Top Prospect #2: Ryan Howard

This time last year, Ryan Howard was known, but nobody truly had an idea of his potential or how quickly he could arrive in Philadelphia. Now, after a monster season in 2004, the Phillies are faced with a dilemna of how to fit him into a power filled lineup.

Most pitchers figure that hitters can't take them deep if they keep the ball down in the zone. Not so with Ryan Howard. He can hit just about every pitch out of almost any ball park. He can pull the ball, go to straight away center field or take pitchers the other way. In fact, he almost seems most comfortable when he hits the ball to left field. The early knock on Howard was that he couldn't turn on fastballs. While that criticism hasn't completely disappeared, he has gotten much better an that improvement was a big part of the reason for his breakout season in 2004.

In his first two seasons of full-season ball, Howard hit a total of 42 homeruns. He eclipsed that with a total of 48 homeruns last season alone. Two of those homeruns came at the major league level when Howard was given a late season audition. The powerful monster of a man played at three levels last year and hit well at every stop. At Reading, he went 37-102- .297, moved to Scranton and hit 9-29-.270 and added two more homeruns, five RBI and a .280 average with the Phillies. While he gets most of his attention because of the longball, many people have simply not noticed what a polished, mature hitter Howard has become. In 131 minor league games, he drove in 131 runs last year. He has driven in at least 80 runs in every full-season league that he has played in during his minor league career. While he strikes out at a pretty high rate, Howard is also a patient hitter who draws a good amount of walks and produces strong on-base percentages.

The 2005 season will bring a new challenge to Ryan Howard. Can he learn to play left field? The Phillies at first insisted that he couldn't learn the position. That he was too slow and simply wasn't athletic enough. Others begged to differ. Last fall, the Phillies had Howard start to learn the outfield during the Arizona Fall League and that work has continued over the winter and now, into the spring. Phillies bench coach Gary Varsho has been assigned to Howard and has been teaching him the ropes with satisfactory results. As a first baseman, Howard was pretty strong defensively and he will always work hard to get better. Some time at Scranton to learn left field could be his ticket to a faster arrival time in the majors. Unfortunately, the possibility of being dealt to another organization might also be the way that he winds up playing major league ball, unless the Phillies can find a way to play Howard in their lineup.

2001 Batavia 6 35 .272 48 169 26 46 7 3 30 55 .382
2002 Lakewood 19 87 .280 135 493 56 138 20 6 66 145 .367
2003 Clearwater 23 82 .304 130 490 67 149 32 1 50 151 .374
2004 Reading 37 102 .297 102 374 73 111 18 1 46 129 .386
2004 Scranton 9 29 .270 29 111 21 30 10 0 14 37 .362
2004 Philadelphia 2 5 .282 19 39 5 11 5 0 2 13 .333
Career-Minors 94 335 .290 444 1637 243 474 87 11 206 517 .374
Career-Majors 2 5 .282 19 39 5 11 5 0 2 13 .333

Acquired: Drafted out of Southwest Missouri State University in the fifth round of the 2001 Draft.

Batting and Power: Ryan Howard simply looks like a powerful man. He swings the bat well and is patient at the plate. The majority of his strikeouts come from when he gets fooled or simply misses pitches. In general, Howard doesn't overswing and will wait for his pitch. He also likes the ball down in the zone and isn't afraid to take whatever opposing pitchers give him and hit it where it's pitched. His longest homeruns have all come to the opposite field, including one at First Energy Stadium in Reading last season that literally left the park. If you've ever been there, you know what a shot that is. That's something that the likes of Mike Schmidt and Greg Luzinski didn't do when they were in Reading and keep in mind that Howard hit that ball the opposite way!

Baserunning and Speed: Howard is surprisingly speedy. Not that he's going to steal a lot of bases, but he isn't a liability on the basepaths. He's also willing to run hard and do what it takes to make things happen when he's running the bases. He'll get himself dirty and go hard into second base to break up potential double plays.

Defense: Howard is a pretty good defensive first baseman. He has gotten pretty good at scooping balls out of the dirt and again, he's surprisingly quick and agile for his size (6' 4", 220 pounds). Moving to left field will prove interesting. Sure, he's going to misplay balls and make some mistakes in the outfield, but he's smart enough to learn the position and athletic enough to handle the job as well. His arm won't be among the best in the league, but it should be adequate.

Projection: Unless something drastic happens this spring, Howard will be back at AAA. He will split his time between left field and first base, with probably a few more games in left than at first. That all depends on how the experiment goes. If he can adjust to left field, the Phillies can find him some at bats filling in for both Pat Burrell and Jim Thome and could also use Howard as a DH during interleague games. For now though, they prefer for him to play at AAA everyday, ala Chase Utley at the start of last season. There is no doubt that Howard will be a powerful presence in a major league lineup before too long. The only question is whether it will be in Philadelphia or elsewhere.

ETA: He's ready for the majors now, but the Phillies aren't ready for him. He'll see the majors this season, especially during interleague play and late in the season. He could step in if injuries hit or if Pat Burrell doesn't rediscover his swing from 2002. Another potential obstacle is that Howard is a left-handed hitter and with Kenny Lofton, Bobby Abreu, Jim Thome and Chase Utley, the Phillies are decidedly left-handed already.

Comparison: Much has been made of Howard's physical and professional resemblance to Pirates great Willie Stargell. He is a powerful player with a gentle disposition until he needs to turn up the heat on the field.

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