Why Darin Ruf's Emergence Could Mean the End of Ryan Howard with Phillies
Before we begin here, ladies and gentlemen, let me emphasize that this article is most likely a complete stretch of any sort of reality we currently have.
On that note...Philadelphia Phillies minor league first baseman and occasional left fielder Darin Ruf was exceptional this year down at Double-A Reading. He led the league in home runs with 38, breaking Ryan Howard's Reading season record. Ruf also led in RBI with 104. And would you know it, Ruf fell short of the batting average title to complete the Triple Crown...by two points. Nevertheless, he won the Phillies' Paul Owens Award for the best offensive minor leaguer, and he also won the Eastern League's MVP Award.
What Phillies fans may care about more, though, is that Ruf was recently promoted to the major league ballclub. He'll most likely be playing in left field so the Phillies can see what they can get out of him there, but there's likely the occasional game where he'll give Ryan Howard the day off and play his natural position of first base.
Speaking of Ryan Howard, is his job in jeopardy with the emergence of Ruf? Has the Phillies' best minor league positional player made such a statement that Howard, despite the fat contract he's got on his plate, could in fact lose his starting role or even be traded to make room for Ruf?
Well, the sky is still blue, so for right now I'm going to say no. But in the event that it did happen, here's a list of why it's at least a slim possibility.
Yes, I know we're talking about different sample sizes and different stages in each respective player's career. But listen.
Ryan Howard has been a Phillie since the organization drafted him with their fifth-round pick in 2001. Since then he's worked his way to second on the Phillies' all-time home runs list, only to Mike Schmidt. Howard's got a nice career line of .273 for a batting average, a .366 OBP and a .553 SLG (.919 OPS). Of course, he's also got his 296 home runs. Not too shabby, but his production has been in decline in recent years, and that's a bit of a problem.
Darin Ruf has been nothing short of spectacular as a minor leaguer. Save for 2010 when he hit .277 with Clearwater after a promotion, Ruf has never completed a minor league season with a batting average below .300. The long ball hasn't always been a part of Ruf's game: In 2011, he hit only 17 home runs, and before that, he hadn't even topped 10 in a season! And now he hits 38?! In one year?! That's impressive.
Ruf's stat line sits at .305/.386/.520 for his career in the minors. Again, I'm aware it's the minors, but keep in mind that each level is in theory appropriate for each player's skill at the time, so it basically means that either Ruf didn't get a deserving promotion to Triple-A or he finally put power together with his contact hitting. I'll take a combination of both.
Defensively, Ruf has a fantastic fielding percentage at first base at .995 this year. And believe it or not, his fielding percentage in 29 games in left field was 1.000. I wasn't anticipating that, I'll say that much. As for Howard...well, let's say that he's never finished a full season with a fielding percentage over .993, and he's not on track to do so this year (currently sits at .988).
So, career-wise, Ruf's got the numbers advantage, but is that really a fair way to judge this? No. So let's keep going.
Cost vs. Effectiveness
Let's think about something important here.
Ryan Howard signed a five-year, $125 million contract extension with the Phillies on April 26, 2010, nearly two years before he was set to hit the open market. While I think the deal was a mistake, that's an issue for another time. The point is that the deal's there and unless he's traded, there's nothing the Phillies can do about it. Howard's a Phillie through at least 2016.
Going by luxury tax ramifications, Howard's deal counts as $25 million towards the Phillies' payroll every year of his extension since it's the average annual value of the contract. By no means is that a pretty penny. And Howard, who's dealt with both serious injury and performance decline, certainly isn't worth the money he's being paid. If he was, chances are this article wouldn't be written.
Darin Ruf, if given a job in the majors next year, is only due the major league minimum. If the Phillies give him enough opportunities in the majors this year to show he can hit and maybe field with an above-average glove, he could get a spot as a starting left fielder and work his way to become the Phillies' first baseman if all goes really well for him.
I went over the numbers on the last slide. You saw who was the better player. So who do you pick? The aging, almost 33-year-old first baseman whose numbers are sliding by the year, or do you give the hot-hitting minor league player a shot and at the very least save a lot of money?
If possible, I'll take door number two please.
