Motivated Howard eyes healthy, productive '14

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Motivated Howard eyes healthy, productive '14

ATLANTA -- Looking leaner and moving better than the last time he was seen on the field with his Phillies teammates, Ryan Howard joined the club for pregame workouts at Turner Field on Thursday.

Howard, who had season-ending knee surgery in July, took ground balls, batting practice and ran the bases. He will do so Friday, Saturday and Sunday before this woeful Phillies season comes to an end.

After dealing with two injury-plagued seasons and hearing the whispers -- shouts in some quarters -- that his best days are behind him, Howard says he has something to prove in 2014.

“That I’m healthy, No. 1,” he said. “And that I’m capable of doing the things I can do.

“I’m focused on getting this team and this organization back to where we belong, and that’s on top.”

Howard, who turns 34 in November, has spent the last couple of months rehabbing in Clearwater. He recently began playing in games in the Florida Instructional League. He requested to join the big club for the final series of the season in Atlanta and team officials were all for it.

“I just wanted to be here, end the season with the fellas,” he said. “I know it’s been a hard year for us as an organization, for us as a team, for myself personally. I just wanted to be here with them, be able to ride it out and just kind of watch, cheer them on the rest of the way and hopefully end things on a good note and head into 2014 on a high.”

Howard averaged 670 plate appearances from 2006 to 2011. He had just 654 total plate appearances in 2012 and 2013 as he dealt with injuries to his left Achilles and knee.

Howard’s production slipped with his health.

“It’s my back foot, my pivot foot, my power foot,” he said of his left side. “Not being able to sit back on it as much as I want in my stance -- pivoting on it, moving on it. I would say, yeah, it definitely played a factor.

“It’s not what you sign up for. It’s the unfortunate side of the game where sometimes injuries happen, freak things happen. For me, it’s just about getting 100 percent healthy, getting back to where I know I can be, how I know I can play. I’ll put all my focus on that this offseason and come out ready for 2014.”

The leg injuries prevented Howard from getting in top physical condition the last two seasons, and that affected his play.

New manager Ryne Sandberg is stressing conditioning with the whole team. He has mentioned a number of times that, while he understands why Howard wasn’t in top shape the last two seasons, he wants him to reach that point in 2014.

Howard said he was about 260 pounds before the surgery in July. He said he was about 248 Thursday. He looked trimmer, but stronger. He’s been working in the weight room in Clearwater. Howard said he will spend some time in Philadelphia the next few weeks then return to Florida in mid to late October. He will stay on a fitness program regardless of where he is. He will start hitting and doing baseball work in December.

“Obviously, when you can’t use your legs, it’s tough to do cardio,” Howard said. “The goal is to have my legs this offseason and do the cardio and everything that I need to do -- work on speed and agility. My goal is to come back and be as efficient as I can be for 2014, in all aspects.”

Howard's goal is to play in 162 games next season. That won't happen. Sandberg will get him days off. Still, Sandberg hopes that Howard produces to the point where it's difficult to give him a day off.

Howard played in 80 games this season and hit .266 with 11 homers and 43 RBIs. He struck out 95 times in 286 at-bats. Against lefties, Howard hit just .173 (14 for 81).

Sandberg has questioned Howard’s game preparation. The manager said he would like to see Howard look at more video of opposing pitchers.

“There are some times when I go in and look at video," Howard said. "I understand it, and I think it’s something I will try more to incorporate next year. Before it was one of those things where if I felt good, I didn’t feel like I needed to look at video. But I think it is something I’ll incorporate more next year.”

Howard is owed $85 million the next three seasons. That makes him virtually untradeable. He is aware that some have written him off, and he said he draws motivation from that.

“Sure,” he said. “I think it drives people. I think a lot of guys say they don’t listen to it -- and you try not to -- but, you know, it trickles in. You become motivated, a little fired up as far as that is concerned. But the main focus is for me to be fired up for myself, wanting to prove it to my teammates more than someone else.

