Why A Ryan Howard Trade Makes Sense
Ruben Amaro did all of his chores this off-season. Maybe he didn’t do them as satisfactorily as we would have preferred, but he did them, damn it. He signed a third baseman, acquired an ace starter he could sign to a multi-year extension, bolstered the bench, and added depth to the bullpen. He also avoided going to arbitration with Joe Blanton, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, and Chad Durbin.
The only chore left on the list is to determine the fate of right fielder — and cultivator of the beard that fried the Interwebs — Jayson Werth.
On Twitter, I briefly jawed with @Phylan of Fire Ruben Amaro and @Phrontiersman of Phillies Nation, discussing the possibility that Placido Polanco will only be the Phillies’ third baseman for the duration of the 2010 season, and then will move to second for 2011-12 following a trade of Ryan Howard and a shift to first base for Chase Utley. In my hypothetical, the trade of Howard would allow the Phillies to clear enough payroll space to re-sign Werth.
CHONE projects Polanco to be worth about 4 batting runs in 2010.
Additionally, CHONE projects Polanco to be worth about 6 fielding runs (obviously not from softball bats), but it’s based on his previous playing time at second base. As you know, Polanco will be manning the hot corner in Philadelphia, a position he hasn’t played full-time since 2002. Projecting him to be average (0 fielding runs) is optimistic, but let’s use it — again, for simplicity.
Polanco would get about 21.5 replacement-level runs if he were to accrue 650 PA. And then to adjust for position, we would give Polanco 2.5 runs (second and third base, as well as center field, add 2.5 runs).
All told, Polanco the third baseman is worth 4+ 0 + 21.5 + 2.5 = 28 runs above replacement, which roughly translates into 2.8 wins above replacement.
Polanco the second baseman is worth 4 + 6 + 21.5 + 2.5 = 34 runs above replacement, or about 3.4 WAR.
Going forward, the calculations will follow the same formula, so I won’t spell them out every step of the way. The positional adjustments are found here.
Would Chase Utley be as good a defender at first base as he is at second? In a sample size roughly 36 times smaller, Chase has put up a 16.2 UZR/150 at first base (200 defensive innings) compared to a 15.5 at second (7200 defensive innings).
Most of his defensive value at second base stems from his range. On average, he’s good for about 14.5 range runs per 1,350 defensive innings, compared to 0.2 double play runs and 0.2 error runs. Utley’s performance in a very limited sample has shown that he has similar range at first base, but it needs to be regressed to the mean.
- Double play runs: -0.2
- Range runs: 1.8
- Error runs: 0.5
- Total: 2.1
CHONE projects him to provide about 4 fielding runs at second base.
Chase the second baseman: 33 + 4 + 21.5 + 2.5 = 61 RAR, 6.1 WAR
Chase the first baseman: 33 + 2 + 21.5 – 12.5 = 44 RAR, 4.4 WAR
We have to figure the value of Jayson Werth, Ryan Howard, and replacements at RF and 3B for 2011 and 1B for 2012. For the sake of argument, we’ll use CHONE’s WAR projection for 2010.
- Werth: 4.7 WAR
- Howard: 4.4 WAR
Again, for the sake of argument, we’ll assume the Phillies find an average player to fill in at right field, third base, and first base.
- Average RF: 0 + 0 + 21.5 – 7.5 = 14 RAR, 1.4 WAR
- Average 3B: 0 + 0 + 21.5 + 2.5 = 24 RAR, 2.4 WAR
- Average 1B: 0 + 0 + 21.5 – 12.5 = 9 RAR, 0.9 WAR
Now we add it all up:
- Utley, 1B: 4.4 WAR
- Polanco, 2B: 3.4 WAR
- Replacement 3B: 2.4 WAR
- Werth: 4.7 WAR
- Total: 14.9 WAR
The status quo:
- Howard, 1B: 4.4 WAR
- Utley, 2B: 6.1 WAR
- Polanco, 3B: 2.8 WAR
- Replacement RF: 1.4 WAR
- Total: 14.7 WAR
Making the trade would cost the Phillies roughly one-fifth of a win above replacement. Of course, trading Howard with one year left on his contract would allow the Phillies the flexibility to sign Werth for several years (three + option most likely). In 2012, the Phillies would be getting about 15 WAR if they trade Howard, while getting only 11.2 WAR if Werth leaves after 2010 and let Howard leaves after 2011.
Plus, a Howard trade could net them prospects and some players who can help out at the big league level, perhaps someone who could contribute at an above-average level at third base. The Phillies’ Minor League system at present has only two prospects whom Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus ranks as four-star or better: Domonic Brown and Phillippe Aumont.
Like the trade of Cliff Lee, the short-term benefits of a Ryan Howard trade are marginal at best, but down the road such a maneuver would have benefits. In fact, the Lee trade is a perfect analogy: trading a star player with just one year remaining before free agency to acquire/retain someone else (Roy Halladay/Jayson Werth) who is locked up for a longer period of time.
I think that, based on the data, the domino effect of trading Ryan Howard is worth starting, but only if it was a lock that Werth would re-sign at a reasonable price. The Phillies could trade Howard and escape from his entire $20 million salary in 2011 (the more money they want to clear, the less they get back in terms of talent. Then they would re-sign Jayson Werth to a three-year, $50 million deal that is backloaded, paying him $13 million in ’11 and $18.5 million each in ’12 and ’13.
That would save the Phillies $7 million in 2011, with $125 million committed to 17 players. The top 17 Phillies this year are making a combined $136 million, so the team would actually be in better financial shape next year to round out the roster.
In short, trading Ryan Howard after the 2010 season allows the Phillies to:
- Clear payroll space
- Retain Jayson Werth
- Replenish the farm system and/or acquire a productive third baseman
- Stay competitive in 2012 and beyond, when the Phillies can lose as many as eight other players to free agency
As for caveats, there are a few. My methods for deriving the players’ level of production is somewhat arbitrary. For specificity, you would want to account for aging for all parties involved. Also excluded was base running which adds even more to the case to trade Howard, who is not a productive runner. I used CHONE projections; others may prefer another system such as PECOTA. There is also scarcity to account for, as it’s easier to find average first basemen than third basemen. Lastly, there are other scenarios in which Ryan Howard is traded that don’t involve moving Utley to first base.
Overall, though, I think I touched the most important bases. Feel free to comment and add to my case or to present a counter-argument.