This is not an easy topic to discuss, given all that Howard contributed to the resurgence of baseball in Philadelphia. But baseball players do not play forever, and the sample size is not small. He has played in 272 games since returning from a ruptured Achilles' in 2012, a stretch in which he has hit just .233/.305/.412 with 43 home runs in 1,130 plate appearances. That's an average of 26 home runs and 204 strikeouts per 162 games.
Even before his injury, Howard was showing signs of decline. The .835 OPS he posted in 2011 was the lowest of his career. The second lowest was the .859 he posted the season before. From 2009-11, his slugging percentage dropped from .571 to .505 to .488, and his on-base percentage fell from .360 to .353 to .346. The Phillies must consider the prospect that the .752 OPS and 25 home runs that Howard generated from 2012 to 2013 was less a product of his injury and more an extension of a trend that began 2 years before he suffered it, a trend that has continued this season with his .675 OPS and 18 home runs. Everything about the last 4 years looks linear. It's a strange game, and for that reason, you can't completely eliminate the possibility that Howard gets himself right this offseason and finishes the final 2 years of his contract with at least average production. But that possibility is the only argument for keeping him in the fold. Everything else suggests that it is time to move on.
See, the Phillies really could use another 600 disposable plate appearances as they attempt to build a foundation for the future. Whatever their opinion of Darin Ruf, the fact remains that he has been a well-above-average major league hitter in the 109 games that he has played since his debut in 2012. He has hit .254 with a .349 on-base percentage, .480 slugging percentage, 19 home runs, and 118 strikeouts. That's an average of 28 home runs and 175 strikeouts per 162 games. Forget about the future: all of the evidence suggests that the Phillies are a better team right now with Ruf at first base. Granted, 388 plate appearances is not nearly enough of a sample size to form any definitive conclusions. But therein lies the point. Ruf needs to play everyday so the Phillies can work toward such conclusions. And first base is the ideal spot for him to play.
At the moment, the Phillies are working around that obvious solution by starting Ruf on a rotational basis in leftfield. Doing so costs Domonic Brown at-bats, a situation that has hardly prompted an outcry from a fan base that has tired of the onetime top prospect's subpar production and defensive lapses. But the Phillies' primary focus at this point should be upside, and the defining question of the offseason could very well center around who has more of it: Howard or Brown?
It has been a dismal season for the 2013 All-Star, and judging by the sporadic playing time he has seen over the last month, the Phillies' patience might be wearing thin. Still, they have nothing to gain by nontendering him - he shouldn't make much more than $2 million in his first year of arbitration - and his trade value is at an all-time low. It is worth remembering that from 2010-13, Brown hit .255/.320/.445 with 39 home runs, a line that is not too far off from the one Marlon Byrd has posted in rightfield this season. The Phillies have pursued Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo and are expected to do the same with countryman Yasmani Tomas this offseason. If they succeed in landing one of them, they could continue the Brown experiment by trading Marlon Byrd. But are they inclined to give Brown regular at-bats with the hope that something finally clicks for good? He wouldn't be the first major leaguer to put it all together after the age of 26. He also wouldn't be the first to flame out after one solid season.
One thing that we have learned over the past month is that Ruf, Brown and Howard cannot coexist in regular roles. Even if the Phillies decide the Brown ship has sailed, and that Ruf can play a passable leftfield, an opening at first base could facilitate the coexistence of Cody Asche and top prospect Maikel Franco, either with Franco playing first and Asche third, or Franco third, Asche second and Chase Utley first. Whatever the end game, the roads that lead to it are paved with a common move. Difficult? Sure. Necessary? It is getting harder to argue otherwise.
On Twitter: @ByDavidMurphy