Four years, 3 months ago, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. signed Howard to a then-club record contract, nearly two full seasons before the slugging first baseman could become a free agent. Howard is making $25 million this year, more than any position player in baseball.
He's being paid like a superstar, but, according to his manager, he's not good enough to be one of the eight names in the starting lineup.
"I don't think that's the issue," Amaro said yesterday at Citizens Bank Park. "I think it's trying to get him right again. Right now, he's struggling. And I just think [Sandberg] is trying to get him some time, let him mentally get regrouped. Listen, everyone needs a break. And I think that's more of what this is about than anything else. All of us want Ryan to be back and for Ryan to be as productive as he can be. I think that's the goal."
Howard is hitting .224 with a .682 OPS in 97 games this season. His .377 slugging percentage ranks 126th out of 171 qualifying big-league hitters.
It would seem like a difficult task to get Howard's bat going if he's seated on the bench, but Amaro said the goal is for him to find "some combination of relaxation and focus" to become more comfortable at the plate.
Howard's massive contract (he's owed a minimum of $60 million in the next 3 years after this season) makes him nearly impossible to trade. And despite reports to the contrary, Amaro said releasing Howard at the end of this season is not an option.
"All I can tell you is that's not in our best interest," Amaro said. "It's not something that we've discussed."
Amaro went on to say he fully expects Howard to be the Phillies first baseman at the start of the 2015 season. But it's difficult to ignore his rapid decline as an everyday player.
"We don't expect Ryan to be the Ryan Howard of '06, '07, '08, but we know he's a more productive player than he has been over this past month," Amaro said. "It's really been this month that people are focusing on."
That's not exactly true, although Howard has had a rough July (.156, two extra-base hits in 17 games). Since returning from his Achilles' injury 2 years ago this month, Howard has hit .236 with a .724 OPS in 248 games. He's struck out 312 times in 917 at-bats over that span.
This season, Howard's .377 slugging percentage and .682 OPS rank 23rd and 22nd, respectively, among 24 qualifying major league first basemen.
So, it's been more than a bad month for Howard, who turns 35 in November. His numbers have declined as rapidly as his body.
Still, Amaro hasn't given up on his $125 million man.
"Listen, we're hopeful," Amaro said when asked whether it was rational to expect Howard to be able to bounce back at this point. "We went through this with Pat Burrell. He had some good years, some bad years and some years in between. I think that's a part of the baseball process, particularly when you get older. Derek Jeter had a couple off years for a while and came back and was an All-Star. Chase Utley went down and became an All-Star. It's not out of the realm of possibility. A guy can have a poor year one year and a great year the next."
Utley has made a remarkable comeback from knee troubles, but his contract calls for only $12 million guaranteed after this season. Jeter was an All-Star this season, voted in by the fans, but among major league hitters with at least 350 plate appearances, only Ben Revere has fewer extra-base hits than Jeter.
Jeter is also retiring at the end of the season. The Phillies, meanwhile, are on the hook for at least two more seasons with Howard on the roster.
Perhaps Amaro was lying and the Phillies will consider moving on from Howard after the season, eating the money and turning over first base to the next generation, Darin Ruf or Maikel Franco. But yesterday, he seemed to send a message that sounded a little different from the one that came from the manager failing to write Howard's name into the lineup.
Amaro believes in Howard.
"Ryan's always had a good outlook on things, has been very positive and should continue to be so," Amaro said. "He's a great person. He's got some terrific qualities about him . . . He knows he hasn't been as productive as maybe he would like to be. There's probably no one more frustrated about it than he is. But that's part of the game. Hopefully, he'll work through it."
On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21