Imagining a Different Free Agent Market

The Inquirer’s Bob Brookover imagines what the winter meetings might have looked like if the Phillies hadn’t signed Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract early in the 2010 season. He contends that Howard would be in line with Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, seeking a deal approaching ten years. I contend that that assertion is pure fantasy, for many reasons.

One, Howard has been and clearly is an inferior player compared to the other two. Observe the following WAR graph, courtesy FanGraphs (click to enlarge):

Pujols is far and away the best of the three. Fielder and Howard are comparable, but Howard is four years older and has been declining rapidly. To think that any team would offer Howard a ten-year contract, especially after the last two seasons he’s had and completely ignoring his injury, is madness. It’s not just Brookover’s opinion; he quotes GM Ruben Amaro saying as much:

“There would be three of those guys out there looking for 10 years,” Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Wednesday as the winter meetings neared a conclusion.

Even more lunacy:

Amaro said he’s perfectly happy to have Howard for a five-year deal because he believes he may have had to pay him over 10 years if he had hit the free-agent market.

“I don’t want to pay him for 10 years,” the general manager said. “I don’t think any of those three guys would be wanting less than the other.”

Let’s not forget that the Phillies could have decided to go with Jonathan Singleton, traded for another first baseman, or signed a lesser free agent. The Phillies’ options weren’t limited to Howard, Pujols, Fielder, and (