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Replacing Ryan Howard At First Base

The news for Philadephia Phillies fans on Friday night was grim. By Saturday, the news was grimmer.

The Phillies were ousted from the playoffs after losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the Division Series. Ryan Howard made the last out of the game, grounding out to the right side. Howard barely made it out of the batter’s box on the play. He ruptured the Achilles tendon in his left leg while starting his run to first base and collapsed in a heap on the first base line as the Cardinals celebrated their NLDS victory.

Howard will undergo surgery to repair the Achilles tendon after the swelling subsides. Estimates on Howard’s recovery time range from six to eight months following surgery, meaning Howard could be ready for Opening Day 2012 or not until June. That’s a fair bit of uncertainty for the Phillies, who face a number of roster decisions this winter.

What should the Phillies do at first base while Howard recuperates?

Nothing

Not literally nothing, but more like a wait-and-see nothing. If Howard’s swelling subsides quickly, the sooner he can have surgery to repair the torn Achilles. Assuming the surgery is successful, the Phillies may be able to pencil Howard in at first base by early April. If so, it’s expected the Phillies would use John Mayberry Jr. at first base until Howard returns.

Mayberry logged 100 innings at first base for the Phillies in 2011 in addition to nearly 475 innings among the three outfield positions. UZR rates Mayberry highest in left field and right field but still prefers Mayberry over Howard at first. Defensively, then, the Phillies likely would be fine with Mayberry at first base as the 2012 season gets underway.

At the plate, the Phillies would be delighted if they got the Mayberry of the second half of 2011. After returning from AAA on July 5, Mayberry posted a wOBA of .408 and a wRC+ of 160 with 12 home runs in 163 at-bats. Over the same period, Howard hit 16 home runs in 258 at-bats, but his wOBA was .353 and his wRC+ was 122.

Mayberry has not shown that he can sustain that kind of offensive output over the long term. But if all goes well with Howard’s surgery and rehabilitation, the Phillies won’t need Mayberry at first base over the long term.

A big question, though, is how much Mayberry figures into the Phillies’ outfield plans for 2012. The Phillies are not expected to re-sign 39-year old left fielder Raul Ibanez but center fielder Shane Victorino and left fielder Hunter Pence will return. Many Phillies fans are hoping to see uber-prospect Dominic Brown as the Opening Day left fielder. If the Phillies go that route, Mayberry can fill in for Howard at first base and then become the fourth outfielder when Howard returns.

Sign a Free Agent

There will be plenty of free agents on the market not named Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder and some of them can even play first base, among other positions. Two interesting possibilities for the Phillies are Michael Cuddyer and Juan Rivera.

Michael Cuddyer

Cuddyer has played his entire professional career with the Minnesota Twins, breaking into the majors in 2001. He didn’t play consistently until 2004 (115 games) but has been a steady presence for the Twins ever since. In his time with the Twins, Cuddyer’s played all three outfield positions, third base, second base and first base. In 2011, he was used primarily in right field and first base with some time at second. Cuddyer has negative career UZR ratings at every position but center and left where he’s logged the fewest innings. He did post a 2.1 UZR at first this season, so perhaps he trending in the right direction.

Cuddyer has a career wOBA of .345 and he’s been consistently in and around that number since 2004. His best season for power hitting was 2009 when he slugged .520 with an ISO of .245. After a down power year in 2010, he bounced back this season to slug .459 with an ISO of .176. Cuddyer’s wRC+ was 124 this season, the same as in 2009.

Cuddyer reportedly turned down a 2-year/$16 million offer from the Twins during the season. With his consistently good offensive numbers and his versatility in the field, Cuddyer will have several suitors this winter, including the Twins. If Cuddyer wants a three-year deal, he’ll likely get it, but not from the Phillies. A long-term deal for a first baseman/right fielder makes little sense for the Phillies, given Howard’s 5-year/$125 million contract extension and team control of Pence through the 2013 season. A one-year deal in the $10 million range would make more sense for the Phillies.

Juan Rivera

Rivera broke into the majors with the New York Yankees in 2002 but played a majority of his career (2006-2010) with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Before the 2011 season, the Angels traded Rivera and Mike Napoli to the Toronto Blue Jays for Vernon Wells. The Blue Jays then traded Rivera back to the west coast this summer, sending him to the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 12.

Rivera is primarily an outfielder, garnering the most time in left field over his career. But in the last two seasons, Rivera’s played 400-plus innings at first base. UZR rates Rivera as slightly above average in left field and just about average at first base. Rivera’s defense at first place as compared to Howard’s is close to wash.

Offensively, Rivera doesn’t approach Howard, much less Cuddyer or Mayberry. His final slash for 2011 was .258/.319/.382 with a wOBA of .308 and a wRC+ of 96. Rivera’s greatest attribute this winter may be his availability and willingness to sign an incentive-driven short-term deal. If the Phillies decide to go with Mayberry subbing for Howard at first and with Dominic Brown in left, having Rivera off the bench to play both positions may make sense, at the right price.

The Phillies have options for replacing Howard at first base, internally and on the free agent market. The timing for his surgery and the early recuperation period may determine which of those options the Phillies pursue in earnest.