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Conlin and Howard
2004-11-18 18:05
by Mike Carminati

Bill "Jabba" Conlin likes Ryan Howard. He really likes Ryan Howard.

He likes Howard so much that he has been writing homages to the first baseman since he was in Double-A ball last year. In his latest scattershot effort Conlin warns the Phils, "Never walk away from big power."

I always thought it was, "Never go in against a Sicilian, when death is on the line!" But maybe I'm wrong.

As for Conlin himself, he never walks away from a cheesesteak. Sorry, never waddles away. And they pack plenty of gastrointestinal power for Jabba the Reporter.

Given that the Phils have some serious question marks such as:

- Who'll play center and who'll lead off ? Is it Marlon Byrd? Can they land Carlos Beltran and move Rollins to the top of the order?

- Will Chase Utley succeed Placido Polanco at second even though the Phils have been hesitant to hand the mercurial youngster the starting spot?

- Will Jimmy Rollins' mini-renaissance in 2004 continue? If so, where will he bat?

- What will be the makeup of the rotation given that they have quantity but not quality enough for the first two rotation spots? Will they keep their best pitcher, rookie Ryan Madson, in the long relief role again or is he ready for the rotation? How should youngster Gavin Floyd be handled? What is to be done with Brett Myers?

- Who'll back up an aging Mike Lieberthal behind the plate and can he be transitioned into the starting role down the line?

- Who is the real Pat Burrell? Can he ever again play at a high-quality level for a full season as he did in 2002? If not, when do they cut bait and if so, are they going to be resourceful enough to dump his gargantuan contract?

- Can Billy Wagner stay healthy and return to his 2003 dominance for a full season?

There are probably another dozen (Thome's health, bullpen depth, new manager and coaches, payroll reduction, etc.) that I won't even touch upon. However for Conlin:

"One of the biggest questions facing Ed Wade and the New Gang of Six this crucial offseason is this:

Will they walk away from the big longball power represented by a man coming off the greatest minor league home-run season in franchise history?

What?!? He cannot be serious. The only people who consider Ryan Howard's future one of the main issues of the Phils' offseason besides Jabba are old Mr. and Mrs. Howard back in St. Louis, Howard's hometown.

I won't even go into why comparing minor-league numbers for a 24-year-old today to those of 22-year-old Mike Schmidt in 1972 or a 21-year-old Richie Allen in 1963 is a fool's errand at best.

Let me just relay an anecdote. When I lived in Boston in 1989, I went to batting practice at Fenway before a game with the White Sox. I knew I had seats right behind home and would have a great view. I saw a Chicago rookie who looked like the next Frank Thomas, that is even though he predated Thomas by one year, but you get the idea. There was a kid that looked like another species, like something out of "The Lord of the Rings". He just dwarfed the other guys around the batting cage. Then when he took his turn in the cage, he just crushed the ball. If I remember correctly he hit balls out to each outfield position. I was convinced that this guy was going to be a superstar even though he ended up not doing much in the game.

That guy was a forgotten footnote named Carlos Martinez. He ended up with five home runs on the year, and that ended up being his only year as a starter though he lasted until 1995.

Now, if I remember correctly Martinez had good minor league numbers. He could play first and third (not well). There's a world of difference between perceived potential and performance (say that three times fast).

So when Conlin say Howard "treats the opposite field like an old friend". I say that's nice, but is it meaningful especially if he strikes out a third of the time?

And those strikeouts: Conlin admits that "they are significant - 218 of them in those 656 ABs. The mind boggles at the offers Wade would be getting if Ryan's Ks were halved." Jabba justifies it though with "Howard struck out once each 3.01 at-bats, Thome once each 3.53 and Burrell once each 3.45."

To put it in perspective Howard struck out 517 with 206 walks in 1637 at-bats in four minor-league at-bats. That's an average of 129 whiffs, 52 BBs and 409 ABs per season, not too impressive when you realize that three of them were in Single-A ball. He struck out 13 times in 39 major-league at-bats this September. He has struck out 39 times with 12 walks in 133 AFL at-bats (through November 16).

Here is an overall comparison between Howard, Burrell, and Thome for their careers and for last season (career for Howard only includes minors):


Using plate appearances instead of at-bats displays the significance of the strikeout problem for Howard. Since he walks less than the other two, Conlin is being disingenuous comparing them by strikeouts per at-bats. The question is what percentage of the time will this player fail to even make contact (i.e., strikeout) when I send him to the plate. It's also disingenuous to compare these stats with established sluggers who tend to strike out but do enough other things to (hopefully) compensate for it. So don’t buy it when Jabba says, "Don't let his strikeouts put you off - unless you also are put off by the strikeouts of Thome and Pat Burrell." And remember that the bulk of Howard's stats in 2004 come from Double-A and in his career come from Single-A. Conlin hopes to half his K's but how do you go about doing that?