“I’ve seen the stuff. I’ve seen stuff in the offseason when we didn’t make the playoffs. All you can do is go out there the next year and put your best foot forward -- play for yourself, play for your teammates, your organization, your fans. Just put all that to rest by doing it on the field.”

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

Looming free agent Manny Machado puts Maikel Franco on the clock

CLEARWATER, Fla. – You hear it a lot at this time of year.

This is a big year for (fill in the name).

The 2017 season will be a big one for a lot of Phillies. This team remains an active construction site building for a better day, and the front office is sitting upstairs making a list of who fits into the future and who doesn’t.

So it’s a big year for Freddy Galvis to see if he can improve his on-base skills and hold off J.P. Crawford.

It’s a big year for Cesar Hernandez to see if his strong second half in 2016 was a young player really getting it, a sign of good things to come, or just a three-month hot streak.

It’s a big year for Tommy Joseph as he tries to build on a nice big-league debut and hold off hard-charging Rhys Hoskins.

But when it comes to establishing oneself as a long-term part of this team’s foundation, Maikel Franco might have the biggest challenge of all among Phillies position players.

Yes, Franco belted 25 homers and drove in 88 runs last year, and those were surely impressive totals for a player of his age (23) hitting in a lineup where he was a marked man with little protection on a team that did not put many runners on base — that .301 team on-base percentage ranked 29th in the majors.

Despite huge upside, Franco’s game has some shortcomings. He is a free-swinger with poor on-base skills — he had a .306 on-base percentage last season and saw just 3.56 pitches per at-bat, ranking him 134th in the majors — and if you’ve been paying attention to what has come out of general manager Matt Klentak’s mouth in his 16 months on the job, you know that he values players who “control the strike zone” — both at the plate and on the mound.

Klentak and his lieutenants in the front office also place a premium on defense and Franco, despite good hands and a rocket arm, does not grade out near the top among major league third basemen, mostly because of his range, in advanced metrics. He ranked 12th out of 18 qualifying third basemen in runs saved (minus 6) last season.

Proof of this front office’s affinity for on-base skills and defensive acumen can be seen in center field and in that $30.5 million bulge in Odubel Herrera’s wallet. Herrera got on base more than 35 percent of the time his first two seasons in the majors, and he grades out well in the advanced defensive metrics used by this team’s decision makers. All of this, along with his youth — he’s 25 — and projected upside led the front office to give Herrera a five-year contract extension this winter. Call it a statement of the type of player that this front office is looking for.

Franco can improve his flaws, particularly at the plate. He’s already hard at work trying to do so with new hitting coach Matt Stairs.

But why is it so pressing that he does? Why is this year such a big one for Franco?

Because he is entering his third season as a regular and the front office probably needs to know that the improvement is coming. Even as they construct their roster and prepare for the 2017 season here in spring training, this front office has its telescope out and is peering at future free-agent markets. Club president Andy MacPhail basically said that last week. In 2017, Maikel Franco has to convince this front office not to put Manny Machado in its sights. The superstar Baltimore Orioles third baseman will hit the free agent market after the 2018 season at the tender age of 26, and if you think his projected megadeal will be too rich for the Phillies then think again. Owner John Middleton has promised to spend big again when the team is ready to win.

In December at the winter meetings, Klentak was asked about some of the astronomical numbers being attached to the talent-rich free-agent class that is coming after the 2018 season. Could he see the Phils paying a player $200 million, $300 million, $400 million?

“I won’t put a dollar figure on anything,” Klentak said that day. “Markets develop the way that they develop and player values change over time. But I don’t have any doubt that this franchise will make significant investments when the time is right.”

Investing in a player like Machado could make long-term sense for the Phillies because he has the type of rangy body that often holds up past 35, and he could take his bat to first base when he’s older and done at third. Yes, it would take a long-term deal, probably at least seven years, to get Machado.

Franco can throw cold water on this admittedly premature postulating by making improvements at the plate this season.

