Phillies’ Top 5 first basemen: Zolecki’s take

March 31st, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only … if you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Todd Zolecki’s ranking of the top five first basemen in Phillies history. Next week: second basemen.

1. , 2004-16
Key fact: Won 2006 National League MVP Award, finished in the top five the next three seasons

Former manager Charlie Manuel nicknamed Howard “The Big Piece” because he knew he needed the slugger in the middle of the lineup to make the offense run. Howard had a remarkable eight-year stretch from 2004-11, slashing .275/.368/.560 for a .928 OPS and a 138 OPS+ while compiling 189 doubles, 17 triples, 286 home runs and 864 RBIs. He won the '05 NL Rookie of the Year Award and the '06 NL MVP Award. He finished fifth for the NL MVP Award in '07, second in '08, third in '09 and 10th in both '10 and '11.

Howard set the Phillies’ single-season home run record with 58 in 2006, and he led the Majors in homers in '06 and '08 (48). He paced the Majors in RBIs in '06 (149), '08 (146) and '09 (141).

“I’m not a home run hitter,” Ken Griffey Jr. once said. “He’s a home run hitter.”

Howard is the franchise’s all-time leader among first basemen in games (1,572), plate appearances (6,531), runs (848), hits (1,475), doubles (277), home runs (382) and RBIs (1,194). He is second with a .515 slugging percentage (minimum 1,500 plate appearances). He is fifth in OPS (.859). In the postseason, Howard hit eight home runs with an .845 OPS in 199 plate appearances. He earned the 2009 NL Championship Series MVP, hitting .333 with two homers and a 1.457 OPS against the Dodgers.

2. , 1989-94
Key fact: Slashed .306/.403/.463 from 1990-93

Boy, Kruk could hit. Look at that batting average and on-base percentage from 1990-93: .306 and .403, respectively. A hitter like that makes $100 million today.

Kruk is an old-school ballplayer, but here is a new-school stat that shows just how good he was when he played with the Phillies: His 18.5 bWAR ranks second among first basemen in modern Phillies history. Fred Luderus posted a 19.9 WAR from 1910-20. Howard ranked third at 14.7.

Kruk made three consecutive NL All-Star teams from 1991-93. He received NL MVP Award votes in each of those years, too.

3. , 1979-83
Key fact: Passed Stan Musial as NL’s all-time hits leader in 1981

Everybody associated with the 1980 World Series championship Phillies credits Rose for taking them to the next level. Rose had swagger. He knew how to win.

When I made my all-time Phillies team a decade ago in my book, “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly: Heart-Pounding, Jaw-Dropping, and Gut-Wrenching Moments in Philadelphia Phillies History,” I asked four Phillies managers (Danny Ozark, Dallas Green, Jim Fregosi and Charlie Manuel) to make lineups with my squad. I also gave each manager a wild card: They could substitute any player on my team for a player of their choosing. Ozark subbed out Howard for Rose at first base. Green subbed out Bobby Abreu for Rose in right field.

Rose did not have his greatest seasons with the Phillies, but he made his mark.

“He’s one of the best baseball players I’ve been around,” Green said.

4. , 2003-05, '12
Key fact: 101 home runs with the Phillies in just 1,629 plate appearances

This might be a controversial choice to some because Thome only played two full seasons with the Phillies. He got hurt early in 2005 and was replaced by Howard. The Phillies traded him to the White Sox that winter for Aaron Rowand, Gio González and Daniel Haigwood. Thome re-signed with the Phillies before the '12 season, but they traded him to the Orioles in June for Kyle Simon and Gabriel Lino.

Despite the short stints in Philadelphia, Thome made a tremendous impact. On the field, he ranks third in home runs and sixth in WAR (8.5) among Phillies first basemen. Off the field, he signaled the resurrection of Phillies baseball, with then-general manager Ed Wade signing him to a six-year, $85 million contract in December 2002. Fred Luderus, Don Hurst, Dolph Camilli, Eddie Waitkus and others might have played longer for the Phillies, but Thome is a Hall of Famer and remains one of the most popular Phillies in recent memory.

5. , 1934-37
Key fact: Slashed .339/.446/.587 in 1937

Camilli was part of one of the best and one of the worst trades in Phillies history. The Cubs traded him to the Phillies in June 1934 for Don Hurst, who played just 51 more games in the big leagues. Camilli slashed .295/.395/.510 with the Phillies from '34-37. But after his awesome ’37 season, the Phillies traded him to the Brooklyn Dodgers for $45,000 and Eddie Morgan, who never played for the Phillies. Camilli won the 1941 NL MVP Award, helping the Dodgers win the NL pennant.

Honorable mentions
Fred Luderus (1910-20) led Phillies first basemen with a 19.9 bWAR, despite being known as a butcher in the field. … Don Hurst (13.9 WAR) had a fascinating career. His first five seasons ('28-32) were remarkable, as he slashed .313/.396/.516. He struggled in '33, got traded to the Cubs in '34 and never played in the big leagues again. His career was finished at age 29. … Eddie Waitkus ('49-53, '55) is here because he helped the Whiz Kids win the '50 pennant. (He also served as the inspiration for "The Natural.") … should move up the charts as the years go by.