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.

Pros, cons and likely prospects of a Vince Velasquez trade with Rangers

Pros, cons and likely prospects of a Vince Velasquez trade with Rangers

Vince Velasquez just turned 24 in June.

He's under team control for the next five years and won't start making a lot of money (in baseball terms) until about 2020.

He has a big fastball that averages 93.7 mph, the 10th-best velocity of any NL starting pitcher.

He can be really, really good at times — the 16-strikeout shutout of the Padres, the 10-strikeout game against the Marlins, scoreless performances against the Mets, Indians and Diamondbacks.

And even when he's not at his best, like Friday night in Atlanta, Velasquez can succeed because his stuff is that good. He's made 18 starts this season and allowed two runs or fewer 11 times.

All of these things make him valuable to the Phillies. And all of these things make him attractive to every other team in the majors.

It doesn't seem likely that the Phils will ultimately pull the trigger and trade Velasquez to the Rangers, who are in "deep discussions" with the Phils on a deal, according to CSNPhilly.com's Jim Salisbury (see story). But Texas has such an intriguing group of prospects that it makes sense for the Phillies to listen.

Velasquez, for all of his strengths, has not proven yet that he can be a durable, 180- to 200-inning starting pitcher. He's never even reached 125 innings at any level in the minors. There have been numerous games this season in which his pitch count has soared — either because of a lack of control, his occasional nibbling around the plate or a lot of foul balls. The result has been some early exits. That was a knock on Velasquez when he was in Houston and he hasn't yet fully outgrown it.

That's why it could make sense for the Phils to trade him. Perhaps they believe they'd be selling high on a guy who's shown so much talent and promise but not the type of consistency of a No. 1 or No. 2 starter.

Obviously, it makes sense to move him only if the return is strong. And the Rangers could certainly offer a strong package if they decide Velasquez is their guy.

The names you'll see thrown around a lot as the Aug. 1 trade deadline approaches are power hitting third baseman Joey Gallo, infielder Jurickson Profar and outfielders Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara.

Mazara is a pipe dream. The Rangers refused to include him in last summer's Cole Hamels trade, and he's only increased his worth to them this season by hitting .282/.334/.417 with 12 homers and 41 RBIs for a first-place team. He'll be a top-three finisher for AL Rookie of the Year. It's almost impossible to envision the Rangers trading away a valuable piece of their major-league roster for Velasquez. It would be a wash, at best.

Gallo and Profar are more realistic targets for the Phillies in a Velasquez trade. Gallo, 22, has some of the best raw power in the minors, true grade-80 power. The 6-foot-5, left-handed hitter bashed 23 homers in the minors last season, 42 the year before and 40 the year before that. Initially, that power translated to the majors when Gallo was called up last June. He hit homers in each of his first two games and had five in his first 50 at-bats before pitchers adjusted. So far in 136 big-league plate appearances, he's hit .192/.287/.408 with seven homers and 63 strikeouts.

The whiffs will always be a part of Gallo's game. To me, he has Chris Carter written all over him — a lot of homers, a lot of strikeouts, low batting average. Gallo could be better than Carter (the Brewers' first baseman) because he plays a more important position and will hopefully be more than a .217 career hitter like Carter. But you also have to keep in mind that the Phillies already have Maikel Franco at third base. If Gallo was traded here, he'd likely play either first base or left field.

It's hard to say right now whether or not Gallo is more valuable or a better fit for the Phils than Velasquez. Usually, it makes sense to go with the everyday player over the pitcher who can make an impact at most twice a week. But, as stated above, Velasquez can give you six quality innings even when he's not "on." He has the most upside of any of the Phillies' young starting pitchers, including Aaron Nola.

Profar, who is somehow still just 23 after years atop prospect lists and a few injuries, would seem to be a better fit. He's a multi-dimensional player who has impressed scouts for years for a reason. He can play every infield position in addition to left field, he has the look of a .300 hitter, and his power is developing.

