Can Phillies' Ryan Howard ever find the power again?

The Phillies' Ryan Howard watches his Monday blast that ended a homerless drought of 55 at-bats.
The Phillies' Ryan Howard watches his Monday blast that ended a homerless drought of 55 at-bats. (YONG KIM / Staff)
Posted: June 20, 2013

If the Phillies are truly trying to resolve the puzzle of their ability to contend - and aren't merely trying to convince themselves, their fans, or any potential trade partners of that - then the big piece of the equation is as obvious as always.

Even before he became the Big Piece, a weapon on the lineup card larger than anything Lt. Harry Callahan ever unholstered from beneath his coat, Ryan Howard was the biggest piece of what the Phils built starting nearly a decade ago.

When healthier and more reliable (and perhaps younger) than he is at the moment, Howard was a rock cast into the middle of the offense that sent cascading ripples up and down the entire batting order. If Howard is good, everyone around him is better.

Some of the same can be said of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos Ruiz - the other remaining members of the everyday "core" that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. says he must see together before he can fairly judge the 2013 Phillies. Utley, Rollins, and Ruiz are capable of lifting a team, certainly, but only Howard is capable of lifting it and then carrying it a great distance.

The four seasons he put together from 2006 to 2009, which included back-to-back World Series appearances by the team, not only made his career, but he also was the largest factor in what became the most successful sustained run in franchise history. Howard hit 198 of his 308 career home runs in those seasons, a home run every 11.8 at-bats, and there was nothing that could replace what he meant to the lineup.

There still isn't.

The problem for Amaro and the front office as they wait for a best-case scenario to right the ship is that the best-case possibility for Howard still won't be the best Ryan Howard has been. When Amaro does the final calculation on this team before the trading deadline, and decides upon which side of the cash register to stand, a major part of the computation will be deciding just how much of the previous Howard really remains.

This season, Howard has battled an ankle injury, is still feeling some effect of severing his Achilles tendon in 2011, and has a balky left knee that appears to represent what will be a chronic condition for the rest of his career.

He is 33 years old now, and in the four seasons that followed his amazing years, including this one, he has had a home run every 18.6 at-bats. Most of those were clustered in 2010 and 2011, of course, and his eight home runs in 237 at-bats this season (before Tuesday's game) represent either a bottoming-out of his power reserve or a simple lull before he regains his legs and his stroke. His home run Monday was the first in nearly three weeks, ending a drought of 55 homerless at-bats that would have been unthinkable not that long ago.

It's easy to look at the production drop-off and say, "Well, sure. But he hasn't been healthy." That, however, is really the point. Of course Howard would be better if he were 27 and pain-free. There is nothing in the trainer's room to cast that spell, though, and there is also nothing to indicate that he will ever be rid of the breakdowns that are nagging a large, weight-bearing frame.

If Howard can't consistently generate the necessary weight shift with his left leg to ignite his swing, then his days of being a 35- or 40-homer guy are finished forever. That leaves the organization asking itself the unpleasant question of what good Howard can do the team if he can't do that.

The organization also is seeking another ride on the Wayback Machine, aside from the one that would recapture Howard's youth. That would be the one that unsigns the $125 million contract extension offered to Howard in 2010 when he still had two seasons left on his contract and was - we know now - about to trip over the doorstep that would send his game sprawling.

That contract, which goes through the 2016 season, will be regarded as an unqualified disaster unless Howard can fashion a second act to his power career. Even hitting 20-25 home runs a season with modest but decent overall production would be acceptable, but that's a stretch, too. He operates in a world now in which pitchers don't walk him anymore. They challenge him to put the ball in play and will continue to do so until he makes them stop.

It is a true puzzle that Amaro has before him, and maybe he already knows the solution will require more change and less staying the same. There's no reason to broadcast that now. The season limps on in baseball's slow, unhurried way, and there is no choice but to fall in stride.

Players get hurt; players get healthy. They get hot; they get cold. The biggest piece of the puzzle isn't actually missing. He's right there. But the fear, down where the organization can't admit it yet, is that the Big Piece is already gone.

Contact Bob Ford at Follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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