NEW YORK – Looking far and wide to add power to their bench, the Braves signed longtime former Phillies slugger Ryan Howard to a minor league deal Thursday.
Howard, a National League MVP and two-time league home-run leader, was slowed dramatically by injuries and Achilles surgery in recent years and hit only .196 but had 25 home runs in 362 plate appearances last season for the Phillies, who paid him $10 million to buy out a 2017 option on his contract.
If he’s added to the Braves’ major league team at any point, the 37-year-old three-time All-Star first baseman would be used as a pinch-hitter and designated hitter in interleague play in American League parks and would make a prorated portion of $750,000 for any time spent in the majors. There’s no guarantee he’ll be called up.
“Just a no-risk proposition for a player with good makeup who was excellent in the second half last season,” Braves general manager John Coppolella said. “He’s in good shape and has been training and waiting for an opportunity.”
After hitting .154 with 12 homers and a .567 OPS in 220 plate appearances before the 2016 All-Star break, Howard hit .262 with 13 homers and a .932 OPS in 142 PAs after the break.
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“If he can do what he did in the second half of the season, he will help our team,” said Coppolella, who discussed signing Howard earlier this spring. “We had talked to him during spring training. It just didn’t seem at that time that it was the right time for it. But as we talked more and we saw the way things shaped up with our team, we thought he would be a good fit for us right now.”
Howard made $190 million in his career with the Phillies, including $25 million each of the past three seasons and $20 million each of the three before that. Howard finished in the top 10 in MVP voting six consecutive seasons, winning the award in 2006 and finishing as runner-up in 2008, the year he helped Philadelphia win the World Series.
There were no offers for him after the 2016 season, so he didn’t have a spring training. Howard will head to Braves extended spring training in Florida to shake off rust before he’s assigned to Triple-A Gwinnett. The left-handed hitter, a longtime Braves nemesis, could join the big-league team if he convinces that he can help the Braves’ light-hitting bench.
Howard was used almost exclusively against right-handers in 2016, going 4-for-33 with one homer against lefties and batting .205 with 24 homers in 298 at-bats against right-handers.
“We’ve said we want to get our bench better,” Coppolella said. “He had a .932 OPS in the second half of the season, hit really well against right-handed pitching. We don’t have a lot of power on our bench right now, and he would help with that.
“There was no real risk on our end. He had a really good second half, he really hit well against right-handed pitching, he’s a great makeup guy, he’s good with young kids. You know, if it works it’s great. If it doesn’t, it’s not a big league (guaranteed) contract.”
He spent all 13 of his previous major league seasons with the Phillies and hit .258 with 382 home runs, 1,194 RBIs, a .343 OBP and .515 slugging percentage. Howard’s 52 homers and 155 RBIs in 183 games (175 starts) against the Braves are his highs against any team, and his 23 homers and 82 RBIs at Turner Field were his most anywhere outside Philadelphia.
Howard twice led the NL in home runs, with 58 in 2006 and 48 in 2008, and was the league RBI leader three times, with more than 140 each time, including a career-high 149 in 2006, when he also set career-bests in homers, batting average (.313), OBP (.429), slugging percentage (.659) and OPS (1.084).
In the past three seasons, Howard often appeared painfully immobile and hit only .219 with a .286 OBP and 442 strikeouts in 1,513 plate appearances during that period, though he still had 71 homers in that stretch.