Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg said Wednesday that Ryan Howard will start at first base this season, despite plans to rebuild the team and attempts to trade the declining slugger.
Sandberg spoke in support of Howard during his first news conference of spring training as pitchers and catchers reported to Bright House Field.
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When Sandberg was asked about the former MVP he benched for three games last season, he said: "He’s the first baseman."
Howard has never fully rebounded to the level of production he showed before tearing his left Achilles tendon during Philadelphia’s final out in 2011, in an NL Division Series loss to St. Louis.
The 35-year-old Howard played in 153 games in 2014 after missing half of each of the previous two seasons. He hit .223 with 23 home runs and 95 RBIs, led the majors with 190 strikeouts and had a career low .380 slugging percentage.
The Phillies have other, younger options in veteran Darin Ruf, 28, and top slugging prospect Maikel Franco, 22. But the front office has been unable to move Howard, who is owed a minimum of $60 million in the next two years.
"Right now he’s here to prepare for the season as one of the guys," Sandberg said. "If he gets to where he’s hitting 30-35 home runs, which is good home runs for this day and age of baseball, he can help us win games this year. To see him in the spring and see him prepare and have him get ready, he’s here. Right now, unless he gets unseated he’s the first baseman."
In December, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. told a Philadelphia radio station that he had recently told Howard that "it would probably bode better for the organization not with him but without him."
But after committing to a rebuild at the outset of the offseason, the Phillies were couldn’t find a trade partner for Howard or other veterans, including Jonathan Papelbon, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. Amaro did trade Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo in December, but as spring training begins, the team is stuck between committing to younger players while also being saddled with veterans who won’t play for a contender in Philadelphia.
The Phillies were one of four teams on Opening Day last season with an average player age older than 30.
Sandberg doesn’t foresee the age mix as a problem.
"You’ve seen it before, it’s kind of part of the game," Sandberg said of his veterans who have been in trade rumors all winter. "Sometimes it can motivate a player, sometimes it can raise the value of a player."
After pitchers and catchers hold their first workout on Thursday, the team’s first full-squad workout is scheduled for Tuesday.