Can Ryan Howard be Average Again?

Spring training is underway! Baseball is back!

Finally after what seemed like a never-ending offseason finally came to an end, there is baseball on my TV as I write these words. While games are just getting underway over the last few days, I have already caught more than a few innings. For one reason or another, the Philadelphia Phillies have been on my TV more than a reasonable amount for a San Diego native. Perhaps because they were the only game televised at the moment, but perhaps because their situation intrigues me more than any other team’s.

The Phillies aren’t going to be good in 2016. One could actually argue that they are going to be the worst team in baseball, but not by a huge margin. They are clearly quite deep in their rebuild, and look to be in a good position to compete over the next several years.

Despite the team not being in a position to win in 2016, there is still a lot to be excited about for Phillies fans. Names like J.P. Crawford, Aaron Nola, Maikel Franco and so on, should all be fun to watch. With the trades of Cole Hamels and Ken Giles over the last year, the Phillies have done a great deal to improve their farm system for the long term. Gone are those two, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and most of the players from the Phillies previous success, and subsequent failure.

However, one player remains. And he may be the most interesting player of all in 2016. That player is Ryan Howard.

By now, most know the story of Howard and his fall from grace. At one point, Ryan Howard was one of the most feared hitters in all of baseball. In 2006, Howard hit 58 home runs, drove in 149 runs, had a wRC+ of 162, and accumulated 5.9 fWAR for the season. While Howard maintained his consistent offensive performance over the next four years, his defense went downhill almost every year, culminating in an abysmal 2012 in which Howard was below league average offensively for the first time in his career, as measured by wRC+.

Fast forward a few years to 2016, and Howard has largely been the same player over the last four seasons. Obviously injuries plagued Howard in both 2012 and 2013, but he played at mostly full strength for much of the past two seasons, save for some missed time in 2015. Over the last four years, Howard has been a consistently below average offensive contributor as well as very below average defender which has led to negative WAR outputs for Howard in three of the last four seasons.

While the likes of Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, and most everyone else were able to find new homes in a trade, Ryan Howard has not been so lucky. Given his poor performance over the last several years, and the $25 million payroll hit in 2016, Howard was largely untradable at any point last year or this offseason. With a team option for 2016, worth $23 million with a $10 million buyout, this is almost certainly Howard’s last year in a Phillies uniform.

With the team in full rebuild mode, you have to think new general manager Matt Klentak would still like to trade Howard if at all possible. While many feel that ship has sailed, the possibility still remains in a number of scenarios.

I know this is a huge cliche, but seeing Howard play so far this spring training, he looks to be in pretty good shape at this point. Obviously many media types have described players as being in “the greatest shape of their lives” and things haven’t quite panned out that way, but in this case it appears to be true. Beyond that, in some comments made on air, Klentak seemed to speak rather highly of Howard, praising his work ethic in taking extra ground balls to try to improve his game. It is obviously just the beginning of spring training, but perhaps Howard may be on to something this year.

At 36 years old, and nearing the end of his career, it’s hard for Phillies fans, or really anyone, to expect much of anything from Howard in 2016. Even so, there still remains at least some chance that Howard could surprise. If Howard can at least regain some of his offensive success from years past, he could become a possible trade chip in July. If the Phillies are willing to pay for all or at least some of the remainder of this year’s contract (which would be around $10 million or so at the end of July) and perhaps the $10 million buyout as well, they may be able to find a team willing to take Howard off their hands. The return may not be great, but the Phillies need all the young talent they can get, at whatever cost they must pay.

Ryan Howard isn’t going to be the Ryan Howard of 2006. That much is obvious. But if he can at least be decent again, the Phillies may be able to finally get him off their hands. Howard may be the same player he was last year, or he may not. It’s impossible to know what he will bring to the table in 2016. But that’s why they play the games. And maybe Howard could surprise.

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