Ryne Sandberg spoke assertively a couple weeks ago when he discussed Ryan Howard’s future at first base. He said he knew what Howard could do, so it is time to see what others could do. He talked about a platoon and said the remaining $60 million on Howard’s contract following this season would have no impact on his lineup because he is trying to win.
But since a couple meetings between Sandberg and Howard and since Ruben Amaro Jr. countered his manager’s comments to say he expects Howard to be his first baseman in 2015 and there are no plans to release him following the season, the narrative has changed completely. Howard has started eight of nine games at first base, including one game against a left-handed pitcher.
“We’d like to get him going for us,” Sandberg told reporters Sunday at Nationals Park. “And he’s working on some things. He could be a big bat for us.”
The Phillies face Houston left-hander Dallas Keuchel tonight at Citizens Bank Park. Will we see Howard in there, hitting fourth?
Howard is tied for seventh in the National League with 63 RBIs, but there is a reason the Phillies would need to eat every dollar on his contract to trade him. His .664 OPS is 132nd out of 152 qualifying hitters in baseball. And while Howard is on pace for 91 RBIs, he has had 331 runners on base during his plate appearances this season, which ranks third in baseball. Howard’s spot in the lineup has had as much to do with his production than anything.
Howard is on pace for 594 plate appearances in the No. 4 spot. There have been 400 hitters in baseball from 1914-2013 with 575 or more plate appearances hitting cleanup and 322 (80.5 percent) had at least 90 RBIs. In other words, hit fourth regularly and the RBIs will come. But one wonders how much longer the Phillies will hit Howard fourth? His .302 on-base percentage as a four-hole hitter would be fifth-lowest out of those 400 hitters. His .363 slugging percentage would be second-lowest.
His .664 OPS? It would be dead last, 14 points lower than Washington’s Chick Gandil in 1914.
If Howard is the Phillies’ first baseman in 2015, will they continue to hit him fourth? The Phillies need to make changes. If they can’t significantly alter the roster, they can at least shake up the lineup.
The Phillies are headed to their third consecutive season without a winning record and it is clear they need to make changes to have any shot to win in the future. But with a slew of players available to trade to help those efforts they traded nobody before Thursday’s non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Ruben Amaro Jr. kept a stiff upper lip as he spoke to reporters about it Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park.
“Not disappointed,” Amaro said. “More surprised that there wasn’t more aggressive action from the other end. We have some pretty good baseball players here.”
But there seemed to be a clear difference of opinion there. The Phillies look at a roster with Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd, Antonio Bastardo and others and see players that can help contending teams. That might be true, but other teams looked at those players with age, injury or performance concerns often with high price tags attached to them.
“Well, I would disagree with that,” Amaro said, asked if the Phillies overvalued their own players. “In no scenario were we asking for players that were their top prospects. We were not looking for exorbitant paybacks, so to speak, we were looking for players that would help us, but I think we were very reasonable in the discussions that we had.
“I think one of the most over-coveted elements of baseball are prospects. I don’t know how many prospects that have been dealt over the last several years have really come to bite people in the ass.”
Amaro said he sensed teams believed the Phillies were desperate to deal and ultimately would cave to their demands.
“I’ve made it very, very clear that we didn’t have any pressure to make deals,” he said. “What our goal was to try and make our club better. So if there’s a deal to help us get there, we would’ve done it. There really wasn’t a deal we felt comfortable with or a deal that we were going to acquire talent that was compensatory to the talent.”
It was not a surprise. He signed a four-year, $50 million contract before the 2012 season and that contract almost certainly prevented the Phillies from dealing him. He is owed $13 million next season with a $13 million club option that automatically vests based on 55 games finished next season or 100 games finished in 2014-15.
“It’s not my decision,” Papelbon said, when asked if he wants to stay in Philadelphia. “Whatever happens, happens. I have to do whatever the GM decides to do with me.”
Papelbon has a limited no-trade clause, although he said he would have waived it. But he also said he would not have accepted a trade if he were headed to a team that already has a closer. He has no interest in being a setup man.
