We all want to believe.
We all want to believe that Ryan Howard is capable of coming back. We want to believe that somewhere in that hulking frame lies a man who can hit 35 home runs, 30 doubles, slug .500, walk a bit more and strike out a bit less.
We know the defense will be lacking and his speed on the bases will be nill. But everyone who wants to see the Phillies return to the postseason in 2014 wants to believe that Howard, at 34 years old, can anchor the middle of a lineup full of question marks.
Howard, who has spent the last few months recovering from knee and Achilles surgeries, says he's in the best shape he's been in years, and that his age should not be a concern, per MLB.com's Todd Zolecki.
"I'll be honest," Howard said. "I get so tired hearing about the age thing. Age is a number. Yeah, I've had injuries the past two years. But Bryce Harper had injuries last year. He's 21. Injuries don't discriminate. Injuries happen to everybody. This is what happens in this game. If you're playing on a regular basis, you're putting your body through it. It's all about how you take care of your body. If you still have the skill level of playing every day and producing every day, then age doesn't play a factor. I can be 38 and if I'm hitting 40, 50 home runs a year, are we having this conversation about age?"
Of course not. But it's been a long time since you hit 40 or 50 home runs, Ryan. And it's incredible that you seem frustrated and annoyed by those who are worried that your age and injury history could be an impediment to you hitting "40, 50 home runs a year," (which, by the way, you haven't done since 2009).
Age is more than a number. As your body ages, it doesn't perform as well. That's why you don't see any 60-year-old Major League baseball players.
As I wrote about back in September, the Phillies need more than just a healthy Ryan Howard this year. They also need a Ryan Howard that is more accepting of coaching, something he has not been. They need a humbler Howard, one who realizes that he can no longer do things the way he used to do them.
Ryne Sandberg mentioned Howard's reluctance to watch video to the Philadelphia Daily News' Ryan Lawrence back in September...
"From what I’ve gathered, I think that’s something he can be better prepared to face somebody to start a baseball game," Sandberg said. "Whether it’s through the hitting coaches, having conversations, going over scouting reports, we have plenty of video . . . I think he can utilize that."
The fact that a guy who has seen his OPS, slugging percentage, and home run totals drop each year since 2009 hasn't been watching video is appalling. One hopes that is a situation that Sandberg will remedy now that he's in charge.
But the truth is, the Phillies are married to Howard. At least for now. The Phils need him to be a productive power hitter again, and not just for the obvious reason.
Of course the offense cannot function without him providing power in the middle of the lineup. There is no one else who can potentially do what he does. But a productive Howard also means that he has trade value. Power is a rare and valued commodity these days and, if Howard can show he still has some, he could be attractive to another suitor.
Either way, the nightmare scenario is another season like 2012 and 2013.
For his part, Howard thinks he can get back to being the player he was in his late 20s again.
"Can I be a 30-100 guy?" he said. "Yeah, I definitely think so. I believe in my ability. I hear what people say. It's cool. You guys are all entitled to your opinions. But let's say I come back and I do what I do. Then what? If I come back and put up numbers like '07, '08, '09, then what? Are we having these conversations? I've never been one to make excuses. I've always tried to get things done, but when you're hurt, at times you're a different player. For me, finally being able to be healthy and play ... you saw it with Chase. His legs were under him last season. It's playing pain free and not having to compensate. I was trying to compensate so I didn't feel pain, but still give whatever it is that I had. I'm just going to try to come out pain free and do damage."
Howard is expecting a Big Papi-like revival out of himself. He sees that Papi had the same injury, suffered some down years, and came back strong this year. One big difference is Ortiz is a designated hitter and doesn't have to put as much pressure on his legs as Ryan does. Ortiz is also simply a much better hitter than Howard. But it's understandable why Howard, and some fans, are pointing to Ortiz' resurgence as a hopeful bellwether for Ryan in 2014.
The Phillies need Howard to hit 30-35 homers. They need him to increase his walk rate and decrease his strikeout rate a bit. They need him to get extra base hits and drive in runs. But that will only happen if he utilizes every tool at his disposal to become a better hitter.
It's awesome news that Howard has lost 10 pounds and is feeling great physically. Bravo to Ryan for all the hard work that he must have done to get himself in tip-top physical condition.
But it will take more than that for a Ryan Howard bounce-back year in 2014. And the Phillies have no choice but to hope he still has that in him.