CLEARWATER, Fla. — As Ryan Howard navigates through the clubhouse in a walking boot, it’s clear the big slugger won’t be in the Philadelphia Phillies’ lineup anytime soon.
So who’s on first?
That’s a question manager Charlie Manuel still has to figure out in spring training. A combination of four players will try to fill the void, including 41-year-old Jim Thome, who is nearing the end of a career that will likely send him to the Hall of Fame after he retires. Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix and John Mayberry Jr. also are in the mix.
Replacing the 2006 NL MVP won’t be easy.
“We need Ryan Howard’s power,” manager Charlie Manuel said Wednesday. “Bad. Big time. He’s our four-hole hitter. He’s the guy that knocks in a hundred-and-better for us. I’ve heard all the remarks about him, but at the same time, when you look up, who else on our team knocks in 120, 130 or 140 runs or is capable of doing it. We need him.”
Howard ruptured his Achilles while making the final out in Philadelphia’s 1-0 loss to St. Louis in Game 5 of the NL division series last October. He was taking batting practice when camp opened, and Manuel was hopeful he’d be ready by late April or the first week in May. But Howard was shut down 2½ weeks ago because he needed a procedure to remove an infection near his surgically repaired Achilles tendon.
Howard was just cleared to start light exercises, but there’s no timetable for his return. He can ride a stationary bike and work out his legs while in the boot.
“I think people see me in the boot, they think it’s a lot worse than what it really is,” Howard said. “Right now, we’re just trying to protect the skin and protect the wound and let it heal up. Once it heals up, then I’ll be out of the boot.”
For now, the Phillies have to move on without Howard in the cleanup spot. The only question is for how long.
“He had a setback. Until we get him out there practicing, we won’t know anything,” Manuel said. “He was doing good. He was ahead of his time. He’s back to square one, really.”
Thome certainly has the credentials — 604 career homers and 1,674 RBIs. But he hasn’t played first base since making one appearance there in 2007. He’s played only four games at first since 2005.
Thome has eased his way into action so far. He played four innings at first in a minor league game on Monday and expects to work his way up to seven or eight innings before starting in a major league exhibition.
“I need to just play,” Thome said. “I need to just go do it. I’m excited to get back out there.”
Wigginton, a journeyman utility player, started 107 games at first his last two seasons. He made the All-Star team in 2010 when he had 22 homers and 76 RBIs.
“I’m very comfortable there,” Wigginton said. “The more work you get done at any position, the more comfortable you will be. I try to look at a ground ball like a ground ball no matter where you play. Either corner, it’s exactly the same thing. Obviously, there’s a little more involved at first base with holding runners on, but really overall, I feel very good.”
Wigginton has started several games at first this spring, including Wednesday’s 6-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins.
Mayberry is probably Philadelphia’s best option, but he has a chance to be the regular left fielder. A former first-round pick, Mayberry took time to develop. He had a breakout half-season last year, hitting .273 with 15 homers and 49 RBIs in 267 at-bats.
“Wherever Charlie puts me, I’ll be ready to go,” Mayberry said. “I came in here with a chance to contribute. I worked as hard as I could in the offseason and I came to camp ready to go.”
Manuel is torn between using Mayberry at first base or left field.
“He’s a good first baseman. He might be the best one we have,” Manuel said. “Also, I look at him and he’s definitely one of the best outfielders we have. It’s kind of like, on that day, where’s your strongest defense at?
“I’m a big believer that more things happen when you miss balls in the outfield than at first base. You can lose a game at both places but, at the same time, we’re talking extra bases on misplaced balls in the outfield. I talk about that every day and think about where is the best place to play him. I haven’t decided yet.”
Nix has started just six games at first base — all last season with Washington — during his nine-year career. He’s been nagged by injuries this spring, and is more likely going to be used as a pinch-hitter and left fielder.
Howard, obviously, is a major part of an offense for a team that has won five straight division titles and is seeking a second World Series title since 2008. He batted .253 with a team-high 33 homers and 116 RBIs last year. But he was just 2 for 19 (.105) with a homer and six RBIs in the NL division series against the Cardinals.
From 2006-09, Howard averaged 50 homers and 141 RBIs while hitting .278. He hasn’t matched that production since signing a $125 million, five-year contract extension in April 2010. Howard has averaged 32 homers and 112 RBIs with a .265 average over the last two seasons.
“I’m going to try to stay optimistic and see what happens, but like I’ve said before, there’s really no time limit on it,” Howard said. “Once it’s 100 percent, we’ll go from there.”