By Lewis Gould
The Phillies enter baseball’s version of the Bataan Death March tonight.
Many major league teams have their sights set on the remaining two and a half months of the regular season and the playoffs. However, the NL East dead last Phils will trudge along, going through the motions on the field as the front office incompetents try to unload what passes for their talent to reload for the future.
One thing is for certain — some of the players on the team tonight as the Phils start the second half of the season in Atlanta will not be on the roster come August 1, the day after baseball’s July 31 trade deadline.
Right fielder Marlon Byrd and closer Jonathan Papelbon probably will be goners.
Starting pitchers A.J. Burnett and Kyle Kendrick, and lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo seem good bets to be dealt, as well.
Others not safe include aces Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and shortstop Jimmy Rollins.
One name that rarely comes up in trade rumors is a face of the franchise that Phillies management almost certainly would like to get rid of more than anyone, first baseman Ryan Howard.
The prevailing thought is that Howard is untradeable because he’s still owed $68.3 million of his $125 million contract, and he’s not close to the slugger he was from 2005-11 when he averaged 41 homers and 123 RBIs.
Going into tonight’s game in Atlanta, Howard is hitting .220 (lifetime average is .267) with an OPS of .681 (lifetime is .889), with 15 home runs, 56 runs batted in and 150 strikeouts. His body is worn down from age and infirmity and it is hard to watch him field and try to run.
For sure, that’ll scare off just about everyone.
His contract is outrageous. He’s still owed $8.3 million of his $25 million salary this season, he’ll make another $25 million in 2015 and 2016, plus there’s a club option for 2017 for $23 million or a $10 million buyout. (He also has a partial no-trade clause that allows him to veto deals to 21 teams.)
But what if Phillies management is so desperate to wipe its hands clean of Howard that its willing to eat, say, 80 percent of the remaining money?
That’s asking a lot. Phillies management never has eaten that kind of money before, but before it was raking in the kind of monster television dollars it now gets from Comcast, it ate $22 million when trading Jim Thome to the Chicago White Sox in November 2005. It also ate $9.15 million in February 2009 when releasing pitcher Adam Eaton.
If the Phillies are desperate enough to eat big dollars, then perhaps there is a small market for Howard, who is hitting just .220 but is tied for 12th in the NL with 15 homers and ranks seventh with 56 RBIs.
Perhaps the AL-West leading Oakland A’s, among others, become interested because they haven’t received much from their designated hitters. It only trades one interested party to work a trade, and the Phillies probably wouldn’t ask for much in return beyond a decent prospect or two.
There’s been speculation the Phillies may call up touted 21-year-old slugger Maikel Franco from Triple-A to platoon with Howard.
That makes no sense if Franco, who recently switched from third base to first, really is an elite prospect … and the right-handed-swinging Dominican sure looked the part last season hitting a combined 31 homers for Class A Clearwater and Double-A Reading.
Top position-player prospects with zero big-league experience just don’t get called up by losing teams to become platoon players because they need regular at-bats to keep progressing.
But if Howard is moved, then there could be a first big-league opportunity later this season for Franco, who as of now doesn’t look major-league ready based on his 2014 Triple-A stats: .230 average, 6 homers, 32 RBIs.
Regardless, the Phillies want to dump salary and they want to get younger. Dumping a portion of Howard’s salary, even if a team takes on just $5 million annually, allows them a chance to get younger.
Again, the key to moving Howard is management opting to eat a whole lot of money, perhaps adopting the same mentality that Hall of Fame exec Pat Gillick had regarding troubled pitcher Vicente Padilla during his run as Phillies GM from November 2006 through the 2008 World Series championship.
In December 2006, Gillick acquired pitcher Ricardo Rodriquez from the Texas Rangers for Padilla, a 2002 All-Star for the Phillies who was coming off consecutive disappointing seasons and reportedly had a lot of off-the-field issues. The next March, the Phillies released Rodriquez during spring training, which led Gillick to summing up the Padilla trade as “addition by subtraction.”
Perhaps current Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr., previously a Gillick assistant, feels the same now about Howard.