011, but they represent a significant power upgrade.

Manuel's lineup will look incomplete without its big piece, but the Phillies think winning is sustainable without Howard. Maybe the manager's not-so-subtle hints last summer were productive.

Extra bases

Jose Contreras threw to hitters for the first time this spring. He tossed a full live batting practice session and did so without any apparent issues. Contreras, who had elbow surgery in September, is not scheduled to pitch in the first week of games, but he could appear soon after that. . . . Justin De Fratus is scheduled for a Friday appointment with team physician Michael Ciccotti. De Fratus has not thrown in camp because of elbow soreness he developed over the winter. . . . The Phillies had their shortest workout of the spring Thursday to leave enough time for Bill Giles' annual golf tournament.


Contact Matt Gelb at mgelb@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @magelb


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