“I don’t set up,” he said. “And you should know that.”
Even if it meant a chance to win another World Series?
“The chance to win a World Series is with me closing,” he said. “Period.”
Interestingly, Papelbon said he met recently with Ruben Amaro Jr. about the direction of the team. He said he liked what he heard.
“Ruben had promised me that, going forward, we were still going to compete and, no matter what it took to put a winning product on the field, he was going to do it,” Papelbon said. “If he could trade me and the trade was right for both the Phillies and the other ball club, then a trade could happen. But if it wasn’t right for the Phillies, he wasn’t going to do it. At the same time, he also promised me that we were going to compete year after year and there’s no rebuilding here with the Phillies. So that was a big boost for me.”
But couldn’t those words just be empty promises? Papelbon acknowledged he did not hear an actual plan from Amaro, nor did he ask for one.
“I don’t think Ruben is a person who is just going to say something and then not be able to do it,” Papelbon said. “I think he’s honest in his decision-making, and what he says he goes out and tries to do it.”
“It’s been quiet the whole time,” he said Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park. “I haven’t heard from Ruben (Amaro Jr.) or my agents as far as front-running teams that have been close. I wasn’t surprised.”
Byrd is hitting .270 with 20 home runs, 60 RBIs and a .795 OPS. Teams could use a right-handed bat like that. But perhaps some teams backed away from Byrd, 36, because he is owed $8 million next season, plus a potential $8 million more in 2016 if a club option vests based on plate appearances. Byrd also has a limited no-trade clause to four teams, including the Mariners and Royals. He said he would have waived the clause had he been asked.
But now what?
“It goes back to change and figuring out a way to make those wins happen,” Byrd said. “Until then, it’s going to be a long road. We have the guys who want to win because they know how to win. They’ve done it before. We still have that core here. We still have a great pitching staff. We still have Chooch (Carlos Ruiz) behind the plate. So anything can happen next year. We’ll see what happens with offseason trades and stuff like that.”
Byrd still could be traded before the Aug. 31 waiver Trade Deadline or in the offseason. So could other veterans like Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon and A.J. Burnett. But what if things remain the same?
“I know one thing this team has to do is be open for change, whatever it is, to get better,” Byrd said. “I don’t know what it is for guys. For me, the (PED) suspension put me in a position to go to Mexico, but I had to go down there and learn how to play the game again. You have to be dedicated and understand that sometimes there needs to be change in your game, in your lifestyle, wherever it is, to make you better as a player. I knew what I needed and I did it. And it actually worked. We’re creatures of habit, 35 or 36 (years old). You’ve done stuff in this game that has made you successful. Not having that success, we have to change.
“Are you willing to do it? If it’s a guy in the offseason trying to get back into the game, do you go just work out or do you go play the game? A lot of guys talk about it. But you actually have to do it.”
But a last-minute deal is tough to imagine.
The Phillies are facing numerous obstacles in trying to trade veterans players like Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, A.J. Burnett and Marlon Byrd. First, two teams have to agree on players to be exchanged. That is difficult enough to do. Second, the four players I mentioned are owed big-time money following this season. Lee is owed $37.5 million ($52.5 million if a 2016 club option vests). Papelbon is owed $13 million ($26 million if a 2016 club option vests). Burnett could pick up a player option worth $12.75 million, if he makes 32 starts this season. And Byrd is owed $8 million ($16 million if a 2016 club option vests). The money is a big issue for teams, although the Phillies have told teams they are willing to eat money to get the right players in return. But even if the Phillies agree on the players and they money, they still have to work through no-trade clauses, although I believe Lee, Papelbon, Burnett and Byrd would say yes.
Another factor, I believe, is teams believe the Phillies are desperate to pull the trigger, so they are going to wait for Ruben Amaro Jr. to cave. But sources have said the Phillies are comfortable with holding onto these players and trying again in August before the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline. And if the Phillies fail to make a deal then, they can still try to trade these guys in the offseason.
