What Do Phillies Do With Ryan Howard Now?

Nobody doubts that Ryan Howard can hit. Nobody doubts that he's good enough defensively to play first base in the majors. However, many people doubted that Howard could learn to play left field and the Phillies rewarded those people with the official end of the "Howard Experiment" when Charlie Manuel implied that Howard's style in the outfield compared to that of a polar bear. So, with the experiment off, what do the Phillies do with Ryan Howard now?

It was worth a shot. The Phillies did the right thing in giving Ryan Howard an outfielder's glove and having him work on learning to play in left field. Had they not taken the shot, they would have never known. Now, they know that it's not much of an option and they - and Howard - can move on and move past the experiment. Just where does that move leave Howard though?

Most likely, it leaves him playing first base at Scranton until interleague play begins in June. You can bet that on the morning of June 7th, the transactions section will read that the Phillies recalled first baseman Ryan Howard from AAA Scranton. That night, the Phillies will be hosting the Texas Rangers in their first interleague game of the season. Figure on Howard being in the lineup - likely at first base - and figure that he'll see pretty much playing time through the final interleague game on June 26th when the Phillies host Curt Schilling and the Boston Red Sox. We can only hope for a Schilling / Howard matchup.

In all honesty, more time at Scranton won't hurt Howard. He's still relatively young (25) and has just 150 at bats over the AA level. In that respect, there is still time for Howard to make the Phillies on a full-time basis. With the exception of interleague play, how much playing time would Howard get in the majors? Not much. He's a left-handed hitter and the lineup is predominantly left-handed, so there wouldn't be an abundance of opportunities for him to hit for a position player in all likelihood. Sure, there are pitchers to be pinch-hit for, but that doesn't get Howard enough at bats to really make having him in the majors the right move. Plus, the Phillies have a history of not rushing players. Remember the Chase Utley controversy from last season? The situation is different though, because it's likely that the Phillies could have found more work for Utley than they could for Howard, had Larry Bowa been willing. After all, it would have been easier to sit David Bell, move Placido Polanco to third and put Utley in the lineup a couple times a week than it is to sit Thome.

It would have been a much more interesting decision had Howard taken to the outfield. Then, there would be the opportunity to sit Pat Burrell against some right-handers and play Howard some in the outfield. Of course, Burrell is showing signs of returning to form, so there may not have been too much opportunity there either. The other potential scenario would have been to trade a resurgent Burrell - and his large contract - elsewhere to make room for Howard. Of course, any of those discussions are over.

The real concern is that the Phillies will see the Thome roadblock in Howard's way and decide that the slugging youngster, who has been compared to the likes of Willie Stargell, should be trade bait once again. He was dangled before, but the Phillies pulled him back just in time, deciding instead to send a bunch of young pitching prospects elsewhere. This season, if the Phillies need a pitcher or need to fill some other spot in the lineup, would they pull the trigger on a Ryan Howard deal? It's very possible. Let's say that Mike Lieberthal breaks down and there is a catcher available elsewhere for the price of Howard, do the Phillies do the deal? Or, maybe the Phillies can get a big-time ace for the staff and all it will take is Ryan Howard. It would be tempting for the Phillies to make a move with Howard if it means getting that special player that puts them over the proverbial top.

As for Howard, he is playing this all in stride. There was one point last year where he moved just inches from saying "play me or trade me", but he soon backed off and hasn't neared those waters again. He knows his turn is coming and he just has to be patient. He's saying and doing all of the right things. He worked his butt off to learn left field and was the good soldier through it all. He has played hard this spring, knowing that the odds of him making the club aren't very good. His demeanor has only added to the great storyline that is Ryan Howard. His team first attitude has probably added a point or two to his trade value. A huge AAA season pushes his value through the roof and we can only hope that the Phillies realize just how high his value could climb and demand value in return.

The end of the Howard Experiment is unfortunate. The fact that it didn't work out though is just a small obstacle in Howard's eventual climb to the majors. He'll be there one day and we can only hope that the majority of his time will be in Philadelphia as a member of our Phillies.

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