Okay, so the Ryan Howard to left field idea didn't pan out. Personally, I don't think it was given enough time, but the bottom line is that the Phillies have decided it won't work, so that's that. The National League isn't going to add a designated hitter anytime soon, so that's not a solution. Fans - and the Phillies organization - grunted every time former Phillies' prospect Ryne Sandberg came to town as a Cub and we outright shriveled when he entered the Hall of Fame. Not to compare Howard and Sandberg, but history could repeat itself if we're not careful.
When all of the options appear dim, why do anything? Why not let Jim Thome and Ryan Howard co-exist in Philadelphia. Look west for an example.
Lance Niekro - another guy who the Phillies blew it on - is getting on-the-job training with the San Francisco Giants. He's the backup to J.T. Snow and the two have worked together wonderfully. Granted, Snow hits left and Niekro is a right-handed hitter, while both Thome and Howard are left-handed. Granted too, that Snow has a contract that ends after this season and it's a foregone conclusion that he will exit the city by the bay after this season. The Niekro / Snow situation has been a good thing for the Giants. Snow has been somewhat of a mentor for Niekro and the young Niekro has been given a chance to ease into the major league routine. Niekro is hitting .297 with one homerun every 16.5 at bats. It's got to be tempting for him to play everyday and when Snow exits - which could be at the trade deadline - he will take over full-time. For now though, it's a platoon at best, with Snow getting the majority of playing time.
How could a situation like that work in Philadelphia?
First, the straight platoon idea is out the window since both of the candidates swing from the same side of the plate. Thome is also signed through the 2008 season, so there's no easy out there either. The first thing that you have to do is realize that financially, this can work. Whether they like it or not, Thome is going to get a lot of money from the Phillies. The thing to do is to get the best production possible for that investment. If Thome can stay stronger by playing a little less and Howard produces when he's in the lineup, then the investment looks better. If the Phillies insist that since Thome makes the big bucks that he has to play everyday, then the investment may not look so good over all.
"I don't mind having Howard out there," said Manager Charlie Manuel. "I think Howard gives us a potential bat. I think he can win you a game. I'd like to see if I can get him some playing time when Jim gets back, too."
When Thome will be back remains a mystery. While many Phillies will be heading home during the three-day All-Star break, Thome will remain in Philadelphia, rehabilitating his elbow. Thome received a surprise when trainer Jeff Cooper unexpectedly had him take some swings off a tee before Sunday's game. The experiment didn't go so well; the session was cut short when Thome's elbow began to ache. Whether it's been his finger, his back or his elbow, Thome is showing signs of age. He's slowly wearing down and the Phillies can only hope that it doesn't progress too quickly. Here is a way to slow the process.
Look at the numbers. Sit Thome against pitchers that he struggles against. For instance, let's say that both Thome and Howard are healthy and available for a series with the Marlins. If the Phillies face Al Leiter, Josh Becket or Dontrelle Willis, who Thome has a combined career average of .149 against, you play Howard. If A.J. Burnett or Ismael Valdez are starting, you start Thome, since he has a combined career mark of .276 against them. You also figure on Thome playing against the tougher left-handed pitchers. Howard has shown early on that he may struggle a little against left-handers, so let Thome handle them. After all, Thome has more experience at the major league level. That would allow Howard to have much the same adjustment time against lefties that Chase Utley had against lefties this season prior to dealing Placido Polanco.
One of the holes on the Phillies is power off the bench, especially when Jason Michaels is in the lineup. Having Thome or Howard to come off the bench would be a huge boost. Keep an eye on situations throughout the second-half when Charlie Manuel could make things very exciting by sending either Howard or Thome to the plate rather than Tomas Perez or Ramon Martinez.
The final part of the plan is to look for spots to get at bats for Howard. If the Phillies are losing 8-0 in the fifth inning, Thome gets lifted and Howard plays the rest of the game. The Phillies are winning 8-0 in the fifth, Thome gets lifted and Howard plays the rest of the game.
The bottom line to this thing is this. Howard could start two and maybe three games a week. He could pinch-hit in two or three others. He could get 12 to 15 at bats a week without much difficulty. Some weeks would be more, but the Phillies have to insist that he get at least ten at bats every week for this thing to work.
The Phillies need power hitters and Howard is a definite power hitting player who has drawn comparisons to Willie Stargell and other great hitters in the game. He's nearly ten years younger than Thome and has a huge future ahead of him. Plus, he can't make the big bucks for a few more seasons, so there is no reason to worry about him being a financial drag on the organization.
It appears that the Phillies have decided that Howard will stay in the majors when Thome returns. "He's getting a chance to play and relax," Manuel said. "He's not pressing as much as he did the first time up."
Down the road, there may be a point where Thome should be the one to get dealt. Perhaps, he could finish his career in Cleveland as a designated hitter. Time and Thome will show whether or not that's a good solution.
For now though, Thome's value is too low to deal him anywhere and Ryan Howard's will only increase as he gets more time in the majors and shows what he can do offensively. Whether or not the Phillies are buyers or sellers as the trading deadline approaches, both Thome and Howard should be off limits to other clubs unless the Phillies are completely blown away by an offer. That doesn't mean Barry Zito straight up for Howard. That doesn't mean Mark Redman straight up for Howard and it certainly doesn't mean Jamie Moyer straight up for Howard. It means blown away! It means having Peter Gammons standing up to say how the Phillies made a great deal that will help them not only now, but for years to come. Gammons - and other baseball types - must gush at how Ed Wade was able to pry (insert player name here) away from (insert team name here) for Howard, who is going to be a great player, but still won't equal what the Phillies got in exchange. That way, the name Ryne Sandberg stands alone and doesn't have the name Ryan Howard join him in lingering, distasteful discussions among Phillies fans.