Well, this is where it gets a little tricky.
As I mentioned in the last slide, Ryan Howard is going to turn 33 years old this offseason. With four years left on his contract at $20 million next year and then $25 million due to him each season after that, Howard's no cheap commodity. And given the fact that he'll be going on 38 years old when the deal concludes, if there's a way to get rid of that contract, you do everything in your power to take that measure.
I've intentionally avoided mentioning Ruf's age so I left you hanging a bit...sorry. If you know what his age is, you won't be surprised. But if you don't, Ruf is no young gun. He's 26 years old, and if you were to call him a prospect at this point, it's not really a title meant for him. Had he not had the breakout season he did this year, we could know Ruf as only a career minor leaguer.
But with Ruf being 26 years old, there's only so much time left until it could be too late for him to get a major league job, be it here or elsewhere. If he's to be traded to play first or left somewhere else, or maybe even DH, the time to deal him is now while his value is high and while he's still somewhat young. But I digress.
The Phillies' biggest gripe with Ruf is his age. It's good in the sense that if he's kept he's under team control for quite a while. But it also means that either he could be entering or is already in his prime, and if that's the case, then he very well could only have two or three more good years in him.
At least Ruf's significantly younger than Howard, and if that's what it comes down to, Ruf obviously wins this one.
Is Ryan Howard being chased out of his job on the basepaths?
Unlikely. But there is an aspect to Darin Ruf that gives him an edge at least to become a Phillies everyday player should he not become their first baseman.
Ruf is like Howard in the sense that they're both natural first basemen. And right now, the Phillies don't have many top-notch first basemen in their system. Jonathan Singleton was traded for Hunter Pence. Larry Greene is being groomed as more of an outfielder. And recently-drafted Chris Serritella is...well, recently drafted. We don't know his minor league ceiling yet until he plays a full professional season.
So that leaves Ruf, and he's got a stranglehold on the job of the Phillies' most qualified candidate to be a major league first baseman. He's probably their best minor league first baseman too at this point, in case I didn't make that clear.
But Ruf's been groomed as a bit of a left fielder as well. In an effort to try to give him a different position so he could make the Phillies' major league team faster, Reading had Ruf play some games in left field towards the end of the season. Offensively, he didn't struggle at all—in fact, his 20 home runs that came in August were while he was playing in left. And defensively, he's far from a liability, though that's the Phillies' biggest concern is that he's not swift enough to get to a ball in due time.
But Howard, an aging first baseman, doesn't have that kind of positional flexibility. You're either playing him at first base or nowhere at all. With Ruf, you can play him in two spots, first base or left field, to give more guys opportunity. The same can't be said about Howard. And that's where Ruf gets the edge.
Back before the 2006 season, the Phillies had a minor league first baseman who was approaching 26 years old and was blocked at the major league level by an All-Star and fan favorite at the position. However, to give said minor league first baseman a major league opportunity after winning Rookie of the Year, the Phillies' oft-injured yet entrenched major league first baseman was willing to take a trade just to give the minor leaguer his shot.
Well, that minor leaguer was Ryan Howard and the major leaguer was Jim Thome. Hurt in 2005, Thome barely played at all, which gave Howard his chance, and he took advantage of it, hitting .288 with a .924 OPS and 22 home runs en route to the NL Rookie of the Year award. Seeing as Howard wasn't getting any younger after his age-25 season, the Phillies attempted to trade Thome, and he accepted a deal that sent him to the Chicago White Sox. The year after the trade, in 2006, Howard won both the Home Run Derby and NL MVP Award.
Now, it's Darin Ruf who's blocked by a first baseman, in this case Ryan Howard. Howard's roughly the same age Thome was at the time this dilemma arose. But like before, the Phillies have a minor leaguer in waiting, and in this case, one of a select few. Not only could Howard's starting job be in jeopardy, but he could be trade bait as well.
Barring any significant surprises, the only interested parties would be AL teams since Howard's an ideal DH candidate. He can still hit for power and will get on base more often that you'd think. The strikeouts still kill his average, though.
Will déja vu happen and Howard will be sent off in favor of Ruf? I don't and wouldn't expect it to happen. But if it does...well, at least we can say I called it.