CLEARWATER, Fla. -- We're waiting -- patiently, expectantly, sometimes obnoxiously -- for a Cole Hamels trade that, for all we know, might never materialize. And the way things are trending in Phillies camp, with Cliff Lee pulling up lame and Aaron Harang battling a bum back and Jerome Williams scratched from Tuesday's start, the Phillies might just have to keep Hamels and pitch him every day in 2015.
In the meantime, though, how about that big guy moving around nimbly in the red pinstriped pants over at first base and showing some early positives at the plate? It's only the Grapefruit League, and we're trained to know this can all be a magnificent mirage, but Ryan Howard is shaping up so far this spring to potentially be a nice little consolation prize in a rebuilding effort sort of stuck in neutral.
Howard is not, will not be and arguably never was the guy worthy of a $125 million extension in 2010, and the Phillies acknowledged as much in trade talks this winter, telling (uninterested) teams they're willing to swallow a significant sum of the $60 million still owed to Howard over the next two years. Word is, the team would be willing to take on somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million.
So if we view Howard through that scope -- as basically a $5-million-a-year player at a time when Kendrys Morales gets two years and $17 million -- then, really, there's a lot to like here, isn't there?
That was true even before Howard reported to camp here looking lean, demonstrating that his legs are, indeed, back under him.
"Well," Howard quickly corrected, "they've always been under me."
OK, fair enough.
But even the untrained eye can gather that Howard is moving around better than he has in years. The dude's Achilles exploded in front of the baseball world on the last out of the 2011 National League Division Series -- a moment whose magnitude as a franchise-shifting one is understood all the more in retrospect -- and the last three seasons have been a nightmare for player and team alike.
Over that time period, Howard has averaged 101 games played, while the Phillies have averaged 86 losses. Not a fun combo.
Maybe this is the year Howard, whose off-the-field family discord became well-documented and well-litigated, finally starts to have fun again. Maybe it'll happen in another uniform, given the league-wide need for offensive thump.
It was surprising -- to the Phillies, at least -- that there wasn't much action on Howard this offseason, even though his talents, at this stage, are likely best limited to American League clubs, many of whom value flexibility over stability at the designated hitter spot. But don't dismiss the desperation that can set in when teams evaluate their offenses in late March or in-season. They might decide a bat that still has some blasts in it, if properly utilized (i.e. mostly limited to right-handed pitchers), is worth a look.
Hey, if Tim Tebow can work out for the Eagles in the year 2015, a man can dream, can't he?
Seriously, the Phillies have to hope Howard is opening some eyes, because they don't have much leverage in a rebuilding process that stalled after Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd were moved this winter.
Howard obviously isn't going to fetch the Phillies a No. 1 prospect, no matter the money equation, but the fact that he's trending toward fetching them anything at all is an upgrade. And remember, for the Phillies, this isn't just about getting something tangible back for Howard. It's also about opening up opportunity for power-hitting prospect Maikel Franco, who, over-swinging spring aside (he was 6-for-his-first-29), will be worth a look before long. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. might have backtracked his comments that the Phillies are better off without Howard than with him, but he was not wrong.
Scouts have noted that Howard has looked more fleet of feet and bat alike. On Sunday, he went deep for the second time this spring. Manager Ryne Sandberg noted Howard has found a stance and a swing that allows him to utilize the whole field.
"I think he's found something he's comfortable with," Sandberg said, "and he's getting results."
Find hope where you can.
"When your legs are finally strong, you can go back to the routines and workouts and baseball activity-type stuff that you were doing before," Howard said. "I'm just taking it one day at a time right now, but I'm here, and I'm prepared. So let's see what happens."
Let's not suddenly believe all is rosy with Howard. As one wise observer noted, weak legs didn't force him to swing at breaking balls in the dirt. Howard won the NL MVP at 26. He's 35 now. He slugged at a .380 clip last year. He also struck out a league-high 190 times. Having said that, he did hit 23 homers in a sport starved for power, and spring has seen him utilize all fields a bit better.
And if attitude means anything, well, Howard, years after signing the deal that enriched him for life, has the right one.
"People have asked me how you stay motivated when you've got the contract or you've won a championship," he said. "I think it's just something that has to be in you. You have to have that internal drive within yourself to get better, to continue to want to win. That's how guys like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan and LeBron James and Derek Jeter have that will to compete and that drive to want to win. Money and all that stuff becomes the byproduct of your determination of wanting to win."
This winter marked the first time in a long time that Howard was able to train the way he wants. You combine that with baseball's ongoing offensive drought, and you might have the seeds of a swap.
Until then, the Phillies' clubhouse remains a bunch of guys trying to keep their balance on a teetering boat.
Hamels' starts have become JUGS guns conventions, everyone wondering if the minor elbow issue that bothered him last spring is going to crop up again and if the sensational season that followed can be repeated. Roy Halladay, now in an advisory role after a possibly Hall-of-Fame-worthy career, was in camp the other day, expressing from his own experience with the Blue Jays the frustration that comes with being somewhere between here and there.
"You're pitching for your team, you're pitching for yourself, you're pitching for the rest of your career," he said. "But you're not pitching for anything. It's tough, it's tough. For me, the hardest thing was answering the questions, 'Do you really want to leave?'"
Hamels has made it clear he wants to leave. Same with Jonathan Papelbon. Howard didn't want to discuss the issue, but you couldn't blame him if he wouldn't mind leaving if it means winning, something the Phillies don't figure to do much of in '15.
Moving any of these guys for the right pieces would be an organizational victory. Right now, Howard's health and happiness register as a little one.
Again, find hope where you can.