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Will Ryan Howard return to the Phillies in 2015?

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Everyone is asking the question. Why not us?

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Did Ryan Howard play his last game as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday?

It seems inconceivable to think that The Big Piece won't be a member of this franchise in 2015. After all, the former MVP has been with the team since 2004, when as a late-September call-up he got 42 plate appearances as 24-year-old babe in the woods.

Now, 334 homers, 1058 RBIs, one MVP and one world championship later, this future Phillie Wall-of-Famer could be on his way to someplace else.

The Phils have some big decisions to make this off-season, and one of them will be whether or not they can trade Howard to an American League team in need of a DH/1B or, if they can't, whether they will release him in order to open up playing time for young players like Darin Ruf or Maikel Franco, or to move Chase Utley to first base.

That would mean eating $60 million in salary, something that seems rather hard to believe the Phillies would do.

But general manager Ruben Amaro and manager Ryne Sandberg have mentioned repeatedly this season about needing a new mix, a new middle-of-the-order, and a younger nucleus as the team tries to right the ship after their first losing season since 2000.

After the game, Howard was asked if he thought this was his last game as a Phillie.

"I don’t know. I have no clue what’s going to happen."

Howard also said he doesn't know why the team feels like it would need a new cleanup hitter if he were to return in 2015.

"If I’m back, why would I not be (the cleanup hitter)?" he said.

Wha???

Not to dump on Howard, because his legacy as one of the all-time great power hitters in franchise history is secure, and he should forever be remembered as one of the greatest players the Phillies have ever had. That being said, he's 35 years old and coming off a season in which he posted an fWAR of -0.4, 22nd among qualified MLB first basemen.

Howard's .156 ISO was 18th best among first basemen, his .380 slugging percentage was 20th, and his .306 wOBA and wRC+ of 93 were both 22nd at the position.

Howard, of course, will point to his 23 home runs, which were 13th among MLB first basemen, and his 95 RBIs, which were fourth in the National League and sixth-most among MLB first basemen. And he deserves credit for making it through an entire season "healthy," accumulating 648 plate appearances this year.

But is there really an American League team out there that will give up anything for Howard? And how much salary would the Phillies have to eat in order to deal him? Let's say it's $50 million. That would cost another team $10 million over two years for Howard's services.

Among the 1B/DH free agent possibilities out there are Adam LaRoche, Michael Cuddyer, Mike Morse, Lyle Overbay, Mark Reynolds, Jason Kubel, and Kendrys Morales, most of whom would cost about as much, give or take, as Howard would, without giving up a player in return.

Howard's ISO, slugging percentage and home run total are not the numbers of a "slugger." He's not that player anymore. So it's hard to envision any AL general manager seeing a reclamation project here, unless they're seeing something that no one else is seeing.

So then will the Phillies just dump Howard? That $60 million is an awful lot cash to just swallow whole, although if they're determined to get better at first base and in the middle of the order, they may be willing to bite the bullet and consider the rest of his contract as a sunk cost.

Still, it's hard to imagine them doing that.

In the end, my guess is that Ryan will be back with the Phils next year, although hopefully in a reduced role, hitting lower in the lineup and perhaps even engaged in an actual platoon with Darin Ruf.