Braves welcome signing of longtime nemesis Ryan Howard

Ryan Howard still strikes fear in the heart of right-handed pitchers. (AP file photo)

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Ryan Howard still strikes fear in the heart of right-handed pitchers. (AP file photo)

NEW YORK – When Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman heard that his team signed former Phillies slugger Ryan Howard on Thursday, something that had been discussed since spring training, he sent Howard a text that made clear how he felt.

“It was the emoji with hands clapping,” Freeman said, laughing. “We talked during spring training. We knew what was going on.”

Howard, 37, signed a minor league contract and will report to Braves extended spring training to get his timing down – he didn’t go to spring training with any team — before he reports to Triple-A Gwinnett.

If the former National League MVP and two-time home-run leader looks like he can help a Braves bench lacking in power, he’ll get brought to the major leagues and give the Braves a power-hitting pinch-hit option against right-handers and a potential designated hitter for some interleague games in American League ballparks.

The signing was greeting with enthusiasm in the Braves clubhouse.

“He has some pedigree,” said Braves knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who only gave up five hits and one home run to Howard in 25 plate appearances, but nonetheless always had sense that any mistake could be hit a long way. “We get some pop off the bench, for sure. And I can just tell you as a pitcher, even thought he may not be what he once was, him in the box, in your mind you’re thinking this guy can blow you up on one pitch.

“So that does something to your psyche, too. So why not (sign him)?”

Injuries and Achilles surgery all but ended the former All-Star first baseman’s days as anything more than a very limited part-time position player, but the 6-foot-4, 250-pound longtime Braves nemesis can still hit a ball out of any ballpark at any time.

He hit only .196 but had 25 home runs in 362 plate appearances last season for the Phillies, the only team he’s played for in a 13-year major league career that’s included 382 home runs and six consecutive top-10 finishes in the league MVP balloting through 2011, before his statistical erosion began.

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 an impressive .932 OPS in 142 PAs after the break. He rarely played against lefties and hit .205 with 24 homers and a .749 OPS in 298 at-bats against right-handers.

“I think everybody saw what he did in the second half last year,” Freeman said. “When he walks up to the plate he can still change the game with one swing of the bat. It was actually something that was talked about in spring training; Coppy (Braves general manager John Coppolella) called and (asked) what I thought about it. I said, yes, why not? It’s a left-handed bat that can do damage.

“Obviously we don’t want him doing it against us anymore. If he has something left we’ll gladly take him, because we need him.”

Howard’s 52 homers and 155 RBIs in 183 games (175 starts) against the Braves are his bests against any team.

“He told me (his OPS) was, like .930 or .940 in the second half,” Freeman said. “Obviously I think that Achilles injury kind of slowed him down a little bit, but he obviously still has something left in the tank. We all saw it in the second half last year. If he can get some at-bats and prove that he can still do it, why not? It’s a bat that we don’t have coming off the bench that can change the game.

“We have a lot of (bench) guys that can play all over, versatile guys. I think our best option is, like, (catchers) Tyler (Flowers) or Kurt (Suzuki) or Anthony (Recker) to change the game (with one swing). To add a left-handed guy like that off the bench, it could be huge.”

Also, Freeman said, Howard would not have any problem fitting in with the Braves in the clubhouse.

“Yeah, he’s a great guy,” he said. “If he comes up this year at all we’ll welcome him here, because he’s a great personality, fun to be around, and obviously we’ll welcome him if he makes it here.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker said, “Playing against him over the years and getting to know him a little bit, I think it’s a good signing. See what he’s got left. He obviously wants to play. Just from being across the diamond and seeing at some events over the years, he seems like a great guy and a good teammate.”

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Braves general manager John Coppolella talked about Thursday signing of former Phillies slugger Ryan Howard to a minor league contract. (Video by Davd O'Brien)