Ryan Howard cast a big shadow.
Not just with his dominating presence, powerful home runs, massive extension, or inglorious reception during his decline. He was also just a large human man, and arriving in spring training every season to the sunniest town in America always led to Clearwater’s rare blotting out of the sun.
We grew quite accustomed to Howard manning first base, his frame casting a long shadow over the bag, but for the first time since 2006, he won’t be at training camp. Instead, a different large, previously very injured, man will stand there. Tommy Joseph, 25 years old, has made himself the heir apparent at first after years of the team claiming they didn’t have one. And they didn’t.
Science has taught us that when prospects gather in large clusters, some of them thrive, while others fall away. After a series of head-traumas and brain problems, Joseph’s prospecting career seemed quiet and close to its end. People had moved on from feeling sympathy for the young man to, as his career hit its predicted wall, lamenting the lack of assets the Phillies received in the Hunter Pence trade that had put Joseph in the team’s ranks. But Joseph glared wordlessly at those people and, against all odds presented by his injury history, willed himself back into the thriving group.
It’s been a long couple of years. Joseph was in the bowels of the Giants’ minor league system, then came to Philadelphia, where he was smeared across the Gulf Coast to Arizona to Lehigh Valley to Reading to Clearwater to the Dominican, all to make it into 105 games total from 2012-14. Hey, it’s the minors, this is what he signed up for; sure, but he didn’t sign up for the first wrist injury requiring surgery or his second concussion. His numbers never got much higher than the .276/.345/.500 he put up in 2014, but there were times when they sunk much lower. In 2015, having a real good feeling about things, he was added to the IronPigs roster to start the season, and was promptly concussed.
That brought about last season, when Joseph defied bitching Phillies fans everywhere by giving them the comeback underdog story they get off on. In an early May four-game series against the Scranton RailRiders, Joseph went 9-for-15, with a double, a home run, and two walks. That brought his BA up to .337, and raised eyebrows so far up on people’s heads that they technically became hair.
And suddenly, here he is, ready for his first full season of MLB baseball and a nightly gig in Pete Mackanin’s lineup. The Phillies have a wider set of options now - they also have Rhys Hoskins in camp, a young power source who plays the same position - but who knows what’s going to happen! Competition is good, and players are assembling the reputations that will get them signed or see them traded at this very moment. After all, the accumulation of numbers is what baseball is all about. I just suddenly understood why everyone hates this stupid sport.
But regardless! Joseph made his presence known last season with the IronPigs, hitting .347 with 6 HR in 27 games. It was mid-May and he was instantly superior to the player blocking him at the position of "increasingly used Ryan Howard ‘back-up:’"
Tommy Joseph was 2-for-3 today (.392 on the season) with his 6th home run for the Ironpigs. Darin Ruf is, uh, not doing that.— Ryan Gilbert (@RGilbertSOP) May 8, 2016
The Phillies made use of him, calling him up on May 13, and Joseph had a flawed but encouraging major league campaign. He waited all of three games to go 3-for-4 with a home run. He was hitting .323 on June 10, but after a deep plummet offensively, he bounced back into the .250-.260 range at which he’d end the season (.257.308/.505, 21 HR, 15 2B, 22 BB, 0.5 WAR in 107 G).
He even stole a base. It was an exciting time, riddled with foreshadowing.
Tommy Joseph records his first career stolen base on a delayed steal. Howard then strikes out on the next pitch to end the 3rd.— Meghan Montemurro (@M_Montemurro) May 25, 2016
And then, just yesterday, in his third Grapefruit League game, Tommy Joseph ordered himself a drink.
Tommy wrote his tiki bar order on the baseball before this at bat.— Phillies (@Phillies) February 28, 2017
True story. pic.twitter.com/Nu96xpxR3X
In fact, it was a big afternoon for things landing where they didn’t belong.
Unlike a baseball scattering intoxicated tiki bar patrons, we may not know where to land on Tommy Joseph. Maybe there's some power there, but he stumbled this past June, striking out 28 times and only walking twice to earn a sub-.300 OBP. He re-registered big league pitching, however, and recovered, with even some extra work with Larry Bowa improving his defense. If Matt Stairs has been as influential to the Phillies hitters as he appears to have been, then Joseph's found quit a boon in the Phillies coaching staff - last season Stairs compared Joseph to Mike Trout (who cares why, just shut up).
On a team having found itself a bubble of young players with the potential of finding stars in the making, Joseph is merely one moving part of a glorious prospect generator. But he's got something a lot of guys in camp don't have: a big league job, assuming he keeps it. After a season of wildly encouraging hitting mixed with some realistic struggles, there's plenty more to be told in Tommy Joseph's story.
And now we get the luxury of finding out what Tommy Joseph is. Because he could be a pretty cool thing.