"There's no real risk on our end. He had a really good second half and really hit well against right-handed pitching," general manager John Coppolella said. "He's a great makeup guy and is good with young kids. If it works, great. If it doesn't, it's not a big league contract. It's just something we thought would be a good option that could possibly help make us better."
Beginning with his 2006 MVP season and through the end of the 2011, when he tore his left Achilles tendon, Howard produced a .929 OPS and averaged 44 homers per season. Over the past five seasons, he had a .719 OPS and averaged 19 homers per year.
Still, as they continued looking for ways to improve their bench, the Braves opted to take this low-risk chance on the 37-year-old Howard, who hit .196 with 25 homers and a .710 OPS in 362 plate appearances last season. The three-time All-Star first baseman had a .749 OPS in 327 plate appearances against right-handed pitchers and a .355 OPS in 35 plate appearances against left-handers. He could provide the Braves some insurance in the event that first baseman Freddie Freeman is sidelined for an extended stretch, but he's primarily viewed as a potential addition to an offensively limited bench that currently consists of Jace Peterson, Chase d'Arnaud, Emilio Bonifacio and a pair of catchers -- Anthony Recker and Kurt Suzuki.
Although he is no longer the fearsome slugger and annual MVP candidate he was from 2006 to 2011, Howard finished 2016 in encouraging fashion, slashing .262/.324/.608 with 13 homers in 142 plate appearances after the All-Star break.
"I can tell you as a pitcher, even though he might not be what he once was, with him in the box, in the back of your mind, you're thinking this guy can blow you up on one pitch," veteran starter R.A. Dickey said. "That does something to your psyche, too. So why not?"
Though Howard certainly never envisioned he might have to prove himself in the Minors at this stage of his career, he will at least have a chance to live in his recently purchased Atlanta-area home while he is playing for Gwinnett.
There is no guarantee Howard will ever be promoted to the big league club, but if he is, he could fill the bench spot currently held by Recker, who is serving as Atlanta's third catcher.
Howard would be an option for designated hitter when the Braves play in American League parks this year. Atlanta will play two games in Houston on May 9-10 and then end that road trip with a pair of games in Toronto on May 15-16.