Yesterday, Jonathan Papelbon was the focus of my story after he spoke to the media on Monday. Today, Ryan Howard takes center stage. Though the Phillies first baseman spoke last week, it has taken me a while to gather my thoughts. I have to say I am very eager to see what he does this year, his first healthy season in a couple of years. Let me start by saying I am a Ryan Howard supporter. I think he is a good presence in the locker room and he can produce offensively in large quantities when healthy. We haven't seen those numbers since 2011, so 2014 proves to be an enormous year for the Phillies slugger.
In 88 games back in 2005, the Phillies fans got a glimpse of their first baseman of the future. Howard nabbed Rookie of the Year in '05 and followed that with an MVP Award in 2006, when he hit 58 homers and tallied 149 RBI. The Big Piece hit 47 homers in '07, 48 in '08, 45 in '09, 31 in 2010 and 33 in 2011. He averaged 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006 to 2011, when he was last playing with two healthy legs.
In January, GM Ruben Amaro gave the update we were all hoping to hear.
“Ryan Howard is at one hundred percent, finally."
After blowing out his left Achilles tendon on the last swing of the 2011 season, Howard missed half of 2012. Last year, he was shut down in early July, when left knee pain became too much to handle. He had season-ending surgery to repair a cartilage injury.
There is no question as to what he can do with his power. The question is can he do it after two rough years of being hurt? He is confident.
“I feel like I can play 162 games. My whole offseason was dedicated to trying to play all 162, plus trying to make it to the playoffs. My goal isn’t to come out here and try to play 120 games. That’s not why I play baseball.”
I am not a fan of setting unrealistic expectations, but again what do you expect Ryan to say? He has always been a leader and has that positive attitude about his play and what he brings to the lineup. We've all seen it. I would love to see Howard play 162 games, that is what you prepare for. Is it realistic? Probably not. I would be more than okay with him seeing some rest and playing between 130-140. That being said, I really like how he is poised to stay conditioned for an entire season after these past two years of rough water.
When referring to the past two seasons, Howard had this to say
“I’ve got two legs. Basically I’ve been playing on one leg."
"Being able to now have two legs and being able to be a little more stable in the box, it will allow me to stay back a little bit longer and kind of see balls. When my legs are going good and everything is going well I can hit lefties. It’s just a matter of being able to be stable in the box."
There is plenty of truth to this. His RBI numbers confirm it. He has 100+ RBI in six of his ten seasons. He has 135+ in four of those ten seasons. Does the guy strike out a lot? Hell yes, but when you are producing more than 100+ runs from your bat in a year, your offense is going to take off no matter the strikeout number. Since leading the league in K's back in 2007 with 199, the number has gradually lessened here and there over the yeears. 186 in 2009, 157 in 2010 and 172 in 2011. It is still an issue, but if Howard puts up power numbers that he is capable of, I am more than okay with dealing with some strikeouts.
“Am I capable of hitting 40-plus home runs? Absolutely. If I doubt myself, nobody else will believe in me. I feel I’m capable of hitting 58 home runs. I did it once. I feel that I’m capable of doing that every year. It’s just a matter of going out there and letting the game come to me. You never know what may happen.”
This is on the border of unrealistic and realistic. We are all aware that he is capable of hitting 40-plus home runs. Will he hit 58? Not likely, but having the confidence of being able to do it is half the battle. With the number of strikeouts Howard rakes in, having confidence in your game and the ability to hit 40-plus homers on a regular basis is a good mindset to have. In all honesty, if he stays healthy all year, I could see him hitting 35 max.
Howard is known to struggle against lefties. There has been plenty of talk about him platooning and sitting against lefties from time to time, but being owed $85 million over the next three seasons doesn't really make that an option at this point.
“Why would I think about it?” he said. “That’s negative. If I think negative, if I think I can’t hit lefties, I might as well not go out there at all.”
I said it once and I will say it again. With a 162 game grind of a season, having this kind of confidence is half the battle. He has the skill but he just needs to lay off the outside breaking balls when playing against lefties. I am not a baseball player so I assume it is easier said then done, but a little improvement needs to be shown and more discipline needs to be shown as well. In Howard's career, he owns a .295 average against righties and a .224 average against lefties.
Obviously, when it comes to winning, the Phillies do it when Howard plays. They are 668-510 with Howard in the game. When the team wins, Howard has a .303 average. When the team loses? .227. Also, Howard has a career .283 average with runners in scoring position. He also is a clutch hitter, averaging in the .280's when the team is trailing by three runs or less.
After missing the postseason the past two years, in order for the Phillies to succeed, they need Howard to produce. He knows that and he knows that the team can improve.
“For us, the guys on this team, we know we’re better than that,” Howard said. “We know we’re capable of a lot more. We have more expectations of ourselves this year for going out there and putting a better show on the field.”
Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg believes that Howard will bounce back in 2014.
“I can see he already is in better shape than he was last year, by far. His mobility is better. He’s stronger and able to use his whole body up there. I think there will be a reasonable number of at-bats for him to get his stroke and we’ll adjust it as we go and see how things are going.”
A leader on and off the field, Howard and the Phillies have plenty to prove in 2014. It is only a matter of time before we find out. As for our opinions? We are entitled to them.
"We've had a bad couple years and had injuries and all that stuff, but I don't think it's over. People are entitled to their opinions and what not and that's fine, but it's up to us to go out there and show them otherwise and go out and play our game and do what we do."
Brandon Apter is a contributor to Philliedelphia. Follow him on Twitter @ApterShock