Ryan Howard sits; future with team in serious question

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Ryan Howard sits; future with team in serious question

Slumping Ryan Howard was not in the Phillies’ starting lineup against a left-handed pitcher for the second time in six post-all-star break games on Wednesday night, and his future with the team is in serious question.

Manager Ryne Sandberg would not use the word “platoon,” but that’s exactly what his actions suggest.

“As far as the lineup, that will be a day-to-day thing,” Sandberg said before the game.

The manager made it clear he would not let Howard’s huge contract dictate playing time.

“It's about wins and losses out here,” Sandberg said. “When the game starts, it's about winning the game and being productive and chipping in and doing the part and doing something to help win a game. If that means playing somebody else there and there's production right away -- that's trying to win a baseball game.”

Darin Ruf, recalled from Triple A on Tuesday, started at first base for the Phillies against Giants’ lefty Madison Bumgarner. Clearly, the team was prepping him to get some time at first as he played four of his last five games at Triple A at that position.

“I’m interested to see what he can do,” Sandberg said of Ruf. “I know what [Howard] can do. I've seen him for 100 games. I know what he can do. I think it's important to see what a guy like Darin Ruf can do also going forward.”

Over the first 100 games of the season, Howard, 34, has hit .224 with 15 homers, 57 RBIs and 118 strikeouts in 371 at-bats. Howard’s OPS, a dreadful .682, ranks 126th out of 162 qualifying major-league hitters. His OPS ranks 21st out of 23 qualifying major-league first basemen.

Over his last 25 games, Howard is hitting just .168 (16 for 95) with a .269 on-base percentage and a .221 slugging percentage. He has just three extra-base hits in that span, two doubles and a home run that came with the Phils ahead, 7-1, late in a game at Milwaukee.

Sandberg was careful not to disparage Howard, but he sounded very much like a man who was shopping for a first baseman. Prospect Maikel Franco could get a look later in the season.

Sandberg denied that he was looking for Howard’s replacement.

“But I think it's also important to see and gauge other players to see where they're at,” he said.

Howard is signed for at least two more years. Why would Sandberg want to gauge other players if Howard’s future with the team wasn’t in serious question?

Phillies officials have spent a lot of time discussing ways to retool their disappointing team in recent weeks. Trades are on the way and there could be several before next week’s non-waiver trade deadline.

Multiple sources say the team has also discussed moving on without Howard. The team has floated his name in trade talks but Howard is owed the remainder of $25 million for this season and $60 million over the next two seasons. No team is interested in taking on that amount of money -- or even part of it because the Phils know they’d have to eat a large portion of Howard’s salary -- for a declining player.

The logical next step is to release Howard. Sources say team officials have discussed the possibility of paying off Howard and moving on without him after the season.

If Howard were let go, he would likely hook on with another team.

At times, Howard has looked like a player who would benefit from a change of scenery. He was asked about that on Thursday and said he was not interested in moving, that he wanted to press on and try to improve with the Phillies, the team he won a World Series with in 2008 and earned the NL MVP award in 2006.

“I’m not thinking about that,” Howard said. “Everybody is entitled to their own opinion. Me personally, I think the easiest thing to do when times get hard or don’t go your way is quit. I think it really shows the kind of character you have -- and again, I’m not talking about anybody in this clubhouse, I’m just talking in general -- but when times get hard, the easiest thing to do is quit or try to give up or whatever. For me personally, you work through it. It’s a character building kind of thing and you try to work through it. And I think once you do work through it you become that much stronger.”

Other than to direct inquiries about the lineup to Sandberg, Howard did not duck any questions as he spoke to reporters for nearly 10 minutes late Wednesday afternoon.

The two-time NL home run king and three-time RBI champ said he was disappointed in his season.

“It’s been a disappointing year for me, period,” he said. “Things haven’t necessarily shaped up the way I’ve wanted them to, coming back after basically not playing for the last two years, trying to make it through a full season. There have been a lot of highs and lows. A lot of frustration. There’s frustration from the fans, frustration period. I have my own frustrations as well.