There has been plenty of speculation recently about his availability, but sources told MLB.com on Tuesday that the Phillies have had no substantive talks with any team about him. That includes the Dodgers. There are multiple reports that the Dodgers and Phillies have been in contact recently, and the Phillies have requested the Dodgers’ top three prospects to make a deal.
But one source said the Phillies have made no such requests because the two teams have not talked that in depth.
The Phillies have made teams aware they would need to be thoroughly impressed to trade Hamels, but talks have never gotten much further than that. Hamels allowed six hits and struck out eight in eight scoreless innings last night against the Mets to improve to 6-5 with a 2.55 ERA. He has a 1.58 ERA (15 earned runs in 85 2/3 innings) in his last 12 starts, entering the night sixth out of 95 qualifying pitchers in ERA since June 1.
A source said the Phillies haven’t gotten particularly close to the finish line in any trade discussions. They have numerous players available, including Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, Marlon Byrd, A.J. Burnett and Antonio Bastardo, but some teams believe Ruben Amaro Jr. is under pressure to deal and ultimately will sell low to make a trade. They seem to be waiting for Amaro to cave.
But ownership has not ordered Amaro to shed payroll, which does not force his hand. Players like Hamels, Lee, Papelbon, Byrd and other veterans are signed through at least next season, which means Amaro can try to clear them through waivers next month and trade them before the Aug. 31 waiver deadline.
The Phillies can also wait to try to trade them in the offseason.
It seems the Phillies are prepared for that possibility.
It looks like nobody is going anywhere right now, although everything can change with one phone call before Thursday’s Deadline.
The Phillies front office has been frustrated lately with its lack of success on the trade market, but it is still trying to complete at least one deal before Thursday’s 4 p.m. non-waiver Trade Deadline.
Ruben Amaro Jr. traveled with the team to New York, where it opened a three-game series tonight against the Mets at Citi Field. But Amaro was nowhere to be found before the game as he continues to call teams to find a trade partner for a group of players that includes right fielder Marlon Byrd and left-hander Antonio Bastardo.
“Am I expecting any (trades)?” Ryne Sandberg said. “I don’t know one way or another. Just from what I hear, if there is (a trade) it’ll be very late in the process.”
Byrd and Bastardo remain the most likely Phillies to be moved, which is nothing new. Byrd is hitting .266 with 20 home runs and 60 RBIs. His 20 homers are tied for eighth among right-handed hitters in baseball, which makes him valuable. Byrd can block trades to four teams, including the Mariners and Royals. He makes $8 million next season and he has an $8 million club option for 2016 that automatically vests with 600 plate appearances in 2015 or 1,100 plate appearances in 2014-15, including 550 plate appearances in 2015, which is a sticking point to some teams.
Left-hander Cole Hamels remains available, but the asking price remains extraordinarily high. This also is nothing new. The Phillies want to keep Hamels because he is the rare Phillies player signed to a mega contract still in his prime, but they will consider trading him if they are absolutely blown away by an offer.
Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon are unlikely to be moved by Thursday, but they could be traded in August if they clear waivers. Lee is owed at least $37.5 million following this season, while Papelbon is owed at least $13 million. A.J. Burnett remains a possibility, but he seems to be a second choice for teams still hoping for a pitcher like David Price, Jon Lester or Hamels. Burnett’s player option could be worth more than $10 million next season. The money owed to Lee, Papelbon and Burnett has made trading them difficult.
“I fully expect him to be our first baseman next year,” Amaro said. “I don’t know where people are coming up with him not having a future with us. He’s a very big part of our organization.”
Ryne Sandberg benched Howard for the third consecutive game Friday, and he said Thursday there could be a platoon situation at first base going forward. Howard is the highest-paid player in baseball this season and he is owed $60 million after this year, which makes the benching and possibility of a platoon a strong indication the Phillies are looking at other options for the future.
Sources also said the Phillies have discussed multiple scenarios about Howard’s future, including the possibility of releasing him in the offseason. Asked about that, Amaro said, “All I can tell you is that’s not in our best interest. It’s not something that we’ve discussed.”