A switch-hitter, Profar has hit .301/.356/.440 for the Rangers in 181 plate appearances this season with four doubles, two triples and five homers. It's been a while since his last full season in the minors, but in 2012 he hit .281 with an .820 OPS, 14 homers and 62 RBIs as a 19-year-old everyday shortstop at Double A.

The opinion here is that Profar will be a better major-league hitter than Phillies top prospect J.P. Crawford.

There is, however, a vast financial difference between Profar and Gallo. Profar will go to salary arbitration in 2017, 2018 and 2019 before becoming a free agent. Gallo, like Velasquez, won't start making meaningful baseball money until around 2020.

But a team like the Phillies that has deep pockets and so much open payroll space moving forward should be more concerned with receiving the right player than playing the cost benefit game.

Another thing to consider here is that the Rangers kind of need Profar. He's been playing every day for them and playing well at second base, third base and shortstop. He played Friday night in left field. He's started a bunch of games at first base, too, and figures to get some more reps there with Prince Fielder out for the season and Mitch Moreland having just an OK year.

Brinson is another name to keep in mind. A right-handed centerfielder, he was Texas' first-round pick in 2012. He had a terrific year at three different levels in 2015, hitting a combined .332/.403/.601 with 31 doubles, eight triples and 20 homers. He's struggled this season at Double A Frisco, hitting .227 with a .692 OPS in a hitter-friendly environment.

The Rangers also have some other pieces who could help the Phillies, but you'd figure any deal for Velasquez would have to include one of these three. Otherwise, it just makes no sense to even entertain the idea of a trade.

And really, if the Rangers are willing to include one or more of those three young players, they could get any team in the majors to listen to an offer for a starting pitcher. A package centered around two of them might be enough for Chris Sale. Maybe one of them could net Atlanta's Julio Teheran. Velasquez is really good, but so are the combinations of trade packages the Rangers can put together.

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Trade rumors swirl around starters Jeremy Hellickson, Julio Teheran

Phillies-Braves 5 things: Trade rumors swirl around starters Jeremy Hellickson, Julio Teheran

Phillies (47-58) at Braves (36-67)
7:10 p.m. on NBC10

Two starters with uncertain futures take the mound in Atlanta on Saturday evening . Will either Phillies righty Jeremy Hellickson or Braves ace Julio Teheran be traded before, during or shortly after Saturday's first pitch? Time will tell.

Here are five things to know before Saturday night's contest at Turner Field:

1. Hellickson on the trading block
When the Phillies acquired Hellickson from the Arizona Diamondbacks in mid-November, there was always a strong possibility the veteran righty would be flipped before this year's non-waiver trade deadline. 

With Charlie Morton going down with an injury early in the year, it appeared that Hellickson would be the only member of the Phillies' improved rotation likely to be gone on Aug. 1 (maybe not true, but more on that later). So after the Marlins already shored up their rotation with the acquisition of Andrew Cashner, who is still interested in the righty?

Teams like the Baltimore Orioles, Texas Rangers and Toronto Blue Jays, among others, come to mind. After all, many top starters are far from free agency or locked up by their teams, making a middle-of-the-road starter like Hellickson a hot commodity at this year's deadline.

Face it: There are always teams that need starting pitching. Pitchers can go down in an instant (like Morton did) or begin to struggle out of nowhere (look at Aaron Nola). With Hellickson's early career resume and his recent resurgence, plenty of teams could make use of him (see full story)

In 21 starts this season, he has thrown 125 2/3 innings and has a 3.65 ERA, nearly a full run lower than his final ERA from 2015. He's regained his trademark command and upped his strikeout rate. However, he is still a fly ball pitcher who can be burned playing in a small ballpark (Citizens Bank park, for instance). A team like the Blue Jays that plays in the home run-friendly Rogers Centre may think twice before acquiring him.

If Hellickson is traded, it would continue a youth movement for the Phillies, and not just with the prospects they would acquire in a potential deal. Top pitching prospect Jake Thompson is on turn to start Sunday in Triple A and with the Phillies' day off on Monday, he could easily slide into Hellickson's rotation spot. 