If he doesn’t show enough improvement or make the front office believe that it will eventually come, he could be a trade candidate, and the Phillies could plug at third while they wait to make their run at Machado.

Franco knows his shortcomings and is working on them.

You could see it in batting practice Monday as he consciously tried to drive balls to right-center.

You could see it Friday as he stood in the outfield and talked hitting with new teammate Howie Kendrick. Kendrick mimicked a hitter driving the ball up the middle. Franco then did the same thing and nodded.

“I love to hit and sometimes I get excited,” Franco said. “I am concentrating on being more selective and using the middle of the field, not trying to do too much.”

Stairs has assigned Franco and Galvis to the same batting practice group as Kendrick.

“Howie has that gap-to-gap approach and I want Maikel and Freddy to see that every day,” Stairs said.

Stairs is convinced that if Franco stays with the approach he will “give away” fewer at-bats and become a tougher out in 2017, “and then you will see the on-base numbers come up.”

Franco needs to make these improvements if he’s going to have a long-range future with a team that is building through the concept of controlling the strike zone.

It’s a big year for him.

And the looming shadow of the "man" in Baltimore makes it all that much bigger and intriguing.

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

MLB Notes: Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher to be guest instructors at Yankees spring training

TAMPA, Fla. -- Nick Swisher has arrived as a New York Yankees guest spring training instructor and Alex Rodriguez is on deck.

Swisher worked with outfielders Monday during his first day, which came three days after announcing his retirement as a player.

"I never have to worry about an 0 for 4 again," Swisher said with a smile. "It's great to be back."

A-Rod is set to make his initial appearance Tuesday.

"He's going to work with our players," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "Dispense knowledge that he has about how to play the game when he talks to the young kids, some of the expectations about how to deal with it. All the things Alex did well."

Rodriguez and Swisher were also guest instructors with the Yankees instructional league team last fall (see full story).

Giants: Cueto to miss start of spring training to be with ailing father
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Johnny Cueto remains in his native Dominican Republic helping his ailing father a week after pitchers and catchers reported to spring training.

The Giants plan to reach out to him to see how he is doing and whether he thinks he will pitch for his country in the World Baseball Classic.

San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy is not worried about Cueto's preparation. The right-hander has been throwing and working out regularly at the club's academy. Bochy says the World Baseball Classic is "starting to cause a slight concern."

Cueto signed a $130 million, six-year contract before last season. He went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA and five complete games in 32 starts last year (see full story).

Red Sox: Moreland not worried about replacing Ortiz
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mitch Moreland knows he's likely the only new player in Boston's lineup since David Ortiz retired at the end of last season.

He's just not listening to those who say he needs to replace Big Papi's lofty production.

"I try not to hear it because there's no replacing that guy," said the 31-year-old first baseman, who signed a $5.5-million, 1-year deal with the Red Sox during the offseason.

"I think it's going to be more of a team effort," he said. "Obviously we picked up two big arms as well, and it's a very balanced club."

After playing his first 6+ seasons in the majors with the Texas Rangers, Moreland is with a new organization for the first time in his career. So far, he said, the move has been smooth (see full story).

Mariners: Paxton expected to have a big year
PEORIA, Arizona -- Forget the batter's box, pitching mound or anywhere else between the chalk lines of a baseball field.

According to Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais, the location of one of the biggest obstacles blocking a player from consistently excelling isn't on the diamond.

"A lot of it with that last hurdle is between your ears," Servais said at the Peoria Sports Complex.

Servais believes starting pitcher James Paxton cleared that bar last season, and the Mariners are expecting the 28-year-old left-hander to be a major contributor in 2017 for a team that looks to end Major League Baseball's longest current postseason drought.

"He is one of the guys ready to take the next step and be a real anchor in our rotation," Servais said.

Paxton is preparing to improve on his 6-7 record and 3.79 earned run average of 2016. He enters spring training locked into a spot in the starting rotation. That puts him in a different position than in a year ago, when he was battling for a spot (see full story).