The past few years the Philadelphia Phillies have been in need of offense. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has tried to improve the offense by adding various pieces such as Hunter Pence and Placido Polanco. This season the team added the piece they have needed to help the offense to return to the success it had during the five straight division titles. This missing piece has been on the team all along in the “Big Piece”, Ryan Howard. The Phillies’ first baseman has missed 173 games the last two season while recovering from a torn Achilles Tendon in 2012, and suffering a torn left meniscus last season, missing the remainder of the season. Howard is now fully healthy and is eager to get back on the field and contribute.
The first baseman said recently, “I’ve got two legs” while also adding that the last two seasons he has been playing on one. He is not the only one confident in his health, as Amaro and manager Ryne Sandberg have confidence that the Big Piece is back to 100 percent. Another key reason Howard is confident in his health is that he has gotten his weight down between 240 and 250 pounds, looking much more lean and muscular. This is quite the difference from last season when Howard appeared overweight, and was 260 pounds when his season ended.
As important as it is that Howard is back to being healthy, he still must return to the form that earned him his massive contract. A common thought is that Howard needs a skilled right-handed bat behind him in the batting order for him to succeed. During his best years with the team, Howard either had Pat Burrell or Jayson Werth behind him in the lineup. Since Werth left after the 2010 season, the argument against Howard is that he has not been the same player. Hunter Pence joined the team partway through the 2011 season, but never fully lived up to the expectations.
A look at Howard’s 2010 and 2011 seasons shows this train of thought to be incorrect. In 2010, with Werth having a career year, Howard finished with with a .276 batting average, 31 home runs, and 108 RBIs. In 2011, with Pence hitting behind him for half of the year, Howard finished with a .253 batting average, 33 home runs, and 116 RBIs. While Pence was another skilled right-handed bat behind Howard, he never provided the same threat that Werth did. Despite a lower batting average, Howard had more home runs, more RBIs and even more walks, increasing from 59 to 75, with less security behind him.
Since it has been two years since Howard has played a full season, it might be best not to set high expectations for him this season. However, Howard is not short on confidence, saying that he feels that he could hit over 40 home runs, going as far as to say that he could match his MVP season total of 58. A more realistic number for Howard may be around the 32 home run average he had during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. His presence in the lineup has always helped those around him, and that trend should continue this season. He has a better lineup around him than the last two years due to the emergence of Domonic Brown and the addition of Marlon Byrd as a right-handed power bat. These two will definitely benefit from Howard being in the lineup.
Do not be surprised if Howard gets a few days off here and there, especially if he struggles early. The Phillies will not want to rush their slugger back, and have the benefit of good depth to give Howard some breaks. The key backup behind Howard is Darin Ruf, who in the past was projected as the team’s first baseman of the future. As a right handed power bat, Ruf could start for Howard against left handed pitchers, who Howard is notorious for struggling against. After Ruf, the Phillies have Kevin Frandsen and John Mayberry Jr. with experience at first base to help back up Howard.
In the end Howard and the team want him to play all 162 games, something Howard believes he is capable of doing. He is finally healthy and has the confidence of his manager and general manager that he will return to form. His return will no doubt provide a boost for a struggling offense that has been missing its big piece.