There are many suspicions being bantered about amongst knowledgeable students
of Philadelphia Phillies baseball in regards to the early season exploits of
both Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard. After all, these are two sluggers whose careers have
rarely meshed solidly together yet in whom the future fortunes of the club is so
Pat Burrell, a long-time Phillie is now on the last year of a six-season contract, a contract that was expected to be his last in Philadelphia. Until July of last year, his career had largely been considered a disappointment after all the fanfare and expectation that goes with being the number one amateur draft pick in the entire nation following an All-American career at the University of Miami.
Ryan Howard, a short-time Phillie and recently awarded the largest arbitration contract for any player ever with less than three years service time in the big leagues. Until recently, he was considered to be a mainstay member of a young nucleus that promised winning baseball in the City of Brotherly Love well into the next decade. And all of this after a less than stellar junior year in college had left many professional baseball scouts less than enamored with his true pro potential.
Much has changed since last July for Burrell, and perhaps even more has changed for Howard since that lonely March afternoon when he was awarded a stunning 10 million dollars for producing perhaps the most power packed initial 2.5 seasons of baseball the sporting world has ever witnessed.
Now, the Philadelphia baseball community trumpets Burrell at every turn and debates endlessly the justification of offering the powerful outfielder one last long-term deal, one that might just allow the suddenly popular slugger to do what Mike Schmidt did, retire as a Philadelphia Phillie.
For Burrell's part, the decision is an easy one. Unlike W.C. Fields, who declared that "all things being equal, I would prefer not to be in Philadelphia," the left fielder has always loved the city, its sometimes harsh phans and the only professional team he has ever known. His professed desire to stay in Philly has even caused him to use his no-trade clause on at least one occasion, when an impending deal with the Baltimore Orioles seemed nearly completed.
For the organizational types entrusted with making the difficult and often harsh decisions regarding the teams players, the dilemma promises to become more acute with every Pat Burrell home run or clutch run batted in. Should he continue the pace that began in July of 2007, the cost of allowing him to depart seems far too great a risk for even the most conservative minded financial wizard who now occupies a position of authority within the Phillie inner circle.
Simply put, Pat Burrell has begun to produce offensive numbers that only the true greats of the game usually put up. Since July of '07 his average has hovered at or above the .330 range continuously while putting up power numbers that only the true sluggers of the game could possibly appreciate.
Equally impressive has been the passion for the game that has slowly emerged as Burrell has begun to feel more comfortable with his play and the results said play have produced. While he will never be a leader in the truest sense because of his sometimes quiet demeanor, he has led in ways that matter most to his teammates, in the won/lost column.
The theories as to what has led to the change in both Burrell's production and demeanor have been endless and almost all with some semblance of fact within the fiction. Many feel that he is finally healthy again after battling both serious and painful hand and foot injuries for several campaigns.
Others feel that married life has finally settled in with Burrell after far too many years as one of Philadelphia's most eligible bachelors. Still others think that Burrell, ever the follower, was influenced by the often laid back style of former Phillies like Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal and Randy Wolf.
Now that those leaders of the clubhouse have been replaced by more vocal players like Aaron Rowand [last season], Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins the quiet Burrell has silently taken their lead and has become open and demonstrative both on the field and in the clubhouse.
One final point which cannot be ignored is the motivation provided to a player on the final season of his contract. Of course this would not explain the sudden power surge which erupted beginning last summer but might have something to do with the continued onslaught in 2008. Whatever, the reasons, and they may all have a small part to play in his continued ascent into the upper echelon of offensive players, the facts are staggering enough in their simplicity.
To wit, should the Phillies continue their unlikely surge to the top of the National League East with minimal production from Howard and no production from the still ailing Rollins, then Pat Burrell could become the Phils third straight NL Most Valuable Player. He still has a few roadblocks to maneuver and May has rarely been kind to him, but he at long last resembles the lithe young hitter that caused many knowledgeable collegiate coaches to acclaim him as the "greatest hitter in college history." At long last, Pat Burrell seems to have found his baseball peace of mind.
Truth be told, this could not have been more welcome news to a Phillie team that is still trying to come to grips with the continuing major struggles of their avowed greatest power hitter, Ryan Howard. As the Phillies embark on a dangerous seven game western swing through Arizona and San Francisco, Howard finds himself slumping as never before in his entire professional baseball career.
