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What are the Phillies doing with Ryan Howard and Tommy Joseph?

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The Phillies are sending mixed messages about what they're doing at first base.

Philadelphia Phillies v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

If you're confused about what the Phillies are doing with their first base situation, you aren't alone.

I'm with you. I have no idea what's going on here.

One day, manager Pete Mackanin seems to indicate that a changing of the guard is at hand, with Tommy Joseph poised to get the vast majority of the playing time over the struggling incumbent, Ryan Howard. Here's what Mackanin said over the weekend.

"We brought Joseph up here for a reason, to get a look at him," Mackanin said. "I can’t let him stagnate on the bench like (Darin) Ruf ended up doing, so he’s going to face some right-handed pitchers to keep his timing. I don’t know when the next time we’re going to face a left-handed pitcher is, but I’m going to use (Joseph) a little bit more often than I did Ruf."

It wasn't unreasonable to assume those words meant that Howard was going to be moved to more of a part-time role, with Joseph ascending into more of a full-time role.

But then, on Monday night in the series opener against the Washington Nationals, it was Howard who was in the lineup against right-hander Tanner Roark. Mackanin used Howard because he was 4-for-12 (.333) against Roark in his career.

OK, that's not a bad decision, but a little strange given Mackanin's comments over the weekend. But it was the manager's comments before the game that were a tad confusing.

"Howie's still in the picture, he's not being benched," Mackanin said. "If I was going to sit him on the bench and he wasn't going to play anymore, I'd have to have a conversation."

"I said I was going to start mixing in Joseph to face some right-handers, I didn’t say I was going to bench Howard. Howard’s got good numbers against (Washington’s Monday scheduled starter, right-hander Tanner Roark). He had bad numbers against (Cubs Sunday starter John) Lackey.

"So if I’m going to pick spots for Joseph to stay sharp, yesterday seemed like a good time. And that’s good because I just don’t want him to go three or four days without seeing action.

Instead, Howard and Joseph will get starts against right-handed starters based on splits or their previous histories against other pitchers. Of course, Joseph has no experience against other Major League pitchers, and most of Howard's numbers against any pitcher who has been in the league a few years may have no bearing on his ability to hit them right now.

The idea of making sure Joseph doesn't "stagnate" on the bench is a good one, but he's not going to get any better and, more importantly, the Phillies aren't going to have a clearer sense of what they have in Joseph, unless he's starting 5-6 days a week.

If Joseph isn't getting 80-85% of the plate appearances moving forward, something is broken.

It's also clear that at least someone on the Phils still thinks there's a chance Howard can get things going, which seems like a pipe dream at this point.

"I’m hoping every time he goes out there he’s going to get three or four hits, it’ll click and he’ll get back to where we think he can be," Mackanin said. "I’m hoping he’s better than, you know what I mean. I still see something there. He started the season pretty good. He had eight home runs out of the gate. Everybody goes through slumps or periods where they’re not hitting."

Howard is batting .157/.219/.350 this season with 8 homers and just 19 RBIs. His wRC+ is a ghastly 46 and he's been worth -1.0 fWAR this season. That batting average and on-base percentage are still dead last in the Majors among players with at least 150 plate appearances.

But this is not a slump. This is much more than just a slump.

In a much smaller sample size, Joseph is batting .278/.282/.556 with 3 home runs and 5 RBIs. He has a wRC+ of 113 and an fWAR of 0.4 in just 39 PAs.

Mackanin says he's still handling the situation without a clear long-term plan in mind, and it's important to note that both Howard and Mackanin have confirmed that there has been no conversation between the two that Howard's time would be drastically reduced.

Obviously, this is not an easy issue for any manager with which to deal. Howard is a Phillie legend and still has a very important voice in the locker room. Mackanin is clearly wary of alienating a player who is a good teammate and a mentor to the younger players. All you have to do is see how Howard counseled Odubel Herrera after the center fielder was benched in Detroit after not running out a ground ball.

So as Calkins Media's Kevin Cooney and The Philly Voice's Ryan Lawrence have both written, it's time for this decision to be taken out of the manager's hands. General manager Matt Klentak and/or team president Andy MacPhail needs to sit down with the former MVP and let him know that first base is no longer his.

Joseph may not turn out to be anything special, or he could turn out to be a Jose Bautista. Most likely it'll something in between, but no one will know unless the guy starts to play just about every day. The Phillies need to give Joseph the same opportunity they've given outfielder Tyler Goeddel, playing nearly every day, something which has been beneficial for the Rule 5 pick.

The Phils are sending mixed messages about their first base situation, and a clearer plan needs to be in place in order for the team to know exactly what they have on their roster.

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