Thirteen months ago, Ryan Howard was a bargaining chip.
The Philadelphia Phillies' young slugger was at Double-A Reading setting that club's single-season home run record with 37. He homered nine more times when he was promoted to Triple-A and added two more in a September call-up to the majors.
In one full season with three stops, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound first baseman hit 48 homers and drove in 136 runs.
Yet few expected him to stay with Philadelphia.
The Phillies' franchise player, Jim Thome, also plays first base. Thome is locked into a six-year, $85 million contract that runs through 2008. And the lumbering Howard does not project well as a corner outfielder.
But everything changed in 2005. Howard kept hitting minor league homers while Thome battled with an ailing right elbow. Thome underwent season-ending surgery last week and Howard, the ultimate trade bait, is now the Phillies' starting first baseman.
"It has been a lot of fun. It's living a dream," Howard said. "You are up here playing in the big leagues and right now we are in the middle of a playoff race. You couldn't ask for much more."
Howard is holding his own in the big leagues. He had eight homers and 30 RBIs and hit .281 in his first 171 at-bats. Not only did general manager Ed Wade's decision to hold onto Howard pay off at a crucial time, but it also might have provided the Phillies with another trade option.
If they can find someone to take the hefty contract, the team might move Thome next year. Although Thome will be 35 this month, he still is a feared hitter when healthy.
Howard, however, is just 25 with an enormous upside. Now, he's the one that seems to be untouchable in the trade market. But he isn't taking anything for granted. He has been churned in the rumor mill before. He's not listening this time.
"It's people talking. That's just one thing you learn not to pay attention to," Howard said. "People are going to say whatever it is they are going to say. My job is to go out here and try to take care of things on the field. I try not to pay attention to it."
The NL Worst
How bad is the National League West? From June 1 to Aug. 17 - a period of roughly 70 games depending on the schedule - none of the five teams posted a record at or above .500.
The San Francisco Giants had the best mark during that period, and they were 30-39. The Arizona Diamondbacks had a division-worst 26-43 record in that span, and they dropped just one game in the overall division standings.
"That's the amazing thing," Arizona manager Bob Melvin said. "That's the one constant. No matter if we play good or play bad or play in between, we're still there."
Houston's Jeff Bagwell, who had shoulder surgery in June, hopes to pinch hit by September. ... Despite recent bullpen success, Chicago's Kerry Wood views himself as a starter in 2006 and beyond. ... Atlanta's Chipper Jones went 13-for-22 in his return from a shoulder strain.
League notebooks are compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.