Oh, the apologists will point to his early season woes of last year but those had a different feel to them and were decidedly caused by injury and not inability. Howard began last season with leg problems and once those problems dissolved so did his slump. Not so 2008 and not so any leg problems. In fact, physically, Ryan Howard should now be at the top of his game, a 29 year old fresh off a 2.5 year run that saw him crush 127 home runs in a little less than 300 major league games.
These numbers are staggering at first glance, and equally impressive after more careful examination. Not even Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays or Alex Rodriguez produced these kind of statistics so early in their great and gloried careers. Ah, and perhaps herein lies the rub, if rub there may be and many think there is.
By placing himself in the rarefied air of such Hall of Fame greats as Ruth, Mantle, Mays and A-Rod [future Hall of Famer] Howard seems to have become convinced that he has already achieved their status. This has caused him to hire and fire no less than three agents in two seasons and seemingly fight tooth and nail for every dollar that he felt was owed him.
Fair enough on the surface and no one ever begrudges a player for trying to get the best contract he conceivably can. Yet, Einstein has taught us that for every action there is an equal and rapid reaction and the reaction to his $10 million dollar winning arbitration award was both swift and decisive. People throughout the baseball industry quickly surmised that with one swift and controversial awarding, Howard had immediately placed himself outside of any window of opportunity that his team, the Phillies, might ever have and signing him to a future long term contract.
While Howard has been particularly silent on this issue, people close to him have not. Agent Casey Close has hinted that his star client is hoping to one day ink an A-Rod like $250 million dollar deal, one that only one or two teams could even fathom to offer. Certainly the Phillies are not in this realm and the immediate reaction among the faithful was that Howard's countdown as a Phillie had already begun. Optimists felt that the team could possibly keep him until 2010, when he would be one year from free agency.
Pessimists felt that even 2010 was probably only wishful thinking given his likely contract demands, and that 2009 might indeed be Ryan Howard's swan song as a Philadelphia Phillie. This was particularly depressing news to a fan base who had just begun to extol the virtues of this latest Pat Gillick led creation, a team that seems to play better in its collective parts than its individual parts suggest it should.
This is not necessarily newsworthy for Gillick followers as the Phillies' retiring general manager has long been recognized for his ability to put together a 25 man roster that wins consistently when it seems to have no business doing so. And even with the struggles of Howard and the inactivity of reigning MVP Jimmy Rollins, the team recently completed its best April performance in years.
Logic dictates that Howard will eventually hit because good hitters usually hit and Howard is still a good hitter. However, the reasons for his myriad of troubles rests largely with his arbitration winning, strange and surreal as that may seem. His season to date recalls the spring of 2001 when the strapping left-handed slugger was entering his junior year at Southwest Missouri State.
The whispers were becoming a shout, the shouts becoming a drumbeat about the exploits of a strapping 6'4" first baseman at SMS who had turned the collective collegiate world on its ears in 2000 with home run and offensive production that few sophomores had ever demonstrated. Ryan Howard was going to be a collegiate mega star in 2001 and undoubtedly a first round draft pick for some fortunate professional baseball team.
Everything seemed in place for a record breaking year until Howard got what Phillie Assistant GM and former top scout Mike Arbuckle called "draftitis" and fell flat on his face in his junior year. Most scouts saw only the holes in his bat, and the way he seemed to get down on himself whenever things didn't go well for him.
Instead, Arbuckle saw a young talent who had placed entirely far too much pressure on himself while waiting for the millions that supposedly awaited him upon signing his first professional contract. He advised the Phillies to go slowly on selecting him, but not to venture far past the fourth round in the 2001 June Amateur Draft.
After selecting HS All-Americans Gavin Floyd and Terry Jones with their first two picks the Phillies selected Ryan Howard with their selection in round five. They signed him almost immediately and then set out to assist the youngster in getting back the confidence that had deserted him during his junior year in college.
Critics have always maintained that the Phightins' did Howard a major disservice by promoting him so slowly through the minor leagues. Indeed, his ascent was a slow one, through Batavia to Lakewood and then on to Clearwater, where he was the MVP of the Florida State League. His pace was steady and his performance guardedly impressive but few outside the organization felt that he truly ever had a chance to make it to the major leagues.
For one thing, his age [24 when he reached Reading] indicated that his solid minor league performances might be influenced by the fact that he was always considered "old" for his league. For another, he was considered only a marginal defensive first baseman in an organization with Jim Thome firmly entrenched at first base at the major league level.
