With drought over, will Howard find his power?

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With drought over, will Howard find his power?

He skipped the spin and went right to what we already knew. Asked for his evaluation of a team that’s been under .500 for much of the season, Ruben Amaro Jr. didn’t bother to soften his words.

“Obviously we haven’t performed the way that we hoped,” Amaro said on Monday. “Particularly the guys who are our core guys.”

He named names. Amaro noted that Chase Utley and Carlos Ruiz haven’t played much. He said Jimmy Rollins “has been OK, but I think Jimmy has also had better years than he has so far this year.” And then he got to Ryan Howard.

The general manager said Howard “hasn’t performed the way you’d typically expect,” which was pretty gentle language for a cleanup hitter that’s had a difficult season as far as power is concerned. Entering Monday’s game against the Washington Nationals, Howard hadn’t hit a home run since May 29. It was the second longest drought of his career.

It was an ugly streak, but it’s over now. Howard hit a homer in the second inning of the Phillies’ dramatic (if unnecessarily so) 5-4 win over Washington (see story). It was the first time Howard hit a ball out of any park in weeks, a stretch of 17 games and 71 plate appearances.

“It felt good,” Howard said. “I’ve just been trying to put together some good [at-bats] and let the power come as it comes.”

The power has not come as readily as it once did. Howard has eight home runs this season, which is not a great total for him -- not in June, not after the Phillies have played more than 40 percent of their schedule. If his baseball numbers were a little bigger and his contract numbers were a little smaller, you might hear all kinds or rumors and reports about Howard being a trade piece. That’s obviously not the case. Howard and the Phils are stuck with each other.

But while he hasn’t mashed as many home runs as he or the team would like, Howard has hit the ball better lately. He’s hitting .306 with nine extra-base hits in June. He’s hitting .391 in the last seven days. He went 3 for 3 against the Nationals on Monday, which raised his batting average to .274.

They still need Howard to drive in runs -- preferably by driving the ball over a wall of his choosing -- but hitting for a higher average, at least for now, is OK by Charlie Manuel. The manager has said pretty much the same thing about Howard’s hitting all season: First, that he’s not worried about Howard and, second, that if Howard hits for a higher average, then his power will return.

“Ryan, if he hits for a high average, like I said, if he hits .280, .300, he’ll knock in a lot of runs and he’ll hit a lot of home runs, too,” Manuel said. “Just by hitting the ball correctly.

“When he played games in Minnesota, Howard hit the ball very good. He got some hits there. The other day in Colorado, he hit two balls into the shift pretty good, and the two singles he hit, he hit pretty good. His swing’s been getting better. He’s been staying on the ball better. He’s been putting the fat part of the bat on the ball. He’s been doing better.”

Howard’s left knee, however, isn’t doing much better. According to Manuel, the soreness “comes and goes” for the first baseman. After the game, Howard was limping around the clubhouse a little.

“It’s always a grind,” Howard said about trying to improve at the plate. “With the knee. Without the knee. That’s always a grind. Yeah, it’s been a grind, just trying to go out there and do what I can. I was able to get a couple knocks tonight.”

It’s a start. Again, they need some of those knocks to travel a good distance and do so regularly. They are paying him a lot of money, and it isn’t so he can be a singles hitter in the four-hole. But if Manuel is right -- if hitting the ball well will eventually lead to hitting the ball far -- then perhaps Howard is about to get going. Does the slugger feel like he might start slugging soon?

“We’ll see,” he said.

“We’ll see,” he repeated.

We haven’t seen much so far. Maybe that will change.

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

Phillies officially sign outfielder Michael Saunders, DFA Severino Gonzalez

The Phillies on Thursday officially announced the signing of outfielder Michael Saunders to a one-year deal with a club option for 2018. 

According to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Saunders will make $9 million this season with the Phillies and the club option for 2018 will be worth $11 million with escalators potentially pushing it to $14 million.

Saunders, 30, is the left-handed hitting outfield bat the Phils were seeking. He hit 24 home runs for the Blue Jays last season in his walk year, making the AL All-Star team before slumping in the second half.

Saunders hit .298/.372/.551 with 16 homers in 82 games for the Blue Jays before the All-Star break, then hit .178/.282/.357 with eight homers in 58 games after.

He had a good year against same-handed pitching, hitting .275 with a .927 OPS and eight homers against lefties. 

He'll likely start in right field for the Phillies, with Odubel Herrera in center and Howie Kendrick in left (see Phils' projected lineup).

