Ryan Howard, meet Ryne Sandberg.
Howard will do so for the first time as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies with Sandberg as the manager this weekend in the team’s final series of the year vs. the Atlanta Braves, and the meeting begs this question: what role will the slugger play for the Phillies in 2014?
If Sandberg and the Phillies are smart, it will be as a platoon player. Both Sandberg and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. have broached the possibility before, and they should both have the courage to follow through with the proposed plan.
Howard has made huge strides since his July 10 knee operation, losing up to 20 pounds during intense Florida workouts that culminated in a stint in the Florida Instructional League, but the reports are that Howard still is having trouble against left-handed pitching.
That cannot be surprising based on his performance at the major league level over the past two seasons. Howard hit a remarkably consistent .173 in 2012 against lefties, and followed that up with the exact same .173 against lefties this season.
He might not hit .173 against left-handed pitchers again next season, but the Phillies should not give him the chance. Howard is getting older and he’s not seeing the ball any better. The Phillies have a young right-handed hitting first baseman, Darin Ruf, who hits lefties well.
Production from the first base position will be better served if Ruf, who has not adjusted well defensively to a shift in the outfield, manned first base every time a lefty pitched against the Phillies next season. Since there are more right-handed pitchers than left, Howard can still start around 120 games.
For his part, at least in those games, Howard can be used as a dangerous bat off the bench in late-inning situations. Since he’s getting older and cannot play 162 games anymore, that kind of use can only help both the player and the team.