"You can tell he's getting kind of down," Manuel said before the Phillies' series finale against the Nationals.
Not that the slump is entirely unexpected. While Howard's surgically repaired Achilles' tendon has given him no problems, the first baseman's biggest challenge has always been the rust he accumulated during his 9 months working his way back from the surgery that he underwent last October. Even after normal offseasons, he tends to be a slow starter. His career numbers in March and April — a .257 batting average, .349 on-base percentage and .466 slugging percentage — are well below those he has posted in July, August and September. In 2008, Howard hit just .172/.297/.343 in his first month.
Before Thursday's day off, Howard was hitting .206/.324/.429 with four home runs and 27 strikeouts in 74 plate appearances. Against lefthanded pitchers, he had just three hits with 13 strikeouts and three walks in 28 plate appearances. With two on and two outs in the ninth inning of the Phillies' 3-0 loss Thursday night, Howard struck out looking as a pinch-hitter.
"He's kind of still in a spring-training deal," Manuel said. "He's not seeing the ball real well right now. He's kind of going forward too quick, striding too quick."
It sounds a lot more dramatic than it actually is. Although the Phillies placed lefthander Cliff Lee on waivers Thursday, the chances of him leaving town are remote. In fact, Lee probably isn't the only big name who is currently on waivers, because the waivers are revocable, which means a club can pull their player back off even after another club claims him. Which means a general manager has nothing to lose by exposing somebody. In fact, executives often use the process to gather information for future use on who might have interest in players.
There is a good chance that Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Joe Blanton and Ty Wigginton all end up on waivers at some point. If one of them is claimed, the Phillies have three choices: pull the player back and keep him on the roster, work out a trade with the team that claimed him, or allow the waiver claim to go through, which would make the claiming club responsible for the remainder of the player's contract. Most times, teams end up pulling their players back if they are claimed. If nobody claims them, then they are free to be traded to any team.
There is a good chance that Lee goes unclaimed. He is owed $87.5 million over the next three seasons, a total that includes $25 million in annual salary and a $12.5 million buyout of a 2016 club option that vests if he pitches at least 200 innings in 2015 or 400 innings in 2014-15 and is not on the disabled list at the end of the season. That kind of salary would be difficult for any team to handle. In addition, Lee's no-trade clause, which allows him to block deals to 21 teams, applies to waiver claims.
While the Phillies clearly have not eliminated the idea of trading Lee, either now or in the future, the chances of that happening are still remote. Not only would the Phillies need a significant return in prospects, you can bet they would be unwilling to pay much, if any, of the money remaining on his deal. After all, the Phillies know they are a better team with Lee, and they are not going to pay him to pitch somewhere else.
But they will have that option if he makes it through waivers.
More likely to be dealt this August than Cliff Lee is Joe Blanton, who starts Friday night's game against Arizona. While the Phillies wouldn't be in a position to command much in the way of talent, they could receive some salary relief … Carlos Ruiz, who is likely to be day-to-day for the rest of the season as he battles plantar fasciitis, felt well enough to catch and hit cleanup … Jayson Werth, who had been out since May 6 with a wrist injury, was activated by the Nationals and started in centerfield Thursday night. He was 1-for-3 with a walk.
Contact David Murphy at email@example.com.