It was important to Phillies GM Matt Klentak that the player he signed to fill the spot in the outfield was not going to block young outfielders like Roman Quinn, Nick Williams and others.

On a one-year deal, Saunders came relatively cheap to the Phils, lingering in free agency as other hitters found contracts. In the middle of last summer, Saunders seemed poised for a multi-year contract like the four-year, $52 million deal Josh Reddick signed with the Astros. His second half cost him some money.

To make room on the 40-man roster for Saunders, the Phillies designated right-hander Severino Gonzalez for assignment.

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

Tommy Joseph focused on earning first base job, taking more walks

There was no better story of personal triumph on the Phillies' roster than Tommy Joseph in 2016.

Dumped from the 40-man roster and passed over by 29 other teams on the waiver wire and in the Rule 5 draft in 2015, he reported to minor-league camp with his career on the line last spring.

Two months later, thanks to good health and a molten bat, Joseph's career began to spike upward.

But 4½ months in the big leagues and the promise of a starting job in the majors in 2017 hasn't changed Joseph's outlook or the mindset he will take into spring training camp next month.

He's still going to scrap and claw for everything, just like he did a year ago when he was fighting for his baseball life after a series of concussions put his career in jeopardy.

"I'm preparing the same way I did last winter," Joseph said during an offseason stop at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday.

"The job is not given to me. I still have to win it. I'm not going to walk in and have it. Obviously, it's mine to take and I plan on going in and winning the job."

Joseph, 25, earned a significant slice of the starting first base job last year. But with Ryan Howard, the last piece of the 2008 World Series team, gone, Joseph has a chance to stake an even greater claim to the position in 2017 and establish himself as a serious building block in the Phillies' rebuild.

"Tommy came out of nowhere last year," manager Pete Mackanin said. "There's something to be excited about there. He was off the map and he did enough to warrant a real strong look this year. And hopefully, he can improve and take baby steps toward being a final product."

Joseph pushed himself to the majors and cut into Howard's playing time last season by hitting .347 with six homers, 17 RBIs and a .981 OPS in 27 games at Triple A. He came to the majors in mid-May and hit .257 with 21 homers and 47 RBIs in 107 games. In the fall, Joseph briefly played winter ball in the Dominican Republic, but right wrist tendinitis, now fully healed, cut the stint short.

Joseph's good showing at the plate in 2016 was partly the result of his finding good health. As he recovered from a fifth concussion in the summer of 2015, it was discovered that he had a series of ocular problems. They were addressed through therapy and ... well, it's amazing what a hitter can do when he can see the ball.

This year, Joseph will look to improve in the field. The converted catcher is looking to add quickness around the first base bag and that starts with better footwork. At the urging of bench coach/infield instructor Larry Bowa, Joseph has been jumping rope and doing box drills all winter.

Joseph also wants to improve his approach and mindset at the plate. Though he wants to drive the ball like his size — 235 pounds — and position dictate, he wants to improve his on-base percentage and thus his OPS, on-base plus slugging percentage.

Joseph struck out 75 times and walked just 22 times in 347 plate appearances in 2016 and his on-base percentage was just .308. But over the final month of the season, he made an effort to be more selective at the plate and he recorded a .327 batting average and .406 on-base percentage (while slugging .618) over the final 23 games of the season. He struck out 10 times but walked seven over that span.

"My whole career has been a battle when it comes to walking," Joseph said. "I started to listen and read more what veterans around the league were saying about on-base percentage and OPS. Slugging is important on the corners, but there are times you have to take your walks. It's relevant because the best players in the game have a high OPS."

Joseph needs to improve in this area for a couple of reasons. First, the front office is intent on building a long-term lineup around players who control the strike zone, i.e., those who don't chase bad pitches. And second, the Phils have a legitimate run-producing first base prospect in Rhys Hoskins set to take his game to Triple A in 2017.

Joseph knows all of this and takes nothing for granted.

"The only difference this year will be I'm on the big-league side in spring training, but everything still has to be earned," he said.

The Phillies ranked last in the majors — or "last in the world," as Mackanin said — with just 610 runs scored in 2016. The offseason additions of Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders should help run production. So, too, should expected improvements from Maikel Franco and Joseph, two players who have the chance to be long-term building blocks.

"We've got guys at the big-league level that I choose to think are going to get better," Mackanin said. "Tommy Joseph is a perfect example."