Though they won two out of three from the Braves this weekend to get within three games of .500 at 43-46, the Phillies took a hit on Monday when an MRI on Ryan Howard's left knee revealed a torn meniscus. Their star first baseman will undergo surgery that could sideline him for six to eight weeks, meaning a late August or early September return. That increases the likelihood that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will consider trading pending free agents Carlos Ruiz, Chase Utley and Michael Young, not to mention Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon, who are signed to longer-term deals.
The 33-year-old Howard is already amid a rough stretch. Since rupturing his left Achilles tendon while making the final out of the 2011 NL Division Series, he has hit just .244/.307/.445 with 25 homers and a whopping 194 strikeouts in 151 games; due to a slow recovery from surgery, he didn't debut until July 6 of last year. That dismal performance, worth −0.6 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball-Reference.com, has come just as the five-year, $125 million extension he signed in April 2010 has kicked in, and while he's been more effective this year (.266/.319/.465 with 11 homers) than last (.219/.295/.423), his recent performance hasn't helped the team much.
Adding insult to an injury that has been bothering him since mid-May — at which time an MRI revealed fraying around the meniscus, and he received a cortisone shot to alleviate swelling — Howard recently became a target of Amaro's criticism. With the slugger in the throes of a 2-for-22 slump, the general manager called him out on a pregame radio show on WIP:
"If Ryan Howard is now relegated to being a platoon player, he's a very expensive platoon player and he needs to be better… I think he knows it. I know he's struggling, I know he's not happy with his performance -- neither are we. I think he's going to be better, but right now, he's just not doing the job."
The ridiculous thing about that statement is that Howard's platoon issues have been with him for virtually all of his career. He owns a lifetime .224/.300/.428 line in 1,654 plate appearances against lefties, compared to a .295/.390/.606 line in 3,364 PA against righties. His problems against same-side pitching were well-documented before Amaro jumped the gun by two years with that exorbitant extension, though Howard has fallen considerably farther since the signing. Only once in the past five seasons has his OPS against southpaws even been above .653, that back in 2010; since returning from injury last year, he's hit .173/.222/.352 with an 84/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 193 PA against them.
Howard's injury opens the door for the team to take an extended look at Darin Ruf, a 26-year-old righty who bashed 38 homers at Double-A Reading last year while hitting .317/.408/.620, then added three more homers in a 12-game September stint with the Phillies. Given his advanced age relative to his league, not to mention his lack of speed and questionable defense, Ruf isn't considered much of a prospect; Baseball America ranked him ninth among the team's top 10 prospects coming into the year but ranked the organization just 23rd out of 30; in other words, he's nothing close to a top 100 prospect. Reaching Triple-A for the first time this year, and continuing a rough transition to leftfield, he has hit just .266/.344/.408 with seven homers in 82 games. This may be Ruf's best shot to make an impression as a big league first baseman, but that doesn't mean it's likely to turn around the season of a team that's three games below .500 but owns the league's fourth-worst run differential at −47. Currently the Phillies are 7 1/2 games back in both the NL East and the wild-card race, and the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds estimated their chances at reaching the postseason at just 3.7 percent before Howard's injury (playing time estimates and projections for the future are factored into the system). Howard's injury only further opens the door to the likelihood that Amaro will be dealing at the deadline, which is good news for contenders in need of upgrades, but bad news for Philadelphia fans hoping the team could squeeze one last run from its aging core.