Ryan Howard will be out six to eight weeks. Photo: Getty Images
Over the past few days we learned that Ryan Howard had a debridement of the left medial meniscus, which would explain why Howard has been hobbling around the bases this season. Howard was never at 100 percent this season, this much was always obvious, but he remained in the line-up regularly in his comfortable four-spot despite pressure from fans to see a bit of a line-up shake-up, perhaps with Domonic Brown moving in to the clean-up spot as Brown was blossoming while Howard struggled. Since Howard's injury timeline became more definitive the club called up Darin Ruf form triple A Lehigh Valley to give him a chance to play more of a role in this offense while Howard is absent.
The question that has received a good amount of attention in the last few days seems to be whether or not the Phillies are better with or without Ryan Howard. This, to me, is a misguided question the way I have seen it been addressed.
Are the Phillies a better team right now without an injured Howard? Of course they are. Despite a significant drop in power, Howard was still hitting .266 over 80 games so he was not exactly a complete failure at the plate, although he was going through a really rough stretch offensively. Now we know what the problem was with Howard, it seems, and we wonder just what he might be like when he does eventually return.
With the trade deadline looming and Howard on the disabled list, he is untradable. The truth is Howard's contract alone made him practically untradable unless the Phillies offered to pay a large chunk of the contract to the best available trade partner. Forget all of that for now because Howard is not going anywhere. But this brings me back to the original question at hand: Are the Phillies better off with or without Howard?
Probably, but I am not ready to write off Howard entirely despite his downward trends and his recent injury concerns the past couple of years. Howard is locked in under contract through 2016, with a club option for 2017. He will be paid $25 million each of those seasons, plus $23 million if the Phillies bring him back in 2017 (there is a $10 million buyout available for 2017). To me, if Howard can bounce back from this latest injury and get back to a 100 percent health level (or close to it), I would be willing to stick with Howard over the next couple of years. If nothing else, Howard has proven that when healthy he will drive in runs and I still feel he can have good value in this line-up with the right pieces around him. I have grown to accept the fact he will strikeout a lot, but if he drives in the runs he has throughout his career, I am willing to accept that.
I get the other side of the argument though. Howard is paid a lot of money and Ruben Amaro Jr. is going to have some tough decisions to make going forward with the payroll management. There could be some drastic changes coming up in the off-season with Chase Utley, Michael Young, and Carlos Ruiz all on the cusp of free agency and Roy Halladay up for an option in 2014. Depending on what the Phillies do, and which direction they see the franchise heading, a good amount of money could be freed up as the Phillies re-tool the roster. That may mean Howard's contract will not be as much of a burden on the payroll, but $25 million a year is still pretty cumbersome for a player that could be yielding diminishing returns. Moving Howard could free up $25 million a year, which could be enough to sign two (or three?) players that could contribute on some level if the scouting department finds the right players to moneyball it. But that is not exactly the M.O. of the Phillies.
Finding a power hitter of Howard's ability, when healthy, is not the easiest task to pull off and the farm system may not have that kind of power to look forward to, unless Ruf ends up providing it.
This Phillies team is better off without an injured Howard, but I am not so certain it is time to ship Howard out of town unless a pure blockbuster deal is offered in exchange.
One of the biggest questions I have, after another missed diagnosis of a lingering injury, is about the competence of the medical staff. Between Howard, Halladay and last year Utley's knees, it has become a trend. As far as Howard, that contract was a mistake, I just hope Ruben doesn't compound it somehow. Howard's HR dipped by 30% immediately after the new testing policies went into place. He's never going to be a 40-50 HR guy, that was a different time in baseball that doesn't exist now. At best he'll be a 30 HR guy with 100+ RBIs but even that is not likely.
The team is better off with a healthy Howard, over Ruf. Defensively Ruf is a butcher and Howard has become a solid fielder. There's really no way to trade him because of the salary, 23mil for a 25 hr guy just isn't a commodity.