That was before the baseball world watched Howard play first base for two weeks, a length too short for judgments but enough to generate skepticism. Howard resembled a player with both mental and physical shortcomings.
"He has to get down and play real low, really low to the ground," Ryne Sandberg said. "I think he has some restrictions there."
The Phillies manager assured it could be cured with more fielding drills. Howard disagreed with the idea he was hampered by his prior injuries; a torn meniscus in 2013 added to the Achilles surgery (and subsequent infection of the wound).
But Howard does not stretch for low throws from shortstop or third base like a typical first baseman will. He waits for the ball to bounce and receives it in his stomach with two hands. The difference, of course, is magnified on a bang-bang play at first base.
A stretch would expose his left heel on the bag. Howard insisted that is not the reason for his hesitancy to stretch. "Not at all," he said. "Not at all." Bench coach Larry Bowa briefly worked with Howard on his positioning and stretching before a game last week.
"Even last year, with the bum knee, he was fine as far as picking balls and receiving balls and actually throwing to the bases," Sandberg said. "So it's continued work and practice. I see him improving."
All semantics aside, Howard is an unathletic player with bad knees, and age could counteract any progress. Former manager Charlie Manuel created a stir last May when he labeled Howard's left knee as "arthritic." Manuel said the leg "will always be bothering" Howard. A series of knee surgeries, years of compensating for various injuries, and a large frame will do that.
The Phillies owe Howard $85 million through the 2016 season. Their challenge is to keep the 34-year-old first baseman healthy and productive at the same time.
Baseball's recent history is littered with "bad bodies" who found a home at first base. It is the least-demanding position on the field. But there is a problem if Howard, as Sandberg said, "is restricted to some extent" when in a crouched, athletic stance.
Howard explained his catching strategy: "Sometimes you are trying to read where the ball is going to hit [the ground]," he said. "If the ball is going to hit where the grass and the dirt meet, it's kind of a tough read. If it hits on the lip, you have to see if it's going to stay down or check up. We have a really fast infield. For me, a lot of those balls right now I'm just trying to keep them in front."
The Phillies do not want to relegate Howard to part-time status. Whether that would preserve his body could become a factor in that decision. Sandberg said in the spring he would make choices for the betterment of the team. That was in response to questions about Howard's ineffectiveness against lefthanded pitchers.
Darin Ruf is an obvious platoon partner. Ruf, who strained a muscle in his rib cage at the end of spring training, could resume baseball activities this week. He may not return until May.
The Phillies would accept Howard's immobility at first base should he rediscover his power stroke. Until then, he will refine his craft.
"You can work, work, work, and mistakes are still going to happen," Howard said.
Howard is a positive person. He raised eyebrows last week when, prior to a fourth straight loss, he said: "We've actually played very well this year. I disagree with everyone else." There was nothing else for Howard to say. He will attempt to push the dark thoughts about his decline from his mind, just as he exterminated negativity following his Achilles surgery.
But, as Howard learned, the little twinges of life make it difficult.