It comes as a fairly innocuous line about halfway through CSN Philly’s Jim Salisbury’s recap of yesterday’s Orioles-Phillies Spring Training tilt. “Sources say the Orioles are keeping an eye on Howard this spring,” wrote Salisbury. Howard, of course, would be Ryan Howard, the Phillies longtime first baseman.
The Phillies tried unsuccessfully to move Howard this winter, with general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. going so far as to flat-out tell his player that the team would be better off without his services. Amaro and Howard have since cleared the air, but the facts of the situation remain unchanged. The Phillies are entering a full-blown rebuilding effort, with little room for a 35-year-old first baseman with a history of lower body injuries, sagging power numbers, and most importantly, a minimum of $60 million remaining in guaranteed salary.
Howard’s 5 year, $125 million contract kicked in at the start of the 2012 season. He has not played a full season since, due to a laundry list of injuries. Howard’s run of bad luck began right as the Phillies playoff window was emphatically slammed shut. He tore his Achilles running out the final out of the team’s 2011 NLDS loss to the Cardinals. It has been an uphill battle for both the player and the team since. Howard hit 23 home runs a year ago, but saw his slugging percentage fall to a career low .380. Had he maintained his career HR/FB ratio, his 23 home runs would have been 37.
Howard has reportedly lost 15-20 pounds this offseason by cutting sugar out of his diet. Howard looks practically svelte. His face and body are noticeably thinner, and has moved well at first base. Howard is also working through minor tweaks to his batting stance with former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. The results have been positive through the first five Spring Training games, as Howard is hitting .308. It is still early, but the signs point to a bounce back being in the cards for Ryan Howard. For Howard to have any trade value, the positive trend will have to carry over to the games that actually count.
That brings us to the other topic at hand – gauging the Orioles interest in Howard. Are they simply doing their due diligence on a player that will undoubtedly be on the block come midseason? Most likely, but the Orioles are one of only nine teams to which Howard cannot block a trade. Baltimore sits only 100 odd miles from Philadelphia, which may make it an attractive landing spot for a player who has played his whole Major League career in the Mid-Atlantic. You have to think Howard would love the prospect of lifting fly balls onto Eutaw Street.
From the Orioles perspective, the team probably does not need Howard, but if the Phillies are willing to eat a very large portion of Howard’s remaining salary, he may make an attractive trade target. If Howard comes to Baltimore, he can leave his first baseman’s glove in Philadelphia. He is destined to play out his career as a DH for an American League team. Adding Howard to an already deep bench would give manager Buck Showalter another left-handed power bat to play around with.
Right now, the Orioles have more than enough depth at first base and DH. However, if Howard proves his health, or the DH conglomerate of Delmon Young, Steve Pearce and Travis Snider struggles, the Orioles and the Phillies may find themselves talking trade.