Inside the Phillies: It's clear Howard doesn't fit Sandberg's mold

Posted: July 28, 2014

The two men sat in the Phillies dugout Friday afternoon and answered questions during separate sessions about the $125 million festering predicament. One protected his investment; the other stressed the overall betterment of the team. There are endless issues beyond Ryan Howard, but the contrasting messages offered insight to the challenges ahead.

General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. claimed Howard would be his first baseman in 2015, even as a source confirmed the Phillies have shopped Howard to American League teams without a taker. Manager Ryne Sandberg provided no guarantees when he explained his reasoning for benching Howard.

There were indications the front office did not agree with Sandberg's intentions. Amaro said Wednesday during the team's radio pregame show he wanted Howard to correct his slump with regular at-bats. (His tone changed Friday, when he said: "Everyone needs a break.") An inactive Howard does nothing for Amaro, if he's interested in making a trade - however improbable such a move would be.

Sandberg started Darin Ruf in three straight games, either as a last-ditch motivational tactic or the commencement of Howard's part-time status. Amaro and Sandberg talk on a daily basis; Sandberg said the front office does not mandate lineup decisions.

"There's a lot of challenges to the job," Sandberg said. "That's a challenging instance and situation. In my experience, it can benefit two different players."

Sandberg's intentions as an agent of change are somewhat jarring for a reluctant organization. He was thrust into an onerous situation, a Hall of Famer tasked with reviving a tired roster. His execution of said change - with Howard as the test subject - was not pristine, although the motive was justifiable. It demonstrated how Sandberg is more comfortable with younger players than veterans.

"I come to the ballpark every day to learn something," Sandberg said. "So I've learned a lot. No question about that."

Sandberg was right to suggest Howard's contract should not dictate playing time. Productivity should. Howard's contract is a sunk cost, a $125 million investment that cannot be recovered. He has accumulated minus-0.8 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs.com, since the contract began in 2012. That means the Phillies could have installed an average player at the league minimum ($500,000) and received the same - if not better - production during that span.

But Howard's contract raised his status, as did the 2006 MVP award and 93 home runs on two pennant-winning teams. That puts Sandberg in a compromising spot. He must balance well-established icons with his own perspective and philosophy.

"That's always a challenge," Amaro said. "He came in the middle of the season last year, and now as the season has progressed all of us had expectations of having a better year. Anytime you're not playing to the expectation or capability, I think it takes its toll on everybody. We're all making adjustments. We're all learning. I think this is part of the process, dealing with young players, dealing with veteran players. That's part of the learning curve. I have confidence in Ryne that he will continue to understand and embrace."

Howard was hurt by the three-game benching. There were signs of distress Wednesday night after another Phillies loss. Howard dressed at his locker and engaged Jimmy Rollins - still clad in his full uniform - in a lengthy discussion. Sandberg had already informed the first baseman he would not oppose Tim Hudson, a pitcher he has hit .328 against in 80 plate appearances, the next day.

The chat with Rollins was not a happy one.

The entire situation reinforced Sandberg's words immediately after the all-star break. Sandberg spent six years as a minor-league manager, and it left an indelible mark on his ideology.

"I do think it's important to have players who fit my type of players," Sandberg said July 18. "That's important going forward. I think getting younger will be a step going forward."

What is Sandberg's type?

"An energy player," he said. "Versatile player. A baseball player. Does the little things. A guy that knows the game and plays the game the right away."

There is a message within those cliches. It manifested in the Howard situation. The next few months will determine whether the front office subscribes to the manager's doctrine.


mgelb@phillynews.com

@MattGelb

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|