First Priority

Injured Jim Thome's extended absence opened the door for rookie slugger Ryan Howard. Will the Phils keep both?
July 31, 2005

The debate rages on in Philadelphia like a roiling quarterback controversy: Who should play first base for the Phillies, Jim Thome or Ryan Howard? As the July 31 trade deadline loomed and the Phils remained in contention for the National League East crown or the wild card (at week's end they were three games behind the Braves and the Nationals in both races), each first baseman was mentioned in numerous trade rumors. "It's hard to escape all the talk," Howard said last Thursday. "Friends call saying they heard a rumor that I'm going here, or [Thome] is going there. All you can do is keep playing."

The veteran Thome and the rookie Howard look strikingly similar at the plate--hulking 6'4" sluggers with prodigious power from the left side. But Thome is 34, expensive (he's in the third year of a six-year, $85 million deal) and injury-prone (two trips to the DL this season), while Howard is 25, earns the major league minimum and has given Philadelphia a glimpse into the future. Last week Howard belted a two-run, 10th-inning walkoff home run to beat the Dodgers on Tuesday, then hit his fifth homer of the month and drove in three runs in an 8-6 win over the Padres on Friday.

General manager Ed Wade, who is trying to pick up a starting pitcher, is reluctant to include Howard (.263, six homers and 19 RBIs in 95 at bats through Sunday) in a trade and wouldn't comment on a report that he attempted to unload Thome (.207, seven homers and 30 RBIs in 193 at bats)--and the $46 million he's due the next three seasons.

Thome was expected to start a minor league rehab this week, with as many as eight games at Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before returning to Philly. Any setback would greatly reduce the chance that he might be dealt. Says a National League G.M., "With all the question marks with his health, he's basically not tradable."

In the meantime Howard, with his moon-shot homers, has quickly become a favorite at Citizens Bank Park--just as Thome was welcomed after he joined the team as a free agent in 2003. This year, battling a lower back strain and elbow tendinitis as he struggled at the plate, Thome has been booed by the fickle fans in Philly. And while Howard was still at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the Philadelphia Daily News ran the headline FREE RYAN HOWARD. A soft-spoken St. Louis native who grew up 20 minutes from Busch Stadium idolizing Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee, Howard hit a minor-league-best 46 home runs last year at Double A Reading and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre combined.

If Thome returns to the lineup, the Phils are expected to keep Howard with the team so they'll have his big bat on their thin bench. "I'm not making too many plans beyond tomorrow," says Howard, who will continue to crash at shortstop Jimmy Rollins's rented town house. "A lot's up in the air, and I'm prepared for anything."

Three Up

Nick Swisher, RF, A's
Oakland had won 26 of 32 games through Sunday, thanks to the rookie who had 10 home runs over that period.

Astros Offense
Last in runs scored five weeks ago, Houston was tied for best in the majors since then (174).

Zach Duke, LHP, Pirates
With a 3-0 record and 0.93 ERA, the 22-year-old starter had not allowed an earned run since his big league debut on July 2.

Three Down

National League West
Every team had been outscored this season, and the Padres had lost seven straight--yet still led the division by 21/2 games.

Dontrelle Willis, LHP, Marlins
Four terrible outings in five starts, in which he allowed 28 runs, had caused his ERA to balloon from 1.76 to 3.23.

Justin Morneau, 1B, Twins
The slumping slugger had hit .094 with one home run following the All-Star break.

COLOR PHOTOHUNTER MARTIN/WIREIMAGE.COM BIG BASH Howard's blasts have won over Philly fans, who haven't missed the struggling Thome (inset). COLOR PHOTOTOM DIPACE [See Caption Above]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)