Conlin goes on to praise Howard's work in the Arizona Fall League. Though he admits that Howard has slowed since the start of the AFL season, it is still part of undiminishable "body of work Ryan has accumulated" this year. "[H]e still leads the AFL in many categories - base hits, doubles, extra-base hits and at-bats." (He's actually one hit behind the leader.) However, you have to read that twice to get the significance. Howard is tremendously ahead in at-bats. There are only three players within 20 at-bats of him in the league. And of the league leaders in batting, none are within 20 ABs of him and some have as few as under 60% of his. That's the problem with AFL stats. Different teams are doing different things with different players. Some like to distribute the turns at bat more evenly to help each player develop. Clearly, someone (the Phils maybe?) are ensuring that Howard gets plenty of AFL ABs to help boost his stats, at least the counting stats, perhaps to help shop the player around this fall. Also, remember that few of the players in the AFL are Howard's age or have had his experience. Besides aren't AFL stats just a means of propaganda like when the Yanks defended the Drew Henson signing with his AFL stats a few years back?

Anyway, aside from Conlin's bloviations, Howard may be a decent major-league player or at least power hitter. David Ortiz was once considered no more than a pure power hitter. The problem is what the Phils can do with him.

His defense is reportedly awful even for a first baseman, a position he can't fill unless the Phils decide to reverse their strategy over the last two seasons and trade Jim Thome, highly unlikely at best. So that leaves him with perhaps left field as a possibility. Conlin's plan is to move Burrell to right and Abreu to center for perhaps the worst outfield this side of Greg Luzinski, Manny Ramirez, and Jim Rice's softball league. Oh, and Howard had not played the outfield prior to the AFL, and he's still listed as a first baseman there.

Conlin has an answer to that too: "[Y]ou don't need Clemente, Mays and Bonds to cover the Money Pit's postage-stamp outfield footprint." The only obstacles to moving Howard to the outfield are "contract inflexibility, their own lack of imagination and the selfishness of Bobby Abreu, who won't lead off or play center. Burrell, if he has done nothing else, has made himself into a decent outfielder with a plus arm. There are some options."

So let me get this straight. Conlin is advising rearranging the entire outfield, moving the Phils best player last season (Abreu) to a position—a key defensive one—with which he is not comfortable and has little experience playing, and moving the ever fragile Burrell to right, where his adjustment can justify a relapse to 2003 type offensive woes. All this to accommodate a highly questionable rookie who will be playing way out of position? That's indefensible.

Oh, and evidently Conlin thinks thatAbreu leading off will grease the wheels a bit. I have no idea how. Why he has to take a swipe at their best player's character by calling him selfish I have no idea. I guess he's frustrated that no one else can see the brilliance of his plan.

Conlin ends by deriding basically the rest of the puny baseball players in the universe who are dwarfed by Howard's total domination:

"Just be frightened, very frightened, when Ed Wade mentions a package of players equivalent to Ryan Howard's value.

"Yeah, sure..."

Kevin Brown for Howard? Hrmph! Barry Bonds? Are you kidding?!? Yeah, unless they can resuscitate Babe Ruth, you just can't compensate the Phils for Howard's scary talent.

Look, for all the Phils management's faults, and there are many, they have been right on the money with the assessment of this guy. I wish they would have traded him before the trade deadline when Conlin was praising him to high heaven and his downside was perhaps less apparent. But the best they can do now is to pump up his value in the AFL and get some first-base strapped team (Yanks anyone?) take him off their hands.

It's a no-brainer. With Thome and his contract at first for four more seasons and with Howard's low ceiling, what's the downside. Let's say he turns into the next David Ortiz. He wouldn't be doing it in Philly anyway. That's the argument I have with those bemoaning the loss of Johnny Estrada. Yes, Estrada looks like a decent receiver, but he never was going to supplant Lieberthal, so who cares? You tip your hat and move on. It looked like a brilliant move at the time. Sometimes the better gambles still don't work out.

Maybe this is all part of a brilliant plan to have Conlin promote Howard to the world so that the Phils can pick up a decent starter or centerfielder as compensation. Ed Wade and Jabba are chucking over this master stroke as we speak.

Either that or Conlin is pregnant with Howard's love child and cannot deal with him being traded away.

Or Conlin is just a big boob. Take your pick.

Conlin can’t really mean the things he says. Can he? “Yeah, sure..."

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