Spring Training: Ryan Howard

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- If you just scanned headlines and listened to talk shows, you’d think the Phillies’ biggest issue -- and possibly only issue -- this spring was their shortstop.

But here’s a news bulletin from outside the bubble:

On the list of major Phillies spring training troubles, the furor, or whatever it is, over Jimmy Rollins’ positive energy level wouldn’t crack the top five.

“Most disappointing team I’ve seen all spring,” said one longtime scout.

“Their whole spring has been a train wreck,” said another.

“It’s painful to watch that team,” said a third. “That’s an old team, and it plays like an old team.”

Three weeks and 20 games into spring training, the Phillies had won five games (5-13-2) going into Thursday. They were hitting .215 as a team, with a .299 on-base percentage and 23 fewer extra-base hits than they’d allowed. It’s only spring training, but there’s nothing pretty about any of those numbers.

On the one hand, their manager said Thursday, he’s “less concerned” than people probably think, only because this is “a veteran group” that “knows what it needs to do to get ready.”

On the other hand, Ryne Sandberg said, “I think spring training is a time to set the tone for the season, and play the game the right way, and do things that would help you win a baseball game. And we’ve been on the slower end of accomplishing that side of it.”

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
AP Photo/Gene J. PuskarRyan Howard had 15 strikeouts, three walks and one home run in his first 40 at-bats this spring.
He’s hoping (with good reason) they’re about to pick up that pace before they head north a week from now. But there’s a lot that needs to be cleaned up on that front. So what are the Phillies’ biggest issues? Here you go:

Ryan Howard: The first baseman went into Thursday with 15 strikeouts and three walks in 40 at-bats, with one home run. The good news is, he’d raised his batting average to .275 with four singles in his past six at-bats. And Sandberg was upbeat about how Howard had shown “improvement over the last three or four games, with increased bat speed and more aggressiveness on balls in the strike zone.”

But scouts and executives who have seen him aren’t anywhere near that positive. The troubling reviews from those on the outside: “Just a guy who’s out there flailing away,” said one exec. … “A lot of at-bats, it looks like he’s swinging in case he hits it,” said a scout. … “Can’t sit on his back leg to drive anything anymore,” said another. … “Doesn’t have any sense of what’s a strike or what’s a ball,” said an NL exec. … Whew. Get the picture?

Jonathan Papelbon: The closer has allowed seven runs in his past three outings, and that isn’t even the worrisome part, according to scouts who have watched him.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him, but it looks like he doesn’t want to be out there,” one scout said. “His fastball is 89-90 [mph]. His split does nothing. He’s got no out-pitch. I know it’s spring training, and maybe he’s just trying to get ready. But his body language is awful. He’s got no energy at all out there.”

But Papelbon is only one worry in a bullpen with “not one guy you can really depend on,” another scout said. So what would the Phillies do -- and where would they turn -- if Papelbon doesn’t pick it up and take charge of the ninth inning? “I think that’s actually likely, the way he’s throwing,” one scout said. “He doesn’t have one above-average pitch right now.”

Domonic Brown: Brown was the Phillies’ only position-player All-Star last year in a breakthrough, 27-homer season. But he has hit .171, with one extra-base hit and a .229 slugging percentage, this spring.

Even Sandberg admits that Brown has “had inconsistencies -- one week pretty good and the next week cooled off a little bit.” The manager makes it clear that, on a team with five every-day players 34 or older, this team needs Brown’s “energy and young legs.”

But one concern is that Wally Joyner, the hitting coach who connected best with Brown last year, is in Detroit now. And one scout who noted that says: “I’m starting to worry that that first half last year was an aberration, and the real Domonic Brown is the confused guy we’ve seen this spring.”

Chase Utley: On one hand, Utley is clearly healthy. On the other, it took him until Thursday to finally thump an extra-base hit, in his 37th at-bat of the spring. He was hitting .167/.189/.167 before doubling off Toronto’s Esmil Rogers in his first at-bat.

Of all the Phillies’ slumpees, Utley concerns Sandberg the least -- not surprisingly. He’s just a guy who’s “still searching for his timing at home plate,” the manager said. “But he’s feeling good, and he’s healthy.”

One scout’s view: “He’s still their best player. But the Chase Utley of 2006, '07, '08, '09 -- we’re not going to see that guy again.”

Cole Hamels: The highest-paid pitcher (and overall player) in franchise history still hasn’t gotten into a game, and won’t before the Phillies break camp. And at this point, he isn’t likely to enter the rotation until the first week of May, if all goes well. Except that all hasn’t gone well since November, when Hamels had to shut down his offseason throwing program because of shoulder tendinitis, and again for a week and a half after another flare-up nearly three weeks ago.

Things are finally trending better for Hamels, though, after three pain-free bullpen sessions in a row. He’s scheduled to throw to hitters in live batting practice Saturday. And he could pitch in a first minor league or extended spring-training game in a week or so. “Things are going in a positive direction for Cole,” Sandberg said. “And that’s good.” But the Phillies still don’t have a good feel for whom they’ll plug into the April rotation to replace him -- and that’s not so good.

Jimmy Rollins: How about we put aside all of the debate about Rollins’ leadership, spring energy level and tradability. As he made clear Wednesday, he isn’t going anywhere, because he isn’t interested in going anywhere, and it’s his call. So all that really matters is whether he can still be a productive player at age 35.

Well, he finally broke an 0-for-23 funk Wednesday, with his first hit since March 1. But as much as the manager has stressed hitting “line drives and ground balls and keeping a good stroke,” Rollins hasn’t been able to locate that stroke this spring at any point. “I’ve got him with 14 straight balls in the air,” one scout said Thursday. “He’s a popup machine.”

