ON TUESDAY, Ryan Howard was available to pinch-hit. Yesterday, he showed up to the ballpark feeling ill and was unavailable.
Howard hasn't played in a game since Sept. 14, meaning he hasn't faced live pitching in 17 days. Is there even a point to putting him back in the batter's box in any of the four games that remain on the schedule?
"It doesn't look good for him to play the rest of the year," manager Pete Mackanin admitted yesterday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park.
Mackanin originally had designs of playing Howard yesterday, when the Phillies were matched up against Mets rookie righthander Logan Verrett. But with lefthanders originally scheduled to start the next two games there is little chance of Howard jumping back in before the season ends Sunday, unless the first baseman talks his manager into the possibility of playing on the final day.
"I'll see what he wants to do," Mackanin said. "If he wants to play a game I'll throw him in there . . . (If) he feels like he wants to get four at-bats and see how he feels. The timing won't be there, but a lot of time guys get a layoff and the layoff helps them because now they're just looking for the ball and not outsmarting themselves. Hitters have a tendency of starting to think too much and getting in trouble."
Before the final days of the season play out, Mackanin didn't even want to talk about the possibility of Howard's health and effectiveness becoming an everyday issue again when the Phillies reconvene in 2016.
Last week, incoming team president Andy MacPhail said he expected Howard to be with the team when spring training opens in February. Howard is still owed $35 million ($25 million salary for 2016, $10 million buyout for 2017).
"I don't even feel the need to talk about it because next year we'll see how he reports to spring training and then we'll go from there," Mackanin said. "It makes no sense to think or worry about it."
Howard isn't likely to be an everyday player next season, though. Both Ryne Sandberg and Mackanin have slowly worked into platooning the lefthanded Howard with the righthanded-hitting Darin Ruf within the last year and there is strong evidence that it's the best way to move forward if both are on the roster next season.
Ruf entered play yesterday hitting .374 with seven home runs and four doubles in 91 at-bats against lefthanders this season. Ruf's 1.092 OPS against lefthanders was second among major league players with at least 100 plate appearances (Seattle's Nelson Cruz, 1.111 OPS).
Howard has hit .256 with 20 home runs and a .802 OPS in 396 plate appearances against righthanded pitchers this season. His work against lefties is another story, however.
Howard is hitting .130 with three home runs, 40 strikeouts and five walks in 100 at-bats against lefthanders this season. Howard's .418 OPS vs. lefthanders is the ninth lowest OPS vs. lefthanded pitchers in the last 20 years (among players with at least 100 plate appearances).
But Howard's struggles against lefthanders isn't new to 2015. He has a .613 OPS against them in the last four years (since returning from a ruptured left Achilles'). Only 10 players in baseball have a lower OPS against lefties during that time.
Since the beginning of 2012, Howard is hitting .184 with 22 home runs and 194 strikeouts in 489 plate appearances against lefties. Yes, that translates to striking out 40 percent of the time against southpaws.
"For me, numbers mean something," Mackanin said of a potential, full-time platoon in 2016. "When I have a player in Ruf who's hitting .370 against lefties and has the highest OPS in the (National League) against lefthanded pitchers, (it) only leads me to believe that's the guy we should play against lefties. So I just leave it at that."
There's also the issue of Howard's defense at first base, which was never Gold Glove-worthy and also has deteriorated along with his chronically injured knees.
"Let's put it this way: He needs to improve defensively also," Mackanin said. "I'm concerned about his agility because of his legs. That makes it difficult; we need him to improve his agility and we need him to have strong legs."
Mackanin mentioned that Howard needs to get healthy. And that he needs to improve.
But is it realistic to think that Howard, who turns 36 in November, can regain his leg strength, regular health, and consistent production at this point in his career?
"I don't want to go there yet," Mackanin said. "You look at a guy like Raul Ibanez, a guy who was pretty productive when he was 39 or 40. It all kind of comes down to Ryan's health. How healthy his legs are next year. That's going to be a determining factor."
The fact that Howard has missed more than two weeks after taking a one-hop throw off his left knee isn't exactly an encouraging sign for the future.