PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract extension in April 2010 partly because they believed making a deal more than a year before he hit free agency would become a bargain with fellow first basemen Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez scheduled to hit free agency at the same time.
It hasn't worked as planned.
Howard is struggling through arguably the worst season of his career, following two injury-riddled seasons, and Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg is ready to look at other options at first base, something unimaginable just a few years ago.
"I know what Ryan Howard can do," Sandberg said Wednesday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park. "I think it's also important to see what other guys can do."
Darin Ruf started at first base against Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner on Wednesday, and he could be there more often going forward, although Sandberg said that decision will be made daily. Triple-A infielder Maikel Franco could see playing time at first, if he gets healthy and gets called up in September. Asked if this means he is looking for Howard's replacement at first base, Sandberg said, "No, but I think it's also important to see and gauge other players to see where they're at."
Howard is making $25 million this season, which makes him the highest-paid position player in baseball. He has $60 million remaining on his contract over the next two seasons, which includes a $10 million buyout on a club option worth $23 million in 2017.
Sandberg said the massive contract isn't a factor in filling out his lineup card.
"It's also about wins and losses out here," Sandberg said. "When the game starts, it's about winning the game and being productive and chipping in and doing the part and doing something to help win a game. If that means playing somebody else there and there's production right away, that's trying to win a baseball game."
Howard is hitting .224 with 15 home runs, 60 RBIs and a .682 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) in 417 plate appearances this season. His OPS is 126th out of 162 qualifying hitters in baseball and 21st out of 23 qualifying first basemen. His OPS is 36 points lower than a career-worst .718 in 2012, when he missed the first half of the season following left Achilles surgery. His .377 slugging percentage is 46 points lower than a career-worst .423 in 2012.
Howard is tied for sixth in the National League in RBIs, but only two players in baseball have had more RBI opportunities than him with 305 runners on base during his plate appearances, according to Baseball Prospectus. Chase Utley and Marlon Byrd have been intentionally walked in front of Howard six times this season, another indicator teams prefer facing the 2006 National League Most Valuable Player over other hitters in the Phillies lineup.
"It's been a disappointing year for me, period," Howard said. "Things haven't necessarily shaped up the way I've wanted them to, coming back after basically not playing for the last two years, trying to make it through a full season. There have been a lot of highs and lows, a lot of frustration. There's frustration from the fans, frustration period. I have my own frustrations as well. You know, it's really, you try to stay positive. I know people are going to put a lot on either how much money I make or what I'm doing on the field, this or that or whatever, but at the end of the day, you go out there and try, you try to do what you can. I'm really just trying to get back in the flow of things."
There has been buzz the Phillies might release Howard in the offseason and just eat the remaining money on his contract. Howard said he hasn't considered a change of scenery.
"I think the easiest thing to do when times get hard or don't go your way is quit," Howard said. "I think it really shows the kind of character you have. And again, I'm not talking about anybody in this clubhouse, I'm just talking in general, but when times get hard, the easiest thing to do is quit or try to give up or whatever. For me personally, you work through it. It's a character-building kind of thing and you try to work through it. And I think once you do work through it, you become that much stronger."
Howard said he "absolutely" believes he can play at a high level again.
Asked if this is the low point of his career, Howard said, "This is baseball. I know some people might misconstrue this comment, but baseball is a game. Yeah, I get paid a lot of money to play it, but it's a game. You go out and see little kids doing it, because it's a game. You have to keep things in perspective. [Regardless] of what I'm doing out here, I have a beautiful wife, a son, a baby on the way. You have to take a look at life and have to look at it for what it is."
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.