2. Teheran could be gone as well
The Braves' scheduled starter for Saturday could also be in another uniform when the calendar flips to August. However, an injury has thrown his status into flux.

Atlanta currently has the worst record in baseball, so any and every player could be considered a trade chip at this point in the year. That includes a player like Teheran, who is signed through 2019 to a team-friendly deal that includes a team option for 2020. 

And Teheran has been easily the best pitcher for the Braves. In 20 starts this year, he has a 2.71 ERA while averaging just shy of 6.5 innings per start. He earned his second All-Star Game appearance with a career-best walk rate, not to mention a 4.11 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He also only allows 6.7 hits per nine innings, contributing to a career-best 0.956 WHIP. 

But the righty left his last start on July 22 with a tight lat muscle in his back. There was talk he may need to go on the DL, but he avoided it with a few extra days between starts. 

Teheran has been healthy in the past. He's made at least 30 starts each of the last three years and has thrown at least 200 innings each of the last two. He led baseball with 33 starts last season. 

However, the lat injury may scare teams hoping to acquire him before this deadline, making this start crucial. If there's no one willing to meet the price for Teheran, the Braves can simply retain him and see if anyone wants him in the offseason.

3. Hug watch on Velasquez?
In case you missed it, the Phillies are in deep discussions with the Texas Rangers on a deal involving 24-year-old starter Vince Velasquez (see full story)

Wow. It's certainly a shocker. Velasquez has been the Phillies' best starter in his first season with the club and has made Matt Klentak look like a genius for trading Ken Giles to the Houston Astros for him in the offseason. His fastball has electrified Philadelphia at times, especially during a 16-strikeout gem in his first start at Citizens Bank Park.

So could that really be coming to an end so soon? The Rangers, as mentioned above, are in the market for a starting pitcher. Their only consistent pitcher in the last month has been a certain familiar name acquired from the Phillies last year: Cole Hamels. 

Beyond Hamels, the Rangers' rotation has been battered by injuries this year. Colby Lewis and Derek Holland are both on the 60-day disabled list and Yu Darvish has been off and on the DL in his first season after Tommy John surgery. Furthermore, Velasquez isn't eligible to become a free agent until 2022, giving value beyond any normal deadline acquisition.

But if Velasquez is under team control for so long, why would the Phillies trade him? Two possible reasons: First, a team knows its pitchers better than anyone and may be concerned with something in his health record or they simply don't value him as highly as other teams. 2. The Phillies know they can extract a tremendous haul for the flamethrowing righty.

The Rangers have some exciting prospects and young pieces that could make the Phillies jump. Slugging prospect Joey Gallo, starting outfielder Nomar Mazara and infielder Jurickson Profar intrigue teams and have been mostly deemed untouchable by Texas. But if Velasquez is in discussion, it's easy to speculate that one of those could be the headliner in a package coming back to Philadelphia. 

4. Players to watch
Phillies: No one may be seeing Teheran on the mound than Freddy Galvis. The Phillies' shortstop is 6 for 14 against him with two walks. He could use a multiple-hit evening after piling up just five hits in the last week.

Braves: After tonight, Nick Markakis will have faced Hellickson more than any other hitter. Markakis has made 46 plate appearances against Hellickson and has just nine hits in those appearances. Two of the hits, though, have been home runs.

5. This and that
• Teheran has not allowed a run in his last 14 innings, dating back to July 9. 

• The Phillies and Braves have identical .240 batting averages this season. The Phils have a big advantage in home runs, however, outpacing the Braves, 101-64. 

• Ryan Howard has two career home runs off Teheran in 24 at-bats. Cody Asche has one homer in 21 at-bats against him. 

• A.J Pierzynski has nine at-bats against Hellickson and just one hit. However, the one hit is a home run.

