Howard Is Ready To Re-Prove Himself in 2006

After putting up numbers good enough to make him the National League Rookie of the Year, Ryan Howard hit the banquet circuit this winter. That doesn't mean he didn't do what's necessary to repeat or improve on his 2005 performance. In fact, he's ready for whatever comes his way.

In three summer months, Ryan Howard's level of fame went from minor league notoriety to Major League Baseball's Next Big Bopper.

His performance in the months of July, August and September was eye-popping - 21 homeruns, 62 RBI, a .296 average and a .585 slugging percentage. It was enough to earn him the National League Rookie of the Year award and make him the star of an off-season banquet tour that started in his hometown of St. Louis last week and will have him on the dais for three other events before the start of spring training next month.

"It has been a busy off-season," said Howard. "It has been crazy and hectic, but that's OK."

In three months, Howard went from a prospect who got light regard when the Phillies shopped him a year ago to a player who proved himself so emphatically at the big-league level that the organization didn't hesitate to deal potential Hall of Famer Jim Thome to the White Sox and pay more than half of his remaining freight.

To some, it might seem that the Phillies have put too much stock in those three months of Howardmania. What the Phillies see is a player who repeatedly has been underestimated.

Howard was a brawny basher in high school, yet he landed at Southwest Missouri State (now known simply as Missouri State) as a non-scholarship athlete. As a true freshman in 1999, he racked up enough homers and RBI to place him on the school's single-season top-10 list in both categories, but after less impressive performances as a sophomore and junior, he slid into the fifth round of the 2001 draft, where the Phillies quietly selected him.

Immediately, Howard showed impressive power in the minors, but his successes were often attributed to his being one of the older players in the Class-A leagues in which he played in 2002 and 2003.

A year ago Howard was coming off a monstrous performance in the minors, where he hit 46 homers between Double-A Reading and Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre. Yet Thome's presence at first base had the Phils open to trading Howard. When no offers appealed to the front office, Howard was given a look in the outfield. Then, Thome's injury-riddled 2005 season opened the door.

Heading into 2006, there are questions. Will Howard avoid the sophomore slump that has caused many power hitters to sag, one of those examples being Pat Burrell? Can Howard improve his numbers against left-handed pitchers (9-for-61 with one homer in 2005), who will be trotted out to challenge him at every opportunity?

Manager Charlie Manuel chuckles when asked if he has any of those concerns.

"I think if Ryan Howard keeps the same demeanor and the same work habits, he'll be fine," Manuel said. "He'll have his 0-for-10 slumps, but he just needs to be Ryan Howard and stay that way. He's improved every year I've seen him, and he wants it. He wants to be in there when the game is on the line."

"You play so many games, (slumps) are going to happen," Howard said. "That's why they call them slumps. Hopefully I won't go into them for 162 games."

"As for (left-handed pitchers), it's just a matter of seeing them. I have adjustments to make. I try to make (pressure situations) fun. I like to make it a challenge instead of worrying about it."

However, he does admit that it is nice to have one question die out.

"I'm glad I don't have to answer any more questions about trades," Howard said. "That's something I won't miss."

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