Former HR champ, MVP can fill valuable role off bench
By Terence Moore
This Ryan Howard signing by the Braves is as much of a win-win situation for everybody as you'll ever find in Major League Baseball.
How about life?
As for the latter, Americans love comeback stories, and this one is a splendid work in progress. It involves a 37-year-old former National League Most Valuable Player Award winner who won two league home run titles and was a big (BIG, as in 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds) reason the Phillies finished first or second each season for eight consecutive years through 2011. He also helped them capture two NL pennants and a World Series championship.
Well, that particular Howard didn't resemble the one who hit .196 last season (the worst batting average of his career). Even though he spent all of his 13 Major League seasons with Philadelphia, team officials decided to ignore sentimentality by buying out his contract during the offseason to remove the last player from their roster who contributed to their glory days.
Howard told anybody who'd listen that he still could play, that he still could inspire, that he still could prove his worth.
Atlanta listened, and the club gave Howard only $120,000 this week to join its Triple-A Gwinnett affiliate. When he makes the big club after he gets into shape due to the lack of Spring Training, he'll receive another $750,000 to function as a pinch-hitter, backup to All-Star first baseman Freddie Freeman and designated hitter during Interleague games.
"There was no real risk on our end," Braves general manager John Coppolella said. "He's a great makeup guy. He's good with young kids. If it works, it's great. If it doesn't, it's not a big league contract."
It will work, by the way. If nothing else, Coppolella said as much when he mentioned how Howard's easy personality is a fit for a franchise dominated by youth, either present in the Major Leagues or on the way from its highly productive farm system. Howard has been here, done this before regarding mentorship. We needn't go further back than last year, when he was the elder statesman in a Phillies clubhouse filled with talented players such as Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco, Vince Velasquez and Aaron Nola, all 25 or younger.
So Howard will play the role of player and coach in the Major Leagues with Atlanta, and we're back to that comeback. All he has to do is prove his first half last season at the plate was the fluke as opposed to the second half. I'm guessing he will, and it goes back to momentum. After Howard hit .154 before the All-Star break, he posted a .262 mark in the aftermath, and that was four points higher than his career mark. The bottom line: His power never vanished. Howard finished the season with a respectable 25 home runs.
Thus my optimism, and Howard's tweet on Thursday following his signing.
I'm excited and energized to get going and start this new chapter!!!!#atlantabraves
The Braves are "excited" too, and they have other reasons to believe they'll join Howard as "energized" after they acquired a player who spent his career terrorizing anybody with a tomahawk across its chest.
Actually, let's discuss what I just wrote. Howard has played 183 games against his new club, which means you should judge the following jaw-dropping numbers through the prism of a whole season (162 games): According to Elias, Howard has slammed 52 home runs and collected 155 RBIs vs. Atlanta, his highest totals against any team. Not only that, but I've witnessed many of those homers, and most have yet to land.
Now get this: With Howard on the way with his bat that loves the high altitude of north Georgia, he and the Braves have a new place this season called SunTrust Park, located just north of Atlanta. The team won't play its official home opener until next Friday when the Padres come to town, but it faced the Yankees last week at the ballpark for an exhibition game.
Even though it's too early to make sweeping statements about how SunTrust Park will play, two things were apparent in that game. One, the infield is fast. Another, the wind blows toward right field.
That's wonderful news for left-handed power hitters. And guess what? Howard is a left-handed power hitter.
The Braves need a power-hitting anybody on the bench, because they currently have nobody who fills that role. Howard will be that guy, and he told me last year during an interview that he enjoys strolling to the plate during pressure-packed moments. Those often are the moments you get as a pinch-hitter or a DH without the extra adrenaline boost from playing in the field.
"I've done well in big situations, but it starts with wanting to be in those situations," Howard said back then, and there's another advantage for his presence on Atlanta's roster. He will keep Freeman from operating as much of an iron man as he has during his career.
Freeman played 158 games last season after an injury-plagued 2015, but he didn't miss any games in '14 after averaging 150 games during each of the three previous years. Not that he is complaining. Freeman despises leaving the lineup, but with a productive Howard, Braves manager Brian Snitker would at least have the option to ask -- well, force -- Freeman to rest a bit.
There also is name recognition. Such a thing doesn't hurt your turnstile clicks when you're moving into a new ballpark.
Despite a couple of subpar seasons due to rebuilding, Atlanta already has some familiar faces. In addition to Freeman, former All-stars Matt Kemp and Brandon Phillips are among its everyday players, and pitchers Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey won Cy Young Awards in recent years.
Howard will complement them all. Just sit back and watch. Then with the comeback completed, you may applaud.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.