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The beginning of the end of the Ryan Howard story

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He was never as great as his accolades or contract indicated, but he was OUR middle-of-the-lineup MVP slugger, and he helped bring us the greatest run of Phillies baseball ever. Last night's lineup without Ryan Howard at first base could be the beginning of the end for the Big Piece.

That smile!
That smile!
Scott Cunningham

Here are all the things, among others, Ryan Howard can proudly claim on his resume:

  • Lifelong Phillie
  • 2005 Rookie of the Year
  • 2006 National League Most Valuable Player
  • Three time All-Star
  • Starting first-baseman for the best 5 year stretch in Phillies history
  • 2009 NLCS Most Valuable Player
  • 1.137 OPS in the 2008 World Series
  • 2008 World Series championship team member
Not on his resume, but still just as important to his tenure as a Philadelphia Phillie, are also a few other things: nice guy, good teammate, fun to root for, great smile, and a pleasure to watch when he's hitting with power.  Granted, as with all athletes, some on this list are based on limited knowledge of him as a person, but he's always been someone that has seemed like one of the good athletes.

But Ryan Howard has also been one other thing, which is not really his fault but ultimately is proving to be his, no pun intended, Achilles Heel - overrated by traditional metrics.

Ryan Howard batted in runs, and those who like traditional baseball metrics love them some RBIs.  Ruben Amaro, Jr., someone who wouldn't know an advanced baseball metric if that's all that came out of BFF Dave Montgomery's mouth, loves him some RBIs.  As a result, Ruben Amaro Jr. signed Ryan Howard to that ill-fated contract, that one that is paying him $25M this year, $25M next year, $25M in 2016, and $23M or a $10M team buyout in 2017.

Because of that contract, Ryan Howard has been playing first base almost every day that he has been healthy . . . even though he has almost completely lost his usefulness on the field and at the plate.  Sure, he still has those RBIs (though with an atrocious RBI percentage), but besides that, there's not much left to his game.

At least one member of the Phillies finally recognized that.  Last night, manager Ryne Sandberg announced to the world that he'd had enough.  Ryan Howard was going to sit, and Darin Ruf was going to start at first base.  It's not necessarily permanent, but it's something the team is going to try for a while.

The official line from Sandberg was that he knows what Howard can do but needs to "see what a guy like Darin Ruf can do also going forward."  Sandberg stressed that he isn't concerned with contracts, but only wins and losses.

The implication is obvious.  With Ryan Howard in the lineup, the Phillies are handicapped in the quest for wins.  The official team-recognized downfall of one of the Phillie greats has begun.

This is momentous for that reason.  Most of us have seen this for a long time.  We knew this would come the moment his contract was signed.  Or, we knew this would happen after that horrible season-ending Achilles injury in 2011.  Or, we were optimistic he'd return healed, but we saw that it wasn't going to be once he did come back.  Most of the thinking world knew Howard wasn't what he used to be (and never really was what he was thought to be) and never would recover.

But the Phillies acted like he would.  Until last night.  Last night, he was replaced with a guy who is still learning how to play first base (did you see that awful "stretch" in the first inning?) and has hit .265/.308/.373 in AAA ball this year.  Replaced by a guy whose virtues are walking and hitting home runs . . . but has 10 walks and 1 home run this year in the minors.

So the big question now is what is Ryan Howard's future with the Phillies?  Do they settle him into a traditional righty/lefty platoon with Ruf?  Do they make him a twice-a-week starter and occasional pinch hitter?  Do they let him sit a week and then bring him back to regular status, hoping he got the message?  Do they eat his contract and trade him to another team that is willing to take on a reclamation project?  Does he finally realize he needs to watch video and alter his approach at the plate and then make a stunning come back?

Do the Phillies, *gulp*, release him?

I don't think anyone is smart enough to know for sure what the future holds for Ryan Howard and the Phillies.  At this point, I'm actually fairly certain that neither Ryne Sandberg or Ruben Amaro Jr. knows.

But I am certain of one thing - this is the true beginning of the end for one of my favorite Phillies ever.  I knew he wasn't as great as the accolades and contract would indicate, but he still was an amazing player to watch; he still made it easy to root for him; he still hit titanic home runs; he still brought my team 5 NL East titles in a row; he still brought us a World Series title; he still anchored the lineup of the greatest Phillies team ever; and I still got to watch his whole, highly entertaining career.

Whatever else this moment is, to see Ryan Howard start the process of withering on the vine is just sad.