The former 2005 NL Rookie of the Year and 2006 Most Valuable Player has struggled to stay on the field since the 2011 postseason due to a torn Achilles, a small toe fracture and a torn left meniscus.
The Phillies come into Spring Training with a plethora of "ifs." One is Howard.
Philadelphia's "Big Piece" spoke to the media at a Phillies camp press conference on Saturday afternoon regarding his chances of staying healthy.
"I feel like I can play 162 games," Howard said. "Now that I have two legs, I'm feeling better and I'm able to hop around on the field, my swing is coming back to where I want it to be. That's kind of my mantra. Getting two legs has allowed me to get stable in the batter's box, where I want to be. I can work on my approach and go from there."
Howard's health is a huge key for Philadelphia. The left-handed slugger believes he can still hit 40-plus home runs and come to camp as a man on a mission.
"When I'm out there, I want to give it what I got," Howard said. "I owe it to myself, I owe it to my teammates, I owe it to the fans and the organization... If I can try to knock in some runs or try to do whatever it is I can to help our team win, that's my goal."
The Phillies are 93-69 in Howard's last 162 starts, which is why the "Big Piece" is the most important player on the roster.
But will Howard return to form?
Doubters say that he cannot hit left-handed pitching, he will not be able to stay on the field, he isn't worth the money he is getting paid and that he strikes out at an alarming rate.
I'll say this first: forget the injury bug. Assume that Howard plays 145-151 games in 2014. He will return to form for a few reasons.
Howard, when healthy, is one of the most dominant and feared hitters at the plate. Case in point being that the first baseman came into camp down a few pounds and finally feels healthy.
A message from his manager, Ryne Sandberg, may have triggered the determination. The Phillies skipper told Comcast's Leslie Gudel that he believes Howard's weight was a problem in 2013.
Howard believes that sitting out for basically a full season has helped him get back to his old routine.
"Now that my knee was completely healed and my Achilles had a year or so to gain strength, I can go back to the workouts I used to do," Howard said on Saturday. "While we were still trying to build strength in my quad, my calf and the entire left leg, I was still able to get out here and do my baseball stuff... It was pretty much back to what I would normally do."
Howard getting healthy and back on his workout regimen are the first reasons for why he will return to form.
It has been a while since Howard has had power from both sides of the plate to protect him in the lineup. Chase Utley, Marlon Byrd and Domonic Brown are each coming off productive seasons. They are projected to hit third, fifth and sixth, respectively, in the lineup.
Having protection from both sides of the plate in front of him can help Howard in an important way: He will see better pitching, because pitchers may want to challenge him instead of the other three.
Howard also still has the ability to hit to all parts of the field.
All three videos were from 2012 and 2013, respectively. Howard has been able to crush the ball in any stadium to all parts of the ballpark despite being injured. His eye for the ball has not changed. What has changed is his age.
Look at a player like Adam Dunn.
Dunn made a living hitting home runs all over the ballpark with the Cincinnati Reds, Washington Nationals and Chicago White Sox. He struck out at an alarming rate, his batting average was relatively low and he struggled against left-handed pitching.
In 2012, Dunn hit .204 but crushed 41 HR and drove in 96 runs while striking out 222 times. That was the type of production Howard was on during his 2012 season when he was recovering from the torn Achilles.
|2012 Season Comparison|
Howard's production then was still as productive as a healthy Dunn, which says something for a middle-of-the-lineup threat. It's not something to brag about, but definitely something that needs to be taken into consideration.
Howard was on pace for a productive 2013 season until he went down with a torn meniscus. The veteran hit .266, slammed 11 HR and drove in 43 runs through 80 games played. The dip in run production was mainly due to Philadelphia's inability to get on base and into scoring position.
The final reason I believe Howard will return to form is the effect Citizens Bank Park has on players. Remember that not too long ago a player named Raul Ibanez hit 70 HR with the Phillies, including 34 HR in 2009.
Howard is considered a pull hitter, which is why teams will shift him to the pull side of the field. However, he is still able to lace a ball into the right field bleachers despite not putting a good swing on the ball.
Former Phillies closer and MLB Network analyst Mitch Williams mentioned on the WIP Morning Show in Philadelphia how Howard could hit 35 HRs "by accident" in 2014.
Because he is 100 percent healthy for the first time in about three season, he has protection around him in the lineup and still produced when injured, I fully believe that Howard will return to form in 2014.