Thome, Howard Situation Continues To Play Out

The Phillies mercifully ended the first half of the 2005 season on a positive note. Showing more fight than they have in several weeks, the Phils finally won another series, the first time in eight tries since they finished their improbable 12-1 homestand on June 12th. The series win couldn't have come at a better time. By beating the NL East leading Washington Nationals in extra innings on Sunday, the Phillies avoided entering the All-Star break in last place with a losing record.

Sunday's game was the biggest of the season so far. Dropping into last place and below .500 would have left the team stewing in the cellar over the All-Star break. With the win, there is a faint breeze of optimism blowing through the clubhouse, perhaps enough to give the Phillies the confidence and resolve they will need to make a serious playoff push in the second half.

The 45-44 Phillies have a mountain to climb when they return. To make it to 92 wins, a reasonable total if they expect a playoff berth, the Phillies will have to go 47-26, a .644 clip. Only the amazing Chicago White Sox have played at that pace this season. Essentially, the Phillies will have to steamroll over the rest of the league, especially the teams in the NL East. The second half begins with a ten game homestand, the first four of which are against the arch-rival Florida Marlins. The Fightins must win at least seven of these ten home games - including three of the first four against the Fish - to bring themselves back in the race. Anything less and the Phillies should consider themselves sellers rather than buyers for the July 31 trading deadline. The numbers just don't lie.

Of course, with erstwhile GM Ed Wade's own job on the line, it is likely that a caution-to-the-wind mentality will prevail over planning for 2006 and beyond. Even if the Phillies get hot for the rest of July, it will be a close call whether or not they should mortgage their future for a dubious shot at a pennant. Though "only" 8 games behind the Nationals in the loss column and 5 games out in the wild card race, there are a lot of bodies to climb over. At least one of the teams ahead of the Phillies is likely to get hot, not to mention one of the teams nipping at their heels - the Mets and Cubs come to mind. The risks of a deadline deal may simply outweigh the long odds of immediate rewards.

On July 31, the Phillies will be a franchise at a crossroads. Only a blockbuster deal will help them acquire the pitching help they need to have a chance in 2005. But are they close enough to making the 2005 playoffs to justify dealing away Ryan Howard, who is clearly an emerging star? Even if the Phillies miraculously streak to a playoff finish, can they possibly win a post-season series without help at the top of the rotation?

With Thome injured and not expected back for a few more weeks, Howard has filled in admirably at first base. His huge two-run blast to centerfield tied Sunday's game in the eighth inning, setting up the chance for Ramon Martinez to win it with a pinch-hit, bases-loaded, seeing-eye bleeder in the bottom of the 12th. With each passing game, Ryan Howard looks more comfortable at the plate. He shines with a definite star quality. There is no doubt that Ryan Howard belongs in the Show. But with Jim Thome signed through 2008, something has got to give. Howard and Thome, both left-handed power hitters, both exclusively first basemen, simply do not fit on the same National League team. If the Phillies deal Howard only to watch Thome remain a shell of his former self through the rest of his contract, the trade will haunt them for years. If they don't deal Howard, his talent and value will be largely wasted on the bench once Thome returns to the lineup. Because Manuel is fiercely loyal to Thome, it is unlikely that he will be a willing part of any discussions involving a Thome trade, but GM Ed Wade at least has to consider doing exactly that.

For Phillies owners, the Thome vs. Howard question involves much more than just the huge difference in their salary. Over the next three and a half years, it is entirely possible - perhaps even likely - that Howard will overtake Thome in his overall offensive production. But when will the changing of the guard take place? 2006? 2007? At 35, Thome is nearly ten years older than Howard and may be rapidly declining just as Howard is rapidly rising. Thome's slumps and injuries this season have added to the difficulty of this conundrum. Is Thome suffering a mere bump in the road or is this the beginning of the end? Whatever the resolution, the Thome vs. Howard decision will define the Phillies for the next three years and beyond.

Meanwhile, let us not forget what kind of a player Jim Thome has been. In a word; awesome. And this year, even with his batting average sniffing the Mendoza Line, he reaches base at a .360 clip, the sixth best mark on the team. The concern with Thome is less about his production than about his health. Perhaps the best trade that Wade could make would be a non-trade, putting off the Howard/Thome decision until Thome is healthy again and the offers for Howard have peaked. That way, if Thome somehow cannot regain his form in the second half, Ryan Howard will be still be around to take over in 2006. The Phillies may not get the pitching help they need for 2005, but waiting to be sure of making the right decision at first base may be the key to a brighter future.

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