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Piece Out Memory No. 15: That year Ryan Howard destroyed Reading

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As Ryan Howard plays his last 15 home games as a Phillies player, we will be rolling out a new piece on the Big Piece every day, celebrating his career and all the memories (mostly great) he is leaving us with.

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The first time I ever heard Ryan Howard's name was in Summer 2004. I didn't follow prospects closely then. For that matter after surviving the black hole of the later half of the '90's I didn't really even follow the Phillies all that closely. I started following the Phillies more in 2003 when they signed a big name Free Agent named Jim Thome. Over the previous 5 years a narrative took hold (thanks to Schilling and Rolen) that the Phillies had no interest in spending money and would basically be basement dwellers forever. There was a competing narrative from the front office that they would spend money when the new ballpark opened. Lo and behold, on the eve of that opening they signed Thome.

Thome came in and put up a .958 OPS with 47 Homers his first year and followed it up with 42 Homers and a .977 OPS in year two. It's impossible to complain about Thome's first tenure with the Phillies. Even at the time, he was a very likable guy who was playing some of the best baseball of his HoF caliber career. Still, during year 2 of his contract he was 33 years old and it was hard to avoid looking down the pipeline and seeing a 24 year old in Reading laying waste to the Eastern League. For most fans what we knew of Howard was limited to what was said on WIP or written in the Inquirer. I recall lots of comments on WIP around the time along the lines of "Why did we sign Thome when we've got this Howard kid turning baseballs into piles of string and cork?" The poor Phillies did exactly what everyone was clamoring for and here was Howard causing some of those, not exactly Rhodes Scholars, fans to question why they were blocking the future.

Through my limited view of the time I just heard Ryan Howard was a big guy who could mash Homers and he was foolishly blocked by Thome. And Howard was a big guy who could mash Homers, in 2004 he hit 37 of them in about three quarters of a season in Reading, another 9 in about a month's worth of games in Scranton and 2 more in a September call up with the Phillies. His total ended up being higher across those 3 levels than Thome's totals in Philly.

I later learned more about Howard and found that he mashed in Hi-A (23 Homers in a league not very inclined towards people mashing in it) and 19 the year before in Lakewood (another place not very easy to hit for power). Further, the Phillies got somewhat lucky with Howard, as he was considered a late First Round talent at the end of his Sophomore season in 2000, but his Junior season at Missouri State was fairly pedestrian .271/.381/.520 with 13 Homers. That's by no means a bad season, but for a First Base only prospect it didn't cause people to run to put their card in for him. That caused him to slip to the Phillies in the 5th Round and he quickly got to work showing that his Junior year was more fluke than future.

The Phillies have made that same gamble other times. Most recently with Miami Third Baseman Harold Martinez, a First Round Talent after his Sophomore year at t the U, who played more mediocre than expected his Junior year and slipped to the end of the Second Round, where the Phillies snatched him. As it turns out, Martinez's power really did disappear after his Sophomore year when he hit 21 Home Runs (his professional career total is 25 over 5 years). The same could have proven true for Howard, but in the 5th Round that is a good risk to take.

Looking back through my current eyes with my knowledge of prospects and development, I'm willing to guarantee that I would have underrated Howard if I was writing about prospects 12 years ago. Howard struck out prodigiously in the Minors (the Majors as well, to be fair) and he had a huge frame that was always going to be tough to cover and have holes in the swing. I would also look back now at all of the Reading one-hit wonders who never repeated their success anywhere else (Darin Ruf, Matt Rizzotti, Cody Overbeck, etc.) and think Howard may be part of that group.

The closest comparison currently to Howard in the Org would probably be Dylan Cozens. He is similarly and absurdly large human being who has rather prodigious power and a well documented problem with Strikeouts and holes in his swing due to his large strike zone. Cozens' strikeout numbers are more alarming than Howard's would be (a nearly 35% K rate for Cozens this year), but his Power output this year is nearly equal (38 HRs in Reading).

A somewhat similar comp can be made to current Reading First Baseman Rhys Hoskins. Much like Howard, Hoskins was a 5th Round pick as a First Base only prospect. Like Howard he has hit 37 Home Runs in Reading. Both players are 6'4" and K rates in Reading in the 25% range (though Howard struck out significantly more frequently compared to league average). Hoskins walks at a 14% clip, while Howard walked at a 10.6% rate. Both Howard and Hoskins have the initials R.H.

Both Cozens and Hoskins are hovering in the #10 range in my rankings of Phillies prospects. Howard mashed in Triple-A and the Majors a bit by the end of 2004, so I would have ranked him higher than Hoskins and Cozens currently are, but I feel pretty confident that I still may have underrated him.

I never watched Ryan Howard in Reading that year. I followed from afar through the Radio and Newspapers. I imagined a larger than life player who could anchor the next great Phillies. Am I so jaded now that I don't see Hoskins this way despite the similarities? Am I unfair to First Base prospects in my rankings? I think Hoskins can be a nice MLB player, but I don't view him with the same optimism I saw Howard with in 2004. Howard exceeded my craziest expectations. He was a great anchor for the next great Phillies, but he also proved to be a great personality who was hard not to root for. I wish I had seen him in Reading, but I loved seeing him in Philly and I miss terribly his peak years when few players were more fun to watch. Perhaps we're in for another ride like that, it's what makes following prospects so fun -- to see that journey from start to finish is rewarding.