Bring on Darren Ruf

The Phillies look like they’re ready to get tough on Ryan Howard—finally

Back in 1997, when J.D. Drew turned down the Phillies’ contract offer and decided to spend the season playing independent ball in the Green Grass League instead of donning the red pinstripes, local fans vowed revenge. When the Cardinals made their first visit to town in 1998, fans packed the Vet’s leftfield stands and unleashed a torrent of abuse—and a few batteries—at the recalcitrant rookie. El Hombre was there for all the fun, and he wishes Boston were visiting town this season so that he could find a seat behind first base and offer a warm welcome to Red Sox first base coach Ruben Amaro.

It’s hard to ignore the absolute hilarity that Amaro has gone from the Phils’ general manager to the guy who yells, “Back!” when a pitcher tries to pick off a runner. Amaro has no doubt spent plenty of time reflecting on his time as GM of the home team.

Meanwhile, the Phillies are showing how life has changed without him. Last week, Phils manager Pete Mackanin informed the media that he would indeed platoon first baseman Ryan Howard—he of the Brobdingnagian contract and Lilliputian production—with Darren Ruf, should Howard continue to prove that he has little to no capacity for hitting lefthanded pitching.

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Mackanin’s pronouncement was a welcome change of tone for Phillies supporters, who’ve been suffering as Amaro tried to justify his colossal incompetence by demanding that Howard stay in the lineup. Forget that Howard was flat-out guessing what pitches lefties were flinging his way, or that he continued his maddening habit of trying to pull everything into opponents’ shifts. (Four or five bunt singles would have taken care of the shifts.) Amaro had given Howard the worst contract in Philadelphia sports history—and one that’s on the short list of most disastrous overall—and he wasn’t about to see his $25 million-a-year man sitting on the bench, no matter how much his presence in the lineup hurt the team.

Now that Amaro has been consigned to the coach’s box, Mackanin can finally do what every single fan knows is right: sit Howard down if his production sags. It’s been bad enough that his poor play has limited the team’s success, but he’s also prevented the club from learning what exactly Ruf could do in an expanded role. Granted, Ruf’s presence in the lineup against lefties isn’t going to trigger a playoff surge, but Howard’s getting permission to hit them certainly has contributed to the team’s troubles over the past couple seasons.

Without Amaro around to provide air cover, Howard must find his way into the lineup on merit. Recently, that hasn’t been nearly enough. In 100 at-bats against lefthanded pitchers last year, Howard hit a robust .130, with three homers, 10 RBI, 40 strikeouts and a meager .418 OPS. That’s terrible. And if the Phillies dare put him in the lineup even once against a southpaw, fans—who are being forced to wait until 2018 (at least) for any hope of contention—should file a class action suit.

Howard has gobbled enough of the Phillies’ payroll over the last four years and should not utter a word of discontent regarding the demotion. He should be in the lineup against righties (.256, 20 HR, 67 RBI, .803 OPS last year), and that’s it. Sure, give him a chance to prove himself during spring training. Let him hit against every lefty from Gio Gonzalez to Bernie Sanders. If he miraculously produces, continue the audition into the season. The minute he falls apart, it’s Ruf time.

Howard has no more protection in the front office. It’s time to determine his playing time according to his ability—which is atrophying quickly.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Temple’s win over previously unbeaten SMU Sunday launches the Owls into serious NCAA tourney contention. They join Villanova and Saint Joseph’s as strong at-large candidates, but Temple can’t think its strong wins over the Mustangs, Cincinnati and Connecticut are enough. The Owls must keep winning. Stay tuned for the Nova-Temple game Feb. 17 in North Philly. That should be a doozy.

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!