PHILADELPHIA -- If Ryan Howard continues on this path, he should be back in the Phillies lineup sometime after the All-Star break.
But the big question for the Big Piece is this:
What kind of player will he be once he is back?
Howard has been on the disabled list since the season started following left Achilles surgery. His recovery has been a tedious process that has taken longer than expected. He suffered an infection in the heel in February, which put him considerably behind schedule. Lately he has been working out in Clearwater, Fla., participating in simulated games, but he will begin a rehab assignment with Class A Lakewood on Thursday.
He had some "functional testing" Wednesday afternoon at Citizens Bank Park, and visited team physician Michael Ciccotti before Wednesday night's game against the Pirates. Ciccotti gave Howard the OK to go to Lakewood, where he will be the designated hitter for at least the first game. Position players get 20 days on a rehab assignment before they must return to the big leagues, if they are healthy. That means Howard should be back no later than July 18, barring any further setbacks.
Howard said Wednesday he is not sure when he will be 100 percent healthy. He acknowledged it might not be until next season.
"If it's 80 percent, 85 percent, the only thing I can do is give you 100 percent of 85 percent," he said.
He later clarified 85 percent refers to his speed, not his ability to hit.
Power is Howard's game. He is the team's cleanup hitter, capable of hitting 30 or more home runs with 100 or more RBIs in a season when he is healthy. They don't need him to steal bases and play Gold Glove defense. They need him to hit homers and become a force in the middle of the lineup.
"Hitting-wise I don't feel any difference," Howard said. "It's one of those things you don't even think about. I'm able to get up on the ball of my foot, on my swing, on my follow through. That to me is kind of a non-factor.
"My swing has been normal. I haven't tried to hold anything back from my swing. I've been able to get my legs under my swing. Sometimes during the simulated games and whatever games I played in Clearwater, I was able to kind of focus on finding my swing again and just get my approach back. There is no trying to hold anything back or anything like that."
Howard said he still needs to build some strength in his left leg and he still needs to lose a bit of a limp when he runs. But he said he likes the progress he has made and considers himself in good shape.
"There still may be a little bit there, but that's to be expected," Howard said. "Just getting to the point where I'm confident and comfortable running even with that little bit of a hitch, it'll eventually work itself out. It's not going to be Olympic time-trial-type speed. But whatever I've got is what I'm going to give."
Howard signed a five-year, $125 million extension in April 2010. If the Phillies and Howard had never reached an agreement, Howard would have become a free agent following last season, which ended for him by rupturing his Achilles making the final out in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
He said he hadn't thought much about that as he sat on his couch following surgery in October.
"It's a good thing I signed that deal when I did," he joked.
Howard sounded confident he can be the player he was before the injury. Time will tell. The clock will start Thursday.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.