But as for Rollins’ issues with the manager, “too much has been made of that, in some regards,” Sandberg said. “But I understand why it was. … What I wish I would have done [instead of no-commenting a question about Rollins’ leadership qualities] was to highlight my expectations of Jimmy, and what he brings to this team, and the things that he needs to do to help us this year.”

Well, believe it or not, no matter how much talk-show fodder the two of them have drummed up, spring training is never a reliable gauge of whether Rollins is going to do those things during the next six months. For that matter, we don’t know for sure what it’s telling us about where his team is going this year, either.

But we do know this: If April, May, June, July, August and September look anything like February and March for the 2014 Phillies, “it’s going to be a long, long year,” said one scout.

Ryan Howard and platoon talk

February, 26, 2014
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Ryan Howard has heard the talk. Let’s just say it hasn't been his favorite spring training storyline of all time.

That storyline goes kinda like this:

Ryan Howard -- part-time player … $25 million platoon player … yada, yada, yada.


“Yeah, I’ve heard people talk about that and about whatever,” Howard said Wednesday, after drilling an RBI single against Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ in the Phillies’ spring opener. “But I don’t think about that. I’m not focused on it.”

What he’s focused on, though, is being anything but a platoon player, that .224/.300/.428 career slash line against left-handed pitching notwithstanding. No matter how logical that platoon-player stuff might seem to everyone else, the Phillies’ first baseman has other plans.

And they involve spending the next six months (and beyond) as the cleanup hitter -- against everybody.

“Yeah, absolutely. That’s my goal as a baseball player, or just myself, period,” Howard told ESPN.com. “I want to be out there, playing against everybody. I don’t want to have to sit against somebody because they don’t think I can hit that guy or do this, or whatever. I want to be out there competing. If a guy gets me that day, he gets me that day. But next time he comes around, I’m trying to even the score.”

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallRyan Howard has asked manager Ryne Sandberg to give him as many opportunities to face left-handed pitching as possible this spring.
Well, so far, so good. Counting the Phillies’ intrasquad game Tuesday, Howard is 3-for-3 against left-handed pitching this spring, including a long home run to center field Tuesday. OK, so you can repeat after us: It’s only spring training. Nevertheless, if he can keep on hitting 1.000 under the palm trees, he can put his favorite spring plotline to rest.

But if not -- and not would be a heavy favorite in Vegas, by the way -- then we probably haven’t heard the last of this discussion.

It would be one thing, you see, if this talk was coming only from sabermetricians, talk-show geniuses and about 2 zillion people on Twitter. What makes it more interesting is that it’s also come from Howard’s manager (Ryne Sandberg) and general manager (Ruben Amaro Jr.).

Check out these pithy quotes from a radio interview Amaro did over the offseason:

“Ryan has never been a great hitter against left-handers,” Amaro said. “But when he is in there and he does enough damage against right-handers it’s tough to take him out of the lineup. Now, if we feel like he’s not performing against the left-handers then we put someone else in there to hit. … If he proves to us that he cannot handle hitting left-handers, then Ryne may have to put someone else in there to hit against left-handers.”

Sandberg, meanwhile, has voiced similar thoughts. So clearly, he is watching closely this spring. And here, he said Wednesday, is what he’ll be looking for when Howard faces the left-handed portion of the population:

“I want to see if he can make them throw the ball off the plate,” the manager said. “Be patient. Be relaxed in those situations. Get a good ball to hit. Make the pitcher come to him. I mean, I've said it before. I know he can hit balls in the strike zone, right-handed or left-handed pitching. So if it means being patient and taking walks, that’s for the betterment of the team. And be a baserunner. Let the guy behind him hit.”

But swinging at strikes has, increasingly, become an issue for Howard. According to FanGraphs, he’s chased more pitches outside the strike zone in the past two seasons -- 37 percent in 2012, 34 percent last year -- than at any time in his career. So Howard concedes he needs to swing at more strikes, period.

“Righty or lefty, that’s the name of the game, is getting good pitches and swinging at strikes,” he said. “Hitters’ strikes.”

He also admits he has asked Sandberg to give him as many opportunities to face left-handed pitching as possible this spring.

“I just wanted to do it, just to be able to see it,” he said. “To be able to see more [left-handers]. To start working on an approach. Just seeing left-handed breaking balls, left-handed pitches. Trying to work on picking up the ball sooner. And it’s spring training, where you’ve got the opportunity to go out and do it. So why not do it?”

No matter how this turns out, though, Howard has come into spring training healthier than he’s been at any time in three years. It’s now 28 months since he blew out his Achilles. And after five months of intensive conditioning, it’s finally healthy enough that it isn't an issue anymore. And neither is his arthroscopically repaired knee. So even he sees the difference in his health and agility between last spring and this spring.

“I can do everything,” Howard said. “I mean, I was able to do everything last [spring]. But then once it kind of started nagging, it was tough going out there and trying to play on it. But this year, being able to go out there, having a full offseason to be able to do agility drills, lifting, everything I wanted to do this offseason as far as that area goes, actually getting back to running this offseason, and now doing everything that’s asked of me in spring training. So yeah, that’s probably the biggest difference between this year and last year -- being able to do everything that’s been asked of me.”

And so far, “everything” includes handling those guys who insist on pitching left-handed against him. But there are still five weeks until Opening Day. So this is one Ryan Howard plotline that won’t be going away -- whether he’s tired of it or not.