Amaro denied this is a matter of a player not being good enough to play every day. He instead said it is a measure meant to get him back on track.
“Let him mentally get regrouped,” he said. “Listen, everyone needs a break. And I think that’s more of what this is about than anything else. All of us want Ryan to be back and for Ryan to be as productive as he can be. I think that’s the goal. … We’re hopeful. We went through this with Pat Burrell. He had some good years, some bad years and some years in between. I think that’s a part of the baseball process, particularly when you get older. Chase Utley went down and became an All-Star. It’s not out of the realm of possibility. A guy can have a poor year one year and a great year the next.”
Howard’s .682 OPS this season is 207 lower than his career average (.889) and 36 points below his career low (.718 in 2012). His .377 slugging percentage is 155 points lower than his career average (.532) and 46 points below than his career low (.423 in 2012).
“I don’t have any issue with his effort,” Amaro said. “There’s some combination of relaxation and focus, there’s some combination in there that will help him get there. We’ll see. … It’s not about (upsetting him). I think it’s more about … giving him a break to get away from it.
“We don’t expect Ryan to be the Ryan Howard of ‘06, ‘07, ‘08. But we know he’s a more productive player than he has been over this past month.”
He also received a friendly reminder.
“Today is the big day,” a longtime friend texted Rollins today.
Rollins essentially will have next season’s $11 million club option automatically vest tonight following his second plate appearance against the Diamondbacks at Citizens Bank Park. Rollins needed 1,100 plate appearances in 2013-14 or 600 plate appearances this season for the option to vest. He hits the 1,100th mark with 666 plate appearances last season and 434 this season.
“It’s just like the hits record,” Rollins said. “If you’re out there it’s just going to happen. When? Who knows? But it’s going to happen. It’s nothing I was focused on.”
Of course, Rollins must finish the season healthy. If he finishes the season on the disabled list and a mutually agreed upon doctor says he will not be ready by Opening Day 2015, the option does not vest. But in that case, Rollins still could pick up a $5 million player option or the Phillies could pick up an $8 million club option.
But assuming Rollins remains healthy, the option turns his contract from a three-year, $33 million deal into a four-year, $44 million deal. Rollins always considered the contract a four-year deal from the beginning. He had 625 or more plate appearances in 12 of the previous 13 seasons, so hitting the 1,100 mark was not a problem.
“I’ve been here so long,” Rollins said about the team’s mindset in the plate appearances clause. “Just go out there be healthy and play. If you play we know you’re going to be able to help us win. We’ll make it attainable. We won’t make your stretch yourself out and do things to put your career in jeopardy. Just be healthy.”
There is a real possibility Jonathan Papelbon will not get his wish to be traded before the July 31 trade deadline. There aren’t many teams looking for closers right now, and if they are they might not like the remaining money on his contract. He is owed $13 million next season with a $13 million club option in 2016 that automatically vests if he finishes 55 games in 2015 or 100 games in 2014-2015 and is not on the DL at the end of 2015 with right shoulder or elbow injury. (He has finished no fewer than 53 games in any season the past seven years.)
If that’s the case, it means he’s stuck in Philly for the foreseeable future.
If that’s the case, he is ready to accept the villain role.
Phillies fans booed him as he entered this afternoon’s 2-1 victory over the Giants. Papelbon pitched the previous two games, blowing a save Tuesday and taking the loss Wednesday. But he retired the side in order to pick up his 24th save in 27 opportunities this season. He is 2-2 with a 1.91 ERA in 42 appearances.
Do the boos bother him?
“No, I enjoy it,” he said during an entertaining (in my opinion) postgame interview.
“I just think it’s fun,” he said. “It brings a little bit of energy and life to the ballpark. It gives me a little bit of something to look forward to every day.”
So maybe the fans weren’t loud enough.
“I heard some of them,” he said.
Sure, but only about half of the ballpark booed.
“Maybe we can get the whole park booing here soon,” he said.