Vince Velasquez is subject of serious trade talks between Phillies, Rangers

Vince Velasquez is subject of serious trade talks between Phillies, Rangers

ATLANTA — Seven months after he was acquired from the Houston Astros and anointed a key piece in the Phillies’ rebuild, pitcher Vince Velasquez could be on the move again.

The Phillies and Texas Rangers are “pretty deep” in trade discussions involving Velasquez, a major league source told CSNPhilly.com on Friday night (see story).

The Rangers’ interest in Velasquez was reported by Jon Morosi of MLB Network earlier in the week and essentially confirmed when three Rangers scouts, including Scott Littlefield, one of that club’s top talent evaluators, showed up at Turner Field for Velasquez’s start against the Atlanta Braves on Friday night.

Velasquez delivered a solid but unspectacular performance in a 2-1 loss to the Braves, but he still has the qualities that attracted the Phillies to him last winter. He’s just 24 years old and has a power arm that has produced a 3.32 ERA in 18 starts. He has the upside to pitch at or near the top of a rotation if his development goes in the right direction and he stays healthy. That is a legitimate concern because he had Tommy John surgery as a young minor leaguer and spent time on the disabled list earlier this season with a biceps strain.

The question now is: where will Velasquez continue his development? Philadelphia? Texas? Somewhere else?

Clearly, the Phillies’ big wintertime acquisition is in play as Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline approaches.

Manager Pete Mackanin said he knows nothing of the front office’s trade plans, but he offered his opinion on trading a young pitcher like Velasquez.

“Our whole goal was to get young pitchers because they’re the most expensive commodity and if you can develop young pitchers like him and have four or five of those guys, then you’re ahead of the game,” Mackanin said. “But at the same time, at least as far as I’m concerned, I’ll listen to any offers. If you get three guys that are really good looking prospects because pitching is such a commodity, I’m sure you have to consider it.”

With the Rangers' scouts looking on, Velasquez pitched six innings and gave up seven hits and two runs. He walked two and struck out five. His fastball reached 96 mph, proving that his stuff is good. Mackanin, however, said he thought Velasquez relied too much on his off-speed stuff instead of his power fastball.

“It was unusual to me the way he pitched,” Mackanin said. “It was almost like a finesse pitcher instead of a power pitcher. I’m not arguing with it because he did a good job, but he made me a little nervous here and there. I like the 16 strikeouts.”

That, of course, was a reference to Velasquez’s 16-strikeout complete game win over the Padres on April 14. Could anyone have imagined that he'd be the subject of trade talks 3½ months later?

Velasquez said he was aware of the trade buzz surrounding him and unbothered by it. He’s been down this road before. He said he would not be disappointed if he were traded because he understands baseball is a business.

“At first when I got traded from the Astros it was kind of tough for me, but you have to move on and make the best of what you've got,” Velasquez said. “If things happen, just let it happen. If I go to another team, then I've got to make the best of what I've got there. There's a lot of things that are in the future. I don't know what to expect is what I'm saying. Again, all I can do is live in the present and live another day tomorrow. If something happens, something happens. I've got to make the best of what you've got today.

“It's just one of those things I can't control. I had to fight, had to battle for a spot here in Philadelphia and I'm very thankful for the opportunity and everything. Again, I've still got to keep working hard and make the best of what I've got.”

Any team looking to acquire Velasquez would have to pay a steep price. In addition to having talent and upside, he won’t be eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2018 season and free agency until after the 2021 season.

The Phillies have a good knowledge of Texas’ deep farm system having scouted it extensively — and plucked from it — in making the deal for Cole Hamels a year ago. Are the Phillies about to fuel their rebuild with more talent from the Texas system? Stay tuned.

Velasquez isn’t the only Phillies starter who could move. Several teams remain interested in Jeremy Hellickson (see story), who is scheduled to pitch against Atlanta on Saturday night. The Rangers, in fact, have some interest in Hellickson as a fallback option if they don’t get a pitcher elsewhere. Velasquez is not the only pitcher the Rangers have on their radar, but from a Phillies’ perspective, he is certainly the most interesting.