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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