Don’t Get Your Hopes Up About Ryan Howard

Even if he can take the field this spring, it will be a long time before the Phillies first baseman is playing at full strength.

Last week, as Ryan Howard ran straight ahead, fielded lightly hit grounders and took batting practice, Phillies fans envisioned the first baseman’s early return to the lineup and dreamed of parabolic shots rising toward the upper reaches of Citizens Bank Park–perhaps as early as April. Manager Charlie Manuel expressed his optimism, and we heard how Howard was “ahead of schedule” in his rehab from surgery to repair his torn Achilles tendon.

Then came the seroma.

And the reality check.

Howard didn’t sprain his ankle or twist a knee. He ruptured the largest tendon in his body, which just happens to play a huge role in allowing human bodies to run and jump. When a baseball player turns to run after hitting the ball, he relies on the Achilles to generate the initial burst. Howard’s blew up when he was trying to leg out the weak ground ball that became the final out in last October’s excruciating divisional playoff loss to the Cardinals. He was left in a heap, and fans’ dreams were dashed after just one post-season week.

It doesn’t matter that Howard’s subsequent surgery went well. Or that he was reporting no pain while running less than four months after leaving the operating room. An injury like an Achilles rupture does not heal quickly. It takes time. There are setbacks, like seromas.

When it comes to possible rehab worries, a seroma is not reason for considerable alarm. It is an infection of the area around the incision made to repair the Achilles and is quite common. Phillies head trainer Scott Sheridan said the tendon is “notorious for not healing well” and that the seroma’s arrival is hardly surprising. But the infection (DON’T call it a setback) will force Howard to miss at least a couple days of workouts as he has it checked out by foot specialist Mark Myerson in Baltimore.

The Phillies are right to remain calm about Howard’s condition, but the mere presence of a problem indicates that no return from a serious injury is without its detours. Those overly optimistic souls, like Manuel, who are hoping to see Howard back at full strength early in the 2012 season had better settle down. If the seroma is the only trouble he encounters, it’s still going to be a while before he is at full strength, even if he’s out on the field.

That’s the one thing people aren’t considering as they wish for Howard’s speedy return. Even if he is back on the field in May, what will be his performance level? He blew out the left Achilles, which for a lefthanded hitter like Howard is vital for his initial push-off from the batter’s box. The tendon is repaired and healthy, but Howard might have some psychological issues. And, as infielder Kevin Frandsen, who is in Clearwater hoping to earn a roster spot and who tore his Achilles in 2008, said last week in Inquirer writer Matt Gelb’s blog, the tendon “doesn’t feel normal” when a player first returns to action.

If Howard returns in May, there is a chance he’ll try to minimize the number of occasions when he’ll have to stretch a single into a double or blast down the line to beat a throw to first. To do that, he might try to upper-cut the ball even more, hoping to produce more homers, rather than line drives. Again, that’s a possible mental effect of the injury, since Howard won’t be 100 percent when he does return to the lineup.

Frandsen says it was nearly 18 months before he felt completely healthy, and the injury turned him from someone who was about to become a starter for the Giants to a journeyman forced to sign a minor-league contract this past off-season. It’s highly unlikely Howard will become a $25 million afterthought for the Phillies, but no one should consider his return to peak form a guarantee, short term or long term. It’s going to take a while to find out if Howard has completely overcome the injury, and those hoping for a miracle early in the season had better throttle back their expectations.

Compounding the situation is Howard’s need to change his approach at the plate. Like most of the other Phillies regulars, he lacks sufficient plate discipline in an era when the long ball no longer dominates the baseball landscape. Had he not suffered the injury, Howard could have spent the spring becoming a more patient hitter and perhaps returned to the success he enjoyed a few seasons ago. With the focus on his rehab, it’s likely Howard will spend several weeks upon his return to the lineup getting adjusted to MLB pitching, rather than tweaking his stance or swing to avoid the problems that have cut his production over the past three years.

As the Phillies have said, this seroma is but a small, fluid-filled cyst near the incision. It is not reason for hysteria. It is not something that will derail Howard’s progress greatly. Or, at least it shouldn’t. But it is the reality of return from serious injury. Seldom does everything go smoothly. Howard could well return to the lineup in May, but Phillies fans shouldn’t count on an immediate return to full form. This remains a long process, and there could well be other bumps on the road to recovery. It’s time for everybody to settle down and realize that a fully operational Ryan Howard is still several months away.


  • The Sixers open the unofficial second half (they have played 34 of 66 games) Tuesday in Detroit and must find a way to generate fourth-quarter offense without a player who can get his own shot. As I wrote earlier this year, the team is young and hungry, but it isn’t built for post-season NBA success. The recent five-game losing streak has proven that. Since it’s unlikely the team will make a deal before the deadline (PLEASE, NOT RUDY GAY!!), the Sixers need to become more effective with their patterns late, since they can’t rely on one player to score consistently in close games.
  • Hats off to Penn for its big win at Harvard Saturday night. It’s tough to find a player in the city with more heart than Quaker guard Zach Rosen, who continues to make big plays in big games. Beating the Crimson was huge, but it matters not if Penn doesn’t close the season with wins over Brown, Yale and Princeton.
  • RG3 an Eagle? No way. If the Eagles were looking to the future, that might make sense, but every off-season move the team makes heading into next summer had better be for the immediate betterment of the team. This isn’t about building for 2015; it’s about winning a Super Bowl in 2012. And if the Birds start taking on projects and backups, fans ought to be enraged. Get a linebacker. Or two. Fix the safety spot. Make a decision at receiver. The talk about Griffin makes little sense now, unless the team realizes–correctly–that Michael Vick is not a championship QB. If we are to believe Jeffrey Lurie and Andy Reid (a big if), it’s time to go for the big trophy, not compile pieces for two or three years down the road.