The breakout campaign came in 2004, when Howard hit a staggering 46 home runs at Double-A Reading and Triple-A Scranton combined. No longer where people speaking in hushed tones about the young lefty and speculation was rampant that then Phillie GM Ed Wade would trade Howard for pitching help. He might have done so if not for two distinct factors.
One was that the Phillies under Wade were under performing and the Phillie GM was unlikely to withstand the fallout of the lackluster performance of his team. The organization could not fathom a departing GM moving such a potentially electrifying young player. The other factor that came into play was the continued injury problems of Thome, woes that would ultimately lead to his move to Chicago in the American League.
Ryan Howard came up to stay in the summer of 2005 and when the dust had settled, his 22 home runs and 63 RBI in merely 88 games played earned him Rookie of the Year honors. Still, that season pales in comparison to what he did during the summer and fall of 2006. Not only did the sweet swinging lefty slugger hit a career best .313 but swatted 58 home runs and drove in 149 runs.
This earned him National League MVP honors, and his first visit to arbitration, a place that most major league teams, and particularly the Phillies, find disquieting at best, and repulsive at worst. Howard lost his case, came to camp out of shape and predictably injured himself in trying to catch up. Catch up he finally did, and his 47 home runs and 136 RBI were ample firepower for him to win his arbitration case this spring to the tune of $10 million dollars.
Yet, Howard historians recall still another season when expectation came face to face with reality and young Ryan Howard fell victim to those expectations with less than inspiring results. If 2008 and the pressure of earning that $10 million even faintly resembles the terrible spring of 2001 when Howard felt the pressure of becoming a first round draft pick, there is little coincidence involved.
Clearly, Howard has been bothered by those expectations; expectations that he ironically enough created with both A] his tremendous opening to his major league career and B] his salary demands which many baseball purists feel are unreasonable and unattainable. It is also worth noting that his junior season collegiate slump lasted all season and that at 28 years of age, the baseball clock is ticking on Howard and the ticks get louder each season.
Neither of these facts can make for particularly happy talk within the Howard camp and it is also worth noting that agent Casey Close, the super sleuth who promised to deliver the first baseman untold millions, might instead have eventually cost him millions by playing such a demanding hand to the very team that was prepared to make him a possible core member for life.
For all their alleged practices of cost cutting and thrift movements, the Philadelphia Phillies organization has long tried to take care of its own and has consistently trumpeted the need to build from within. They were particularly proud of the current crop of athletes, many of whom grew up in the Phillie system.
Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, Kyle Kendrick, Ryan Madson, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard are all proud members of the team's farm system and most baseball officials felt that this solid and relatively young core of players would produce winning baseball in Philadelphia for years to come.
Now the future, though still rosy, may or may not have Howard's name written in it. Chances remain strong that the team and player will eventually tire of the year-to-year arbitration battles, and the Phillies will never give in to the demands of agent Casey Close and his client, nor should they. Unless something changes quickly, the odds are that both Howard and the Phillies will decide on an amiable divorce and he will be moved to either New York or Boston, teams that might find good use for a player who could be no more than a designated hitter within three seasons.
Until then, both Howard and his current employers can only hope that he eventually puts away his mental foibles and once again starts to resemble the hitter that has so terrorized opposing pitchers since 2005. Should this occur soon, the Phillie middle of the order 3-4-5 trio of Utley, Howard and Burrell might become the most feared middle of the order in baseball.
Until then the club can only hope that Chase Utley and Pat Burrell will continue their torrid ways until Ryan Howard eventually catches up. As previously mentioned, this may be more difficult than it appears. Chase Utley has never truly had a crisis of mind, and his consistently brilliant career defines those absences.
No so for Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard. Thomas Wolf once observed that "nothing can support a man whose mind is wounded." Those wounds are powerful, deep and often self absorbing. Yet Pat Burrell has successfully navigated through that process and his impending career year leads credence to that navigation.
It remains to be seen what will eventually transpire with Ryan Howard. The Phillies can only hope for the best while reluctantly preparing for the worst. For now, one can but surmise as to the eventual outcome of a player still searching for that elusive lighthouse in the fog known often hauntingly as...peace of mind.
Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast
Pat Burrell is helping to carry the Phillies and is putting up the type of numbers fans always…