“You know, you try to stay positive. I know people are going to put a lot on either how much money I make, or what I’m doing on the field, this or that or whatever, but at the end if the day, you go out there and try, you try to do what you can. I’m really just trying to get back in the flow of things, trying new things, lowering my hands. Trying to get back into the flow of everything. It is what it is right now. You just try to continue to work. It’s all you can do.”

Howard said he used to become engulfed by expectations. Now, he simply plays the game.

“You guys have been around me long enough to know I kind of wear my heart on my sleeve and everything and I don’t carry that burden around anymore,” he said. “Sometimes you just want to please everybody and you can’t.

“You know, sometimes it goes your way and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s on a baseball field, that’s if you change oil, that’s whatever you do. I’m sure everybody in here has good days and they have bad days. We’re all human and I think people forget that.”

Howard was asked if this season was the low point of his career. He refused to go there.

“This is baseball,” he said. “I know some people might misconstrue this comment, but baseball is a game. Yeah, I get paid a lot of money to play it, but it's a game. You go out and see little kids doing it, because it's a game. You have to keep things in perspective.”

And that is clearly what Howard is doing.

“I have a beautiful wife, a son, a baby on the way,” he said. “You have to take a look at life and have to look at it for what it is. I love playing baseball, and I want to be the best that I can be and compete on a regular basis.

“As far as my career is concerned, you have good years and you have off years. The year isn't over yet. You guys have seen me get on hot streaks where I've hit 10, 11 home runs in a month. If I were to go on and have a great August and September, all of the sudden you're talking about 35 home runs and over 100 RBIs, then we can go back to this conversation. Until the season is over, this team can still do some good things. We just have to pull it together and make it happen."

The question remains: Will it happen with Howard on the roster or with him gone?

The big man’s future with the team is very much in question.

Breaking down the best and worst moves at MLB's winter meetings

Breaking down the best and worst moves at MLB's winter meetings

Five more thoughts as baseball's winter meetings wrap up:

1. What now for McCutchen?
The hottest name as the winter meetings began this week was Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' perennial All-Star centerfielder who had a .404 on-base percentage from 2012-15 with four straight top-five MVP finishes before falling off a cliff in 2016.

McCutchen hit 40 points worse last season as his bat and legs slowed and his approach deteriorated at times, perhaps out of frustration. There's been some speculation he was playing hurt.

The Nationals were the team most connected to McCutchen, but after failing to work out an agreement with the Pirates and losing out to the Red Sox for Chris Sale, Washington ultimately ended up trading for White Sox CF Adam Eaton.

So, what now for Cutch? It seems unlikely at this point he'd return to the Pirates ... would be kind of awkward. He knows his days there are numbered given Pittsburgh's payroll situation, and he hasn't yet accrued 10-and-5 rights. 

But Pirates GM Neal Huntington told reporters Wednesday that the intent now is to keep McCutchen.

And McCutchen tweeted this, implying his lips are sealed after weeks of rumors.

If McCutchen does eventually end up elsewhere, I don't think it will be the Phillies. There are certainly things to like, and I do believe McCutchen will bounce back in 2017, but at this point in the Phillies' rebuild and at this point in McCutchen's career, he's not the player to alter the organizational course for. 

2. Shrewd Sale
The Sale trade played out exactly as it should have — the team with the leverage scanned the market, found a few potential deals and got maximum value for one of baseball's five best starting pitchers.

In many trades of superstars, you can look at the return package and quickly conclude which team got the better end. Those opinions aren't always proven true — prospects fail, veterans get hurt — but winners and losers are usually identifiable.

In the Sale trade, there was no clear winner or loser. 

Sale is an ace, a pitcher you'd likely rather have start Game 1 of a playoff series than David Price. He's the ideal complement to Price, though in my opinion Sale is more of 1A to Price's 1B. 

Price has exceptional stuff and command but no deception. He has a one-step delivery that doesn't throw a hitter off balance. Sale has maybe the most deceiving delivery of any major-league starter — it's all elbows and knees coming at you, especially if you're a lefty — to go along with elite stuff and usually above-average command. 

They're both lefties but they offer much different looks for a hitter.

