In 2004, the Philadelphia Phillies were captivated by a power hitting first baseman who was wreaking havoc on the other teams in the minor leagues.
That would be Ryan Howard, who crushed a ridiculous 47 home runs while splitting time between Double-A and Triple-A.
But his path to the major leagues was blocked by future Hall of Fame first baseman Jim Thome, who slugged 42 home runs that season–in the major leagues.
Howard caught a break in 2005, as Thome couldn’t stay healthy, eventually needing season-ending surgery on his right elbow in August. Thome batted just .207 with seven home runs that season, and when he went down, the Phillies replaced him with Howard, who had batted an outstanding .371 with 16 home runs and 54 RBIs in 61 games at Triple-A that year.
We all know what happened next. Howard won the National League Rookie of the Year award, batting .288 with 22 home runs and 63 RBIs in just 312 at bats. He played well enough that the Phillies decided to trade Thome to the Chicago White Sox in the offseason.
Over the last seven seasons, Howard has established himself as one of the best home run hitters in franchise history, leading the league in home runs twice, including a ridiculous 58 in 2006, when he won the Most Valuable Player award.
That entire cycle could be repeating itself now.
Current Phillies prospect Darin Ruf is tearing it up in the minor leagues. In fact, he was just named the recipient of the Paul Owens award as the organization’s top hitter. He’s batting .317 with 37 home runs and 98 RBIs, with an outside chance at capturing the Eastern League Triple Crown. His 37 home runs are the most by any minor league player, and he hit a ridiculous 18 in the month of August.
Just like Howard, Ruf was not initially considered a top prospect. Both attended a four-year college. Howard was 26 when he entered his first season as the full-time starter, and Ruf, 26, hasn’t even made his major league debut yet.
Manager Charlie Manuel sees a lot of potential in Ruf.
“Ruf’s had a big year,” said Manuel. “He’s had an extraordinary year. Ruf is something that pops out at you. He’s trying to hit his way to the big leagues. That’s the way it used to be. You had to do something to get to the big leagues. Evidentally, Ruf is an old throwback.”
Ruf is also a first baseman. His path to the major leagues is currently blocked by Howard, just as Howard’s was blocked by Thome. But Howard eventually played well enough that the Phillies decided to trade Thome.
I don’t think that will happen with Howard, largely because of his massive contract. I think that the Phillies will try to make Ruf an everyday outfielder, similar to Pat Burrell, a poor fielding power hitting right handed slugger. Ruf has played 24 games in left field this season, and since the Phillies don’t currently have a left fielder of the future, it might make sense to give Ruf a try in the major leagues.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Ruf will be the next Ryan Howard as a power hitter. I don’t think he’ll ever lead the league in home runs or make an All-Star team, let alone win an MVP.
But I think he could be an average major league starter, hitting about .250 with 25 to 30 home runs while playing subpar defense in the outfield. That sounds a lot more like Burrell than Howard.
He’s not going to have a particularly long career, but I would be more than happy with six to seven years as a starter.
I will, however, express my concern that the 6’3, 220 minor league star could currently be on steroids. I sure hope not, but his power numbers sure exploded this year without any warning.
Then again, Howard’s numbers did the same thing from 2003 to 2004, and he’s never been suspected of ‘roids.
This article was written by Bryn Swartz, the top writer for the Philadelphia Eagles and a featured NFL columnist on Rant Sports. Bryn has written more than 1000 articles in less than two years as a member of Rant Sports. His blog, Eagles Central, was named the 2010 Ballhyped Sports Blog of the Year. To read a portfolio of Bryn’s best work, click here.