CD's Connect the Dots... Howard No Turkey

The Phillie spin machine is in overdrive lately as they ponder what suddenly has become a vexing problem. Truth be told, they never anticipated this situation and that is what makes it even more intriguing. We speak of the fortunes of Ryan Howard, possibly the greatest lefty slugging prospect developed by the Phils in the past 50 years. How this is handled in an organization not known for long term vision could speak volumes about the direction of the club in the near future.

Simply put, the Phils always considered Howard a "nice" prospect. A player who might one day become a platoon player in the big leagues. As a fifth round draft pick, they hoped he might carve out a decent career in the major leagues, and as his fortunes grew with an MVP award in the tough Florida State League, they realized they might have more than an organizational filler on their hands.

What they have is a player who projects as a potential 40 homerun giant in a sport that will soon have a dearth of such players. Let's face it, you can't teach power, and Howard has this skill in large quantities. His numbers in 2004 have become almost legendary. At Reading, he was a veritable homerun machine with 37 in less than 400 at bats.

Promoted to Scranton and Triple A in August of 2004, he continued his onslaught of the minor leagues with nine more four baggers in a bit over 110 at bats. This gave the youngster 46 homeruns in less than 500 plate appearances, a staggering average of almost one homerun every ten at bats.

As if to prove his power was no mirage, he continued his long ball festival in Philadelphia in September. He is the real deal, Phillie fans, and this leads to the question currently spoken in hushed tones throughout the Phillie organizational hierarchy, "Just what do we do with him now?"

For those Phillie fans unaware of the team's dilemma, it is this. Howard is a first baseman, and has always played the position. At 6'5" and 230 pounds, Howard presents a huge and welcome target at first base, a spot he has always handled well. However, the Phils currently are well connected at this spot with one Jim Thome, another slugger of some renown.

It has been suggested in this column on several occasions that the team should consider moving Howard to left field and letting the cards fall where they may. Although Pat Burrell is the current occupant of that spot, and plays it well, it never hurts to have other options, especially 40 homer type ones.

For months the Phils rejected this notion, with disclaimers like he was not athletic enough, or he was too slow, or he just couldn't make the switch. This seemed utter nonsense coming from an organization that has seen such less than illustrious defense players as Richie Allen and Greg Luzinski perform at the same position.

Fact is, Allen and Luzinski played the position of "slugger" and any defensive shortcomings emanating from left field was more than made up for by the booming bats of the terrific twosome. Actually, Burrell was moved to left field to accommodate his power stroke, and only his hard work and athletic prowess have made him acceptable in the field.

These are interesting names all…Allen, Luzinski and Burrell. Throw in third baseman Mike Schmidt for good order and you now have the greatest sluggers produced in Philadelphia since 1960. All great players, solid sluggers, all right handed. Howard's name might well one day grace this list if he is allowed to flourish in Philadelphia, instead of elsewhere.

Ah, and herein lies the problem. Although the Phils almost grudgingly allowed Howard to attempt to play left field in the Arizona Fall League, and even trumpeted his success at the position, this writer believes it was mere window dressing to make him a more appealing trade chip.

Careful study of Arizona Fall League stats shows Howard leading the league in several categories, while hitting a cool .330. His strikeout numbers are satisfactory, his power numbers steady, his walk stats are up. However, a quick glance at his defensive performance shows he has played one, count it, one game in the outfield.

Methinks the Phils public relations crew is working overtime to placate a suddenly interested public who wants to know just what the team intends to do with their latest phenom. After all, there are tickets to sell, and players to promote, and almost all of Philadelphia is suddenly aware of the lightening quick bat of Mr. Howard.

He has become somewhat of a celebrity in PhillieLand, as well as in many baseball cities looking for a David Ortiz type slugger to grace their lineup. Chances are still greater than 50-50 that Howard celebrates his first homerun title as a member of an opposing team, but at least the Phils are now aware of the pulse of the community.

With the Phillies, community pulse is everything, and GM Ed Wade knows full well that his legacy may well be carved by how he handles the Howard situation. It still says here that if he is as shrewd as he hopes to become, he will keep Howard, and slowly integrate him into the Phillie lineup.

The Phils are certainly in the catbird's seat in regards to Howard's future. Although 25 years of age, the team still has two option years remaining on his contract so they are under no gun to make a decision immediately. He should be placed in left field at Scranton and allowed to play himself out of the position, and out of Philadelphia… or not!

If Howard shows the slightest aptitude for the outfield, and if his electric power doesn't suddenly disappear, then the team needs to get him to Citizens Bank Park no later than August of 2005. Thome and Burrell have begun to show that their power bats are occasionally stifled by injury or slump, and Thome's advancing age still promises an eventual trade back to the American league where he can play out his career as a designated hitter.

Unless the Phillies are completely overwhelmed by a trade offer, and this does not mean two decent prospects, but one sure fire All-Star, then Howard must be kept and nurtured. He promises to provide Phillie fans with countless years of tape measure shots, and his winning personality only makes him that much more appealing to a city starved for a hero.

On this week when Thanksgiving is upon us, let us hope the Phils give thanks for a former fifth round draft pick that has excited the populace in a way not seen since the early days of Schmidt and Luzinski. The best hope they can give the fans is the hope that Howard will be allowed to display his talents at Citizens Bank Park for many years to come.

With Burrell still young, and another slugger, Jake Blalock, on the horizon to further strengthen a middle of the order lineup, the team has much to be thankful for. Let us hope they understand their good fortune and realize that in Ryan Howard, they have not a turkey, but a genuine future big league star.

Columnist's Note: Please send comments or suggestions to connectthedots@earthlink.net and I will respond. Thanks! Allen Ariza aka CD from the Left Coast

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