The centerpiece of the White Sox return, Yoan Moncada, is considered by many the best prospect in baseball — a big, athletic infielder who's settled in at 3B. He's got all the tools and the type of fluidity in his game that has enticed scouts as long as scouts have existed. 

Michael Kopech is the prototypical young flamethrower, a 6-foot-3 righty who throws a triple-digit fastball with a plus breaking ball. You look at Kopech and see some Noah Syndergaard-like, Justin Verlander-like potential.

Sale should make the Red Sox about five wins better each of the next three seasons. In terms of World Series odds, the Red Sox may enter 2017 on an even plane with the Cubs. 

And two or three years from now, Moncada and Kopech could be two of the top young players in baseball. This trade made a lot more sense for the White Sox than acquiring Victor Robles and Lucas Giolito from the Nationals. Both are intriguing prospects, but the Moncada-Kopech duo has more talent and upside.

The conversations between the White Sox and Nationals regarding Sale ultimately led Chicago to acquire Giolito as part of the package for Eaton. 

The White Sox have done very well this offseason in acquiring three, maybe four top prospects. Moncada is a big-time building block, and the return for Eaton of Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning gives Chicago three right-handers with enormous upside.

3. No clue what the Marlins are thinking
For the better part of two weeks, the Marlins had been linked to Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen, the two best closers on the market and probably the two best closers in baseball. 

Chapman agreed late Wednesday night to a five-year, $86 million contract with the Yankees, by far the largest ever for a closer.

ESPN's Jayson Stark reported Tuesday night that Marlins owner/money man Jeffrey Loria had given his front office the go-ahead to sign either closer. Right now, that leaves just Jansen.

The question is why? The Marlins are not an elite closer away from winning the NL East. Adding Jansen will not catapult this team ahead of the Nationals or likely the Mets. The Marlins might not even be an elite closer away from a wild-card spot. 

Miami is still trying to pick up the pieces after the death of Jose Fernandez. The tragic loss has left them with a middling rotation, which right now includes Wei-Yin Chen, Edinson Volquez, Adam Conley, Tom Koehler and Jeff Locke. 

That rotation isn't leading you to October, not unless Giancarlo Stanton actually plays a full season and the Fish avoid regression from guys like Marcell Ozuna, J.T. Realmuto and Martin Prado.

Great New York Post columnist Joel Sherman also questioned Miami's approach this week, opining that the Marlins would be better off buying two lesser free-agent relievers like Koji Uehara and Brad Ziegler at the one-year cost of either Chapman or Jansen. It would make sense since Miami already has three good relievers in A.J. Ramos, Kyle Barraclough and David Phelps.

4. Brian Cashman's had quite a few months
The Yankees will not enter 2017 as the AL East favorite, but GM Brian Cashman has positioned them so well for the future, better than pretty much anyone could have expected back in July.

When the Yankees traded Andrew Miller to the Indians before the trade deadline, they picked up a top outfield power prospect in Clint Frazier and an intriguing young pitching prospect in Justus Sheffield. When they dealt Chapman to the Cubs, they picked up Gleyber Torres, one of the most well-thought-of shortstop prospects in baseball. (New York also added outfielder Billy McKinney, who could end up being a serviceable .280/.360/.430 type of player.)

And after it all, after transitioning the Yankees from an old, directionless team, Cashman ends up with all those prospects and Chapman.

In recent years there have been several opportunities for a team to re-sign a star player months after trading him for prospects. 

Some thought the Red Sox would do it with Jon Lester after trading him to Oakland for Yoenis Cespedes. 

When the Phillies were considering trading Cole Hamels the first time, before he signed his $144 million extension, the possibility existed Ruben Amaro Jr. would trade him and then try to re-sign him that offseason. 

It almost happened with the Yankees and Carlos Beltran this offseason, before Beltran chose the Astros. 

There have been more examples, but this is the first time I can recall the team selling high on the player, getting the prospects and then also getting the player back. 

Great work by Cashman and the Yankees, who now have an infusion of young talent and still the best eight-ninth inning combination in the American League with Dellin Betances and Chapman.

