Ten years ago, Ryan Howard was the next big power-hitting superstar in Major League Baseball. In his first full MLB season, the 26-year-old Phillies first baseman hit .313/.425/.659 and clubbed 58 home runs, which is still the most hit by a player since Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa hit 73 and 64 homers in 2001, respectively. He was chosen as the National League's Most Valuable Player, and looked to be in line to inherit Albert Pujols' crown as the best hitter in baseball.
The now 36-year-old Howard is five years removed from being remotely the elite hitter he once was, and enters the final year of a five-year, $125 million extension - with a $10 million buyout at the end of the season a shadow of his past self. Howard has not aged gracefully and over the past four years he has been a sub-replacement-level player. As a testament to his fall from grace, he is now in a likely platoon at first base with Darin Ruf. If Howard wasn't making $25 million this year, it would be hard to justify even that role.
It's overly simplistic to point to the torn Achilles tendon suffered by Howard on the final out of the 2011 NL Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, but since that point he has not been the same player. In the four seasons that have passed since the injury, Howard has hit .232/.300/.421 and has had only one season with a positive fWAR or rWAR total (2011). Unfortunately, irrespective of the injury, Howard was already in decline.
The offensive numbers were still good, but they were not at the truly elite level anymore in the 2010 and 2011 seasons. He continued to eclipse the 30 home run plateau, and combined to hit .265/.350/.497 in 1264 plate appearances. Unfortunately for Howard and the Phillies, even this little bit of regression in his offensive output magnified his struggles defensively.
Never an asset in the field, Howard's defense bottomed out in 2010 and 2011, rating at -2.3 and -2.4 dWAR, respectively, and -13 DRS in each year. He was hurting the Phillies just as much with his glove as he was helping them with his bat. When Howard has been healthy enough to be on the field the past four seasons, his inept fielding has mitigated any possibly gain.
The major projection systems all see Howard continuing down the road of decline with Steamer's projecting a .228/.291/.412 slash line. Under most circumstances, those numbers earn a one way trip to Triple, but with the Phillies rebuilding, and a $25 million name at one of the corners, they can afford to give their former superstar playing time. Consider it earned status from being one of the last pieces still standing from the 2008 World Series championship team.
Howard is not going down without a fight, and he will undoubtedly continue to try to prove he can still hit lefties, despite his numbers, but the writing is on the wall for Howard in Philly, and his tenure will almost assuredly be over once the 2016 season ends. If he can piece together a semi-productive year there could be some interest from teams looking for a veteran lefty with power off the bench; at least in the short-term, Howard hopes to rekindle some of that old magic, the projection simply don't expect it.
Joe Vasile is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and is the Broadcasting and Media Relations Assistant for the Salem Red Sox, meaning he gets to sit in an air-conditioned press box and talk about the game while all of his co-workers are running around the stadium sweating. Follow him on Twitter: @JoeVasilePBP.