Ruben Amaro, Jr.: Ryan Howard is in the best shape “since I’ve known him”

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Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. spent a portion of the off-season taking heat and eventually apologizing for criticizing first baseman Ryan Howard during a radio appearance. Now, he may be going in the opposite direction. As CSN Philly’s John Clark reports, Amaro said that Howard is in the best shape “since I’ve known him”.

Former major leaguer Dan Plesac, in Phillies camp as a guest instructor, echoed the sentiment, telling Howard, “this is the best you’ve looked in 4-5 years.” Howard told Plesac this was the first offseason in which he’s been able to strengthen his leg since tearing his Achilles tendon in his left foot at the conclusion of the 2011 NLDS. Howard returned in July 2012 but was a shadow of his former self. In 2013, Howard had a bit of a bounce-back, but tore the meniscus in his right knee. 2014 was his first full, healthy season since 2011, but he posted a career-low .690 OPS.

Howard is entering the fourth year of a five-year, $125 million contract. The Phillies, currently attempting to rebuild, have made it no secret that they would prefer to trade Howard. However, he is owed a total of $50 million for the 2015-16 seasons plus a $10 million buyout for the ’17 season (assuming no team would pick up his $23 million club option). As a result, it’s effectively $60 million for two years. The Phillies would have to eat a very large portion of it to entice a team to make a deal.

Pirates hire Ben Cherington as their new general manager

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The Pittsburgh Pirates have hired Ben Cherington as the team’s new general manager. They do so after the general manager meetings ended, but better late than never.

Cherington served as GM of the Boston Red Sox for four years, winning the World Series in 2013, but resigned during the 2015 season after Dave Dombrowski was named Boston’s new president of baseball operations. Which was a defacto demotionn for Cherington who, until then, had the final say in baseball decisions. Dombrowski, of course, was fired late in the season this year. Cherington went on to work for the Toronto Blue Jays as a vice president, but was seen as biding his time for another GM position. Now he has one.

Cherington takes over in Pittsburgh for executive vice president and general manager Neal Huntington, who was fired after a 12 years at the helm. Also fired was team president Frank Coonelly. Travis Williams replaced Coonelly recently. While the Pirates experienced a few years of contention under Huntington and Coonelly, they have slid out of contention in recent years as the club has traded away promising players for little return, all while cutting payroll. There’s a very big rebuilding job ahead of Cherington.

The first move he’ll have to make: hire a manager, as the team still hasn’t replaced Clint Hurdle since he was dismissed in the final weekend of the regular season.