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Did The Phillies Front Office Override Sandberg, Forcing Howard Back Into Lineup?

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The timeline of statements and actions is suspicious. Lex parsimoniae likely applies.

It's good to have friends in high places
It's good to have friends in high places
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

On July 20th Phils manager Ryne Sandberg benched a healthy but struggling Ryan Howard, as the Phillies were facing a tough lefty in the Braves' Alex Wood. Howard returned to the lineup the following day, but on July 23rd Howard was again benched, and this time would not see another at bat until July 26th, despite the Phils facing right-handed pitcher and Ryan Howard batting-tee Tim Hudson on the 25th. It was about this time that rumors of the Phillies shopping Howard arose, with Jim Salisbury suggesting the Phils might even consider outright releasing the struggling first baseman.

When asked about the benching of Howard on the 23rd, this is what Sandberg had to say:

"I know what he can do," Sandberg said of Howard. "I've seen him for 100 games. I know what he can do. I think it's important to see what a guy like Darin Ruf can do also going forward.

Judging by his words and actions Ryne Sandberg had given up on Ryan Howard as an everyday player on the 23rd.

On July 25th Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro publicly shot down rumors of the Phillies' potentially releasing Howard.

"[Releasing Howard] is not something we are contemplating," Amaro said Friday morning. "I don’t know where that’s coming from.

"Our goal is to try to get Ryan Howard straightened out so he can be a more productive player for us. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t expect him to be the Ryan Howard of 2006, 2007, 2008. What we expect is him to perform better than he is. I know he’s a better player than this.

"Has to keep working and it’s up to us to help facilitate that. That’s on him and on us to help him get back to being a productive player."

Howard was back in the starting lineup on July 26th, and has played in every game since, including July 27th against left-handed "starter" Vidal Nuno. Howard was held out of the starting lineup on the 31st as the Phils were facing Washington lefty Gio Gonzalez, but entered the game as a pinch hitter in the 7th inning. In the 10 games since returning to the lineup Howard is hitting .121/.216/.242, good for an OPS of .458.

Something seems to have changed between the time Sandberg benched Howard for three straight games, including one against a righty that Howard's had a lot of success against, and this latest stretch of playing time that has seen Ruf, who Sandberg specifically said he wanted to see more of, start only two games. Sandberg, it seems, has backtracked on his previous statements (h/t Phil Ease for posting this in the comment section of yesterday's schmenkman post):

Sandberg seems to have changed his tune on Howard. He’s now echoing Amaro’s remarks that the Phillies need to do everything in their power to get Howard going. That translates to playing him.

"We’d like to get him going for us," Sandberg said. "And he’s working on some things. He could be a big bat for us."

Howard has 10 strikeouts in the last nine games. Despite that, Sandberg said he has seen improvement.

"He’s made progress with making some contact," Sandberg said. "It’s a matter of finding some holes and elevating some balls, but he’s made more contact."

Ruf has just two starts in the last nine games, and one was in left field. Does Sandberg still want to see him as an alternative to Howard?

"We’ll see," Sandberg said. "We’ll see as we go along. Outfield is an option and first base."

In a week and a half Sandberg has done a complete 180.

It's abundantly clear in a juxtaposition of his statements:

"I know what he can do," Sandberg said of Howard. "I've seen him for 100 games. I know what he can do.

"We’d like to get him going for us, And he’s working on some things. He could be a big bat for us.[...] He’s made progress with making some contact.[...] It’s a matter of finding some holes and elevating some balls, but he’s made more contact."

Ryan Howard's K-rate on the season is 28%. Howard's K-rate over the last 9 games is 27%.

As for Ruf:

I think it's important to see what a guy like Darin Ruf can do also going forward.

"We’ll see," Sandberg said. "We’ll see as we go along. Outfield is an option and first base."

Sorry, Darin, over the course of 10 days your manager has gone from being curious as to what you can do to seeing if maybe somehow he can shoehorn you into the lineup, maybe at a position you clearly can't play.

Whatever the reasons, Ryne Sandberg has gone from those previous quotes echoing Amaro's position while simultaneously altering the way he's been constructing his lineups.

None of this is to say that Amaro doesn't have legitimate reasons for wanting Howard on the field. If Amaro is trying to move Howard having him ride the pine is not going to bolster his negotiating position in any way, nor is it likely to keep Howard on good terms with the team, which could be an additional impediment to any potential move, as Howard has significant trade veto rights.

Sandberg, however, has a different set of priorities, as he's trying to find out what kind of players he has on the roster, what their capabilities are, and how he might best utilize those players going forward. Last week it appeared he had come to the conclusion that he'd seen enough of Howard, who was not in Sandberg's future plans. A few days later, after the GM made public statements supporting the player who is owed at least $60 million dollars over the next few years, Ryan Howard was back in Sandberg's lineups and he was parroting Amaro's statements.

In the end, Sandberg serves at the pleasure of the general manager and the rest of the front office. He doesn't sign the checks, and if he's given a set of marching orders, he must follow them as a condition of his employment. That's just the nature of working for someone else, whether you're a professional baseball manager or a grocery store stock clerk. That said, having the front office meddling in the day to day operations of a team also speaks to their mindset, one which might be risk averse and trying against all probability to salvage value out of their quickly depreciating asset. A mindset which is reluctant to embrace the idea of a sunk cost, forget the memories of 2006-09, and objectively evaluate the player they have now.

I'm not saying that Sandberg was specifically told to play Howard; maybe he just woke up on July 27th and decided that he was wrong about Howard. It's possible, I guess. I'm merely saying that the explanation that makes the most sense, given the evidence available, is that Ryne Sandberg was told to return Howard to the regular starting lineup.