5. Rockies must trade for pitching
The five-year, $70 million contract Ian Desmond agreed to with the Rockies this week was a stunner because they didn't seem to need more offense. They play in the game's best hitter's park and already have an annual MVP candidate in Nolan Arenado, an underrated stud in Charlie Blackmon, last year's batting champ in D.J. LeMahieu, emerging stars David Dahl and Trevor Story, and Carlos Gonzalez, who has 65 homers and 197 RBIs the last two seasons.

And yet the Rockies added Desmond to the second-largest contract in their franchise's history, behind only that futile six-figure deal for Mike Hampton.

They're also reportedly interested in last year's home run champ, Mark Trumbo. With or without Trumbo, the Rockies right now have the deepest lineup in the NL, one that should still thrive away from Coors Field.

But they've also backed themselves into a corner here of needing to trade one of these talented position players for a top-of-the-rotation arm. 

MLB Network's Jon Morosi reported Thursday that the Rockies and Blue Jays began discussing a potential trade involving Blackmon and 25-year-old right-hander Marcus Stroman. The Blue Jays, as of yet, do not seem inclined to make the deal. Stroman won't reach free agency until after the 2020 season, whereas Blackmon's contract expires after 2018. The difference in cost and years of control seems to be too much for the Jays.

Blackmon, who last year hit .324/.381/.552 with 35 doubles, five triples, 29 homers and 82 RBIs, is the most logical trade candidate for the Rockies because he's starting to get expensive. But the Jays' unwillingness to make that Stroman deal could mean that moving even a player as talented as Blackmon for equal value could prove difficult for the Rox.

Looking around the league, a team like the Indians could be a fit for Blackmon since they have an enviable group of starting pitchers in Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar. Carrasco for Blackmon would seem even, but we shall see.

Phils lose LHP in Rule 5 draft, exit winter meetings balancing present with future

Phils lose LHP in Rule 5 draft, exit winter meetings balancing present with future

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – The winter meetings ended Thursday morning with the Phillies sitting out the Rule 5 draft. The Phillies’ roster was at the 40-man limit and that prohibited the team from making a pick.

The Phils did lose one player in the draft as reliever Hoby Milner was selected by the Cleveland Indians. 

Milner, who turns 26 in January, is a left-hander who recently switched to a side-arm delivery. He had a 2.49 ERA in 49 games at Double A and Triple A in 2016.

Milner was eligible for the draft because he was not protected on the 40-man roster last month. The Indians selected him for $50,000. He must stay in the big leagues all season or be offered back to the Phillies for $25,000.

Andrew Pullin was a player the Phillies feared losing, but they hung on to the lefty-hitting outfielder. Pullin, 23, hit .322 with a .885 OPS between Single A and Double A in 2016. A late-season elbow injury prevented Pullin from playing in the Arizona Fall League and factored into the Phillies’ decision to leave him unprotected.

The Phillies selected one player, infielder Jorge Flores, in the minor-league phase of the draft. Flores had been in the Toronto system.

The Phils lost one player, 25-year-old pitcher Jairo Munoz, to Tampa Bay in the minor-league phase. Munoz pitched in the low minors in 2016.

With the winter meetings behind them, Phillies officials will head back to Citizens Bank Park to complete the construction of their 2017 roster. So far this winter, the Phils have re-signed starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson and added outfielder Howie Kendrick and relievers Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek and David Rollins.

Remaining on the Phillies’ to-do list is adding a backup infielder – Andres Blanco could return – and deciding whether to pursue a veteran hitter to play a corner outfield spot or give an opportunity to a young tandem such as Roman Quinn and Aaron Altherr. 

General manager Matt Klentak spoke often during the week about that balance he is trying to strike between improving the 2017 club while keeping intact long-range goals.

“Successfully balancing the present and the future is the single greatest challenge that a baseball operations department faces,” Klentak said. “We’ve talked about it all offseason. The decisions that we are making right now about giving playing time to a young player that has cut his teeth in Triple A and needs that opportunity to take the next step as opposed to a shorter-term solution from the outside – that’s one of the main challenges that we’ve run into this offseason.”

Time will tell which way the Phillies go on this matter.