There's an easy profit to be made on Ryan Howard this season. Easy.
No, maybe not for his real-life team — the Phillies owe Howard no less than $105 million over the next five years, so they probably don't feel great about the price tag. But if you're a fantasy owner willing to wait until Rounds 8-10 to draft your first baseman, then this is your guy. At Howard's current price — his average Yahoo! draft position is 98.7, his auction value $11.4 — he seems, to me, like the most absurdly under-appreciated name in the player pool.
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Let's recall that Howard is just a season removed from a 33-homer, 116-RBI campaign, finishing at No. 55 in the overall fantasy ranks in 2011. That year of course ended horribly for the player and the team, as Howard tore his left Achilles while making the final out of the NLDS. He then limped through a messy half-season in 2012, dealing with rehab, infection and inactivity. He didn't make an appearance in extended spring action until early-June and didn't return to the Phillies lineup until July.
When he finally made it back to the bigs, he was slower and larger and more strikeout-prone than ever. Plus he was unusually inept against left-handers (.173/.226/.378).
Howard was, in a nutshell, a galactic disappointment in 2012. No argument there. He delivered 14 homers in just 71 games (not terrible), but he was otherwise an out-machine: .219 AVG, .295 OBP, 99 Ks. And now, apparently, a large segment of the fantasy community — even the guru community — has written him off. Howard didn't crack the overall top-100 for three of five Yahoo! experts.
That's fine with me, because I'll take the post-injury discount all day.
Howard reported to spring training relatively healthy, it seems, and ready to rake. He's gone 4-for-8 in his first three Grapefruit League games with a pair of doubles and two RBIs. (For the record, one of those four hits was off Justin Verlander, the other three off lefties). These were a few of his early comments to reporters this spring, via MLB.com:
"My left leg feels phenomenal compared to where it was this time last year, compared to where it was when I came back. When I came back there was obviously still a limp. ... My Achilles [now] is a non-factor."
At 33, Howard isn't yet in the hopeless decline phase of his career, so you shouldn't assume the season ahead will look like 2012. Howard was a 30-100 player every year from 2006-2011, placing in the top-10 in MVP balloting (and top-60 in the fantasy ranks) in all six seasons.
Still, I keep hearing all about the upside of the 25-and-under first basemen — Goldschmidt, Rizzo, Freeman, et al. — with no mention of Howard's ceiling. What exactly is Ryan Howard's upside if everything goes right? The man has a 58-homer season already on the résumé, with three more at 40-plus.
I'm not about to guarantee another top-of-the-league power total from Howard, but mid-30s sounds about right. If we get, say, 140-145 games out of him this year, there's a very good chance he'll deliver something like a 35-100-.260 fantasy line.
And if you can get those numbers near pick No. 100, you're pretty much stealing.
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