Ryan Howard’s Days in Philly: Numbered?

ESPN’s Jayson Stark describes the Ryan Howard situation in Philly:

For one thing, the two sides haven’t spent 10 seconds talking about a deal since the arbitration hearing. For another, Howard and agent Casey Close continue to position him as an unprecedented player, who therefore deserves an unprecedented contract.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Howard is going to ask for so much money. He’s been a premier offensive threat in all of baseball since he won the NL MVP in 2005. However, if Stark’s description of Howard’s desires — “an unprecented contract” — are true, then it really is time to start thinking about moving him. Not this year, and not next year, but perhaps at the trading deadline in 2010.

The Phillies have control of Howard until after the 2011 season, so they can choose to continue to go year-to-year with him and pay him according to precedents. Even if the Phillies are forced to pay him something like $18 million in 2010, this would still be reasonable as opposed to locking up the slugger — who will be 30 at the start of the 2010 season — long-term for “unprecedented” big bucks.

Howard isn’t truly an unprecedented player. He’s a power-hitting first baseman with below-average defense, a weight issue that will always have a chance of recurring with a build like Howard’s, and inconsistent mechanics (compared to 2005 and ’06, he didn’t use left field nearly as much in ’07, for instance).

He does have great upside, but he’s not some legendary player. He’ll hit 45+ HR and drive in 125+ easily, put up a 1.000-ish OPS year in and year out, and draw about 70 unintentional walks every season. Players that productive are not a dime a dozen, but also not productive enough to warrant an “unprecedented contract.”

The Phillies should let some other team burden themselves with such a contract. Sell Howard while he’s still valued high. Keep him through his prime years (late 20′s) and dispatch of him and his burdensome salary demands immediately afterward. Without a stroke of genius and/or luck, they will not replace his production but they can make some creative moves (like moving Chase Utley to first base and calling up Adrian Cardenas to play second base).

Should the Phils trade Howard, they could ask for a king’s ransom and likely get it. I’m talking comparable to, or even better than what the Twins got for Johan Santana. If the trade is done right, the Phillies can set up their Minor League system for years to come while still keeping a highly competitive MLB roster. However, the problem is that when it comes to trading star players, the Phillies always botch it:

  • July 26, 2000: Curt Schilling is traded by the Philadelphia Phillies to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee, and Vicente Padilla.
  • July 29, 2002: Scott Rolen is traded by the Philadelphia Phillies with Doug Nickle and cash to the St. Louis Cardinals for Placido Polanco, Mike Timlin, and Bud Smith.
  • July 30, 2006: Bobby Abreu is traded by the Philadelphia Phillies with Cory Lidle to the New York Yankees for Matt Smith, C.J. Henry, Carlos Monasterios, and Jesus Sanchez.

In the Schilling deal, the Phillies got 1.5 league-average seasons from Daal, a half-season of slightly above league-average pitching from Figueroa, and 2.5 below-average seasons from Lee. Padilla is the only player in the deal that both stayed with the Phillies long enough to make it worthwhile, and be productive as well.

With the Rolen trade, Smith pitched less than 95 innings in three and a half seasons for the Phillies’ Minor League teams, and never made it to the Majors due to injuries. Timlin gave the Phils a half-season of league-average relief pitching. Polanco, as we all know, was a decent second and third baseman in his two and a half seasons in Philly.

The Abreu deal is clearly the biggest bust of all, but it was more of a salary dump than anything. None of the players acquired are likely to ever help the Phillies at the Major League level. Matt Smith had reconstructive surgery on his left elbow last season and it’s unlikely he’ll be able to help the Phillies out again. He did perform very well for the Phils in ’06 after he was traded, but he pitched a grand total of four Major League innings in ’07. Henry is a huge bust of a prospect. He’s never been above the A level, but his OPS has gone from .714 in ’05 to .692 in ’06 all the way to .560 last season. Monasterios, a pitcher, and Sanchez, a catcher, aren’t regarded very highly and neither are likely to make the Majors.

With Pat Gillick retiring from his position as GM of the Phillies at the end of the season, it becomes crucial that a capable mind is hired. The likely choice will be Ruben Amaro, Jr., who has been a typical yes-man who tows the party line. He’s currently the Assistant GM to Gillick, handling Q & A with the media about acquisitions, injuries, and the like. There’s no doubt that the Phillies’ ownership highly prefers Amaro over everyone else.

Mike Arbuckle is the Phillies’ Assistant General Manager, Scouting and Player Development, and is #2 on the totem pole behind Amaro for the soon-to-be vacant GM job. Like Amaro, he’s never been one to dance to a different drumbeat and he’s been loyal to the organization. Frankly, since he has so much experience evaluating players, he’d be more reliable than Amaro to make a trade of Ryan Howard.

