COMMENTARY | It will be seven years ago next month, but for the Philadelphia Phillies faithful it probably seems like only yesterday. Ryan Howard was cranking mammoth blast after mammoth blast out of PNC Park in Pittsburgh to win the 2006 All-Star Game Home Run Derby. He went on to hit a Phillies' team record 59 homers for that season and was voted National League Most Valuable Player.
It's a bittersweet memory since Howard has hit only 54 home runs over the past three seasons. He has just seven this season and has hit only one since May 8. He doesn't seem capable of driving the ball at this point and because his production has fallen off so dramatically in recent seasons, one has to wonder if he'll ever figure it out again.
But let's be fair to Howard. From 2006 to 2009, he was as productive as any player in the major leagues. He slugged 198 home runs and drove in 572 runs over those four seasons, which included two appearances in the World Series and one world championship.
Then he got hurt.
In 2010, he injured an ankle that landed him on the disabled list and bothered him the rest of the year. Opposing pitchers began to exploit weaknesses in his approach at the plate more than they ever had before. He still had two fine seasons in 2010 and 2011, 64 homers and 224 RBIs. He just wasn't dominating like he had been.
On the final play of the 2011 Phillies season, he tore his Achilles tendon trying to run to first base. Since then, he hasn't dominated at all.
Howard struggled with the Achilles in the 71 games he could play in 2012, which was entirely expected. It's a devastating injury from which most medical experts say takes at least a year or more to recover. Howard pronounced himself fit going into spring training this year and offered a strong performance in Florida. But that hasn't translated during the regular season.
In 61 games entering Thursday night's contest against the Minnesota Twins, Howard was hitting .252 with seven homers and 31 RBIs. He's also developed a knee problem that may hamper him the rest of the way. Considering the Phillies' roster entering this season, they desperately needed a Howard approaching a reasonable facsimile of 2006 Home Run Derby quality to be a viable contender. Certainly, not all of Philadelphia's offensive woes this year can be put on Howard. But the Phillies certainly need much more than they're getting.
Ryan Howard is 33 years old. The Phillies are locked into him for three more seasons at $25 million per season, and then would have to pay him $10 million to let him go in 2017. So what do they do with him?
There aren't a lot of choices. They can ride it out with him, hoping he can play through his physical issues and find a stroke that's been missing now for some time. Or they can shut him down at some point in the not too distant future, make every effort to get him completely healthy and have him work on his mechanics religiously heading into next season.
They'll probably do the former, at least until they formally give up on 2013 and begin trading off veterans with expiring contracts and perhaps the one blue chip they have to deal, pitcher Cliff Lee. But it's painful to watch Ryan Howard at the plate right now because we remember so well what he was at his best.
Right now, he's not remotely close.
Ted Williams lives in Emmaus, PA and is a lifetime Phillies follower. He spent 20 years in print journalism, winning state and national awards. He covered the 1980 World Series, the first championship in Phillies history.
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