Howard is now in the Thome spot

Ryan Howard's path to the big leagues was blocked by Jim Thome. Now, Darin Ruf awaits his chance behind Howard.        KATHY KMONICEK / Associated Press
Ryan Howard's path to the big leagues was blocked by Jim Thome. Now, Darin Ruf awaits his chance behind Howard.        KATHY KMONICEK / Associated Press
Posted: September 02, 2014

Baseball is a game of timeless, repeating patterns, which is part of its charm. A fan from 100 years ago would still recognize the choreography of a double play and still know how well a ball has been hit by listening to the sound of the bat. He would wonder why the game takes so long, but otherwise, baseball is baseball.

Ryan Howard, as he endures the downside of a great career, is repeating another pattern that he went through a decade ago from the other side of the looking glass. Maybe he recognizes the similarity of the pas de deux taking place between him and Darin Ruf, and the one that attended his own slow arrival to the big leagues due to the presence of Jim Thome.

Maybe not, but it is there, and it is another timeless part of baseball, the story of the veteran standing in the way of the kid, and the team not entirely sure how to manage the transition. If the Yankees were waiting for Wally Pipp to get that headache in 1925, what are the Phillies waiting for in 2014?

No one is suggesting that Ruf will become Lou Gehrig, but it is evident that Howard will never really be Ryan Howard again, either. The Phillies would like him to be whoever he is somewhere else, and the organization apparently has convinced itself that keeping Howard in the lineup might improve its ability to trade him and as much as possible of the $60 million that remains on his contract.

Well, good luck with that one. The Phils will have to eat some portion of the money or go through two more seasons just like this one, so they had better develop an appetite.

Moving past Howard is proving almost as difficult as was getting him started. When the Phils signed Jim Thome to a six-year, $85 million deal in December 2002, Howard hadn't even emerged from single-A ball. It was a large deal by their standards, but it helped inject excitement and bridge the team's transition to Citizens Bank Park. Thome's first two seasons were exactly what the team wanted.

By the 2005 season, however, they had a problem. Thome was about to turn 35, was still owed $57 million, and this kid in the minors had just hit 46 home runs and driven in 131 runs with an eye-popping on-base-plus-slugging percentage of 1.017.

Thome struggled coming out of the gate in 2005 as he battled back and elbow issues, but general manager Ed Wade didn't want to call up Howard and begin the clock on his service time, forestalling future free agency as long as possible. Thome missed most of May, and Howard replaced him then, but Thome returned by the end of the month and Howard went back to triple A (where he would compile a 1.157 OPS this time).

The Phillies went west in June for six games against Seattle and Oakland, the perfect opportunity to use both Thome and Howard in the lineup, but they didn't call Howard back for that trip and the team went 2-4.

By the end of June, Thome's elbow gave way and he left the lineup for good with a .207 batting average and just seven home runs. Had Thome remained healthy enough to play, there's no question Howard would have stayed with the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Red Barons, which definitely would have prevented him from being the National League rookie of the year. Which is what happened instead.

Thome had surgery in August and made it clear he intended to play in 2006, still owed about $44 million for three more years.

Now, the situation the Phillies currently face isn't exactly the same. Howard is a home-grown superstar who won a championship here, not a short-term free-agent signee. Ruf, since hitting the 38 home runs in double A in 2012 that put him on the radar, hasn't put up numbers that are all that special. He also has struggled with injuries this season, a strained rib-cage muscle in spring training, and wrist and knee injuries after running into a wall in Allentown.

So it's not the same, but it is similar. Howard, also about to turn 35, has two years remaining at $25 million per season, then a $10 million buyout to void a third season at $23 million. Unless the Phils are willing to light a match to at least half of that, Howard's not going anywhere.

In the offseason after 2005, Thome was traded to the Chicago White Sox, along with $22 million, essentially splitting the remaining salary with Chicago. In return, however, the Phillies got some value, picking up Aaron Rowand and Gio Gonzalez, and the more forgettable Daniel Haigwood.

The trade was expensive, but it cleared the way for the prime of Howard's career and it was quite a run, beginning with a defining 2006 season in which he was the NL's Most Valuable Player, having hit 58 homers and driven in 149 runs.

That was then, and this is now, but the pattern is familiar. Howard will leave in the same way he arrived, exchanging places with another player and the team's knowing it has to happen, but taking a long while to figure out how and exactly how much.



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