Looking outside the box for a moment, Brian Cashman’s contract is up after the ’08 season. When Ed Wade was fired after the ’05 season, Cashman was one of the candidates the Phillies had on their list before they decided to go with Gillick, and he is no stranger to a big trade — remember Alfonso Soriano being sent to the Texas Rangers for Alex Rodriguez?

While the Phillies’ upper management may be coming to the realization that Howard’s days in Philly are numbered, they can still thoroughly research Gillick’s potential successors and successfully set themselves up for a franchise-defining trade in 2010.

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6 comments

  1. CJ

    April 04, 2008 10:34 PM

    I don’t agree that the Phillies “botched” the Schilling and Rolen deals. Both were the result of players who told the rest of the league they wanted out, so the everyone knew the team was trading from a weak position.

    I never heard anyone suggest any better deals that were available.

    I guess you could say they botched it by not dealing the players before it became clear the team has no choice but to deal them.

  2. P.J.

    April 05, 2008 07:39 AM

    Not only is Henry a bust of a prospect, he’s not even with the Phillies anymore. He’s back with the Yankees (November) after the Phils let him go.

    I actually think the Rolen deal could have been OK had they re-signed Polanco and put him at third. That’s the botched part. Plus, Rolen wanted out at that time and the Phils were kinda hung out to dry.

  3. Carl

    April 05, 2008 10:58 AM

    In my opinion, Stark doesn’t like Howard. He rarely, if ever has something nice to say about him or his camp. He has been one of the main people pumping up the notion that Howard wants some sort of $200 mil contract. I never hear any RELIABLE source quoting that sort of thing.

  4. Sky

    April 06, 2008 02:13 PM

    Howard meets almost every criteria for being overrated (and thus over-payed):

    easy defensive position
    poor fielder at his position
    RBI guy
    plays in hitter’s park
    older than you think

    His high-strikeout total probably brings down his hype a bit (although it shouldn’t) and his high-walk totals help his underrated side.

    There’s no reason to pay a guy like this what he’ll demand, even though he’s a very good player.

  5. Nick

    April 07, 2008 01:06 AM

    In the Phil’s defense, they made a good deal for Rolen at the time. In retrospect, it looks horrible, but put yourself back in 2002 and it wasn’t an awful trade. As a Cardinals fan, I can honestly tell you it hurt at the time to lose Bud Smith, he had a great rookie season, 3.83 ERA, 1.2ish WHIP, 59 K’s to 24 Walks. We liked him, and thought that he was going to be special for us. He wasn’t an Ace, but he figured to be a solid 2-3 guy for years to come. His sophmore season started out horrible, so I guess everything I just said can be erased, lol 1-5, 6.90 something ERA, 1.8ish WHIP (don’t quote me on this, but those numbers are close). As far as Polanco is concerned, he’s solid as they come. Timlin has been good, and then poor his whole career, but the Phils could definately have used him over the past few years. Just because they botched the handling of these guys after the deal, doesn’t mean that the deal was awful. It’s the handling of contracts and refusal to spend money that kills them.

  6. Bill Baer

    April 07, 2008 03:25 AM

    I don’t agree that the Phillies “botched” the Schilling and Rolen deals. Both were the result of players who told the rest of the league they wanted out, so the everyone knew the team was trading from a weak position.

    This is the fault of the Phillies, though, CJ. Both felt the Phillies organization wasn’t putting 100% into fielding a competitive team.

    P.J., I was despondent when the Phillies’ upper management chose an old, injury prone, ineffectual David Bell over Polanco. Then to see him put up some pretty good years in Detroit while the Phillies fumbled around with Bell’s last years, Abraham Nunez, and Wes Helms (and now Pedro Feliz)… you can’t help but feel remorseful.

    Carl, I don’t read enough of Stark’s work to know what kind of bias he has for or against teams and players, but from what I’ve seen and read, he seems pro-Philly. Not sure what he’d have against Howard.

    On Todd Zolecki’s blog, he said of Howard, “It was believed that reaching an agreement with Howard on a multiyear contract is going to be difficult. He was seeking a contract far in excess of the seven-year, $100 million contract extension that the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols received in 2004.”

    Sky, the age is probably the biggest factor with Howard. The Phillies actually are lucky that they brought him up so late because unless they trade him soon, they are guaranteed to have him in his prime years, and can simply brush their hands on that downward slope.

    Nick, there’s no one in the Schilling deal I’d have wanted to stick around longer than they had to. Vicente Padilla was good for a couple seasons but I’m glad they finally got rid of him, he’s really not much better than Adam Eaton.

    Polanco is the only player in any of the deals I had any interest in keeping.

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