Out of Left Field: Baffled, Befuddled, Bewildered

Everybody just relax. Ryan Howard doesn't have to be in the majors this season. In fact, a full season at AAA could be the perfect scenario for the Phillies. Why is there all of this uproar over a young phenom, who has plenty of time to reach the majors?

Maybe it's just me but I am completely perplexed by the Ryan Howard "problem". I would say that I'm at a loss for words, though that wouldn't be entirely accurate. I think it's more a situation where words don't adequately express my confusion about the confusion. We have a guy on our major league roster that has hit 89 homers and driven in over 230 runs in the past two seasons, and we have a prospect at the same position that hit 48 dingers and drove in 136 runs at three levels last season. Somehow, though, in Philadelphia this is seen more as a bad thing than a good thing.

People want to see Ryan Howard. I understand that. But when the local sports talk radio shows and on-line message boards are a-twitter with proposed trades of Jim Thome, things have gone too far. When the neighborhood fantasy league "expert" proposes playing Howard at third base because we have an "opening" there, we have officially lost touch with reality. See, in fantasy baseball the parts don't have to fit together because you don't have to worry about defense. You can also put together an entire line-up of left-handed hitters because pitching match-ups mean nothing.

But, here in the real world, we still love Jim Thome. We still understand a guy that can hit over 400 major league homers doesn't come around that often - the ongoing spectacle with steroids notwithstanding. We even understand that Ryan Howard's 94 career minor league homers mean nothing when the guy staring back at you from the mound is named Clemens or Johnson.

Don't get me wrong, I love Ryan Howard too. I think he's the real deal and will be a great major league hitter. But I wouldn't mind seeing him start the season at Scranton, even stay there for most of the year. Because if he does, it means he wasn't needed in Philly in 2005. By extension, it would mean that Jim Thome and Pat Burrell were doing just fine. That's what I am most interested in seeing.

As I see it, the question is not can Ryan Howard play left field, but should Ryan Howard play leftfield? There's a distinct difference between can and should. Ryan Howard is a professional athlete, so I see no reason why he wouldn't be able to handle the least demanding defensive position on the field. But, he's never played there before this past summer, so the transition will not happen overnight. Despite what casual observers of the game want to assume, playing major league left field is still a difficult thing - especially when your entire life you have taken ground balls on the other side of the field and never had to judge anything in the air beyond a pop-up.

The Phillies are doing the right thing in evaluating how Howard will play out there, assessing how difficult the transition would be, and having a back-up plan (or several) if Burrell never matures into the hitter he was destined to be when they drafted him. But, a long-term plan for Ryan Howard should also include thoughts about how the offensive lineup would be composed. This might be a little easier to swallow if Howard were a right-handed hitter. A power right-handed bat is what this team is in desperate need of (are you listening Pat Burrell?) Where exactly would you put Ryan Howard in this batting order? Aside from Burrell, the three hardest hitters on the team are Thome, Bobby Abreu, and Chase Utley - all lefties. Where does Howard fit? Could we really field a batting order that had Abreu, Thome, Howard, and Utley in succession?

For some reason, Philly fans don't seem to be interested in spare parts. Perhaps it's because we have witnessed too many of our "can't miss" prospects turn into walking wounded in the minors, never to reach the potential that was laid out for them. But don't we also envy the Atlanta Braves and their endless supply of young arms? Doesn't it always seem like the Braves have another guy in the wings, ready to take over? Steve Avery loses velocity, just bring up that Millwood kid. Tom Glavine gets a big pay-day somewhere else, well how about that Ramirez kid that we've had stashed away for a few years?

The Dodgers used to be famous for their farm system that constantly churned out talented kid after talented kid. They kept people socked away at AAA Albuquerque for years. In Philly, it seems we need to make room for the next phenom right away, or trade them for major league talent. Isn't that what got us into this mess in the first place, trading away young players for veterans that didn't pan out?

Let's give Ryan Howard and Jim Thome a little more time; what's the rush? Frankly, with some of the moves that Mr. Ed has pulled off recently, I'd just as soon have him keep his hands away from Howard at this point anyway. This way, the only reason I'm befuddled today is because it's St. Patrick's Day. Pinch me.

Random thoughts from Spring Training: Last week, Gavin Floyd got pounded early by the Cincinnati Reds who seemed to be jumping all over his first-pitch fastball. Do you know what happened next? Nothing. No look of disgust from the Phillies manager. No long-winded trips to the mound by the Phillies pitching coach. And Gavin Floyd worked it out all on his own, settling in and pitching three scoreless innings after giving up three runs in the first inning. Now that's refreshing.

Know what else is refreshing? Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson. When congratulated by fans after the Phillies pounded out 15 hits against six Reds' pitchers, Thompson responded by saying, "I don't care about hits; I care about runs." A Phillies hitting coach that gets it? Pinch me again.

Columnist's note: I welcome any feedback; please send your comments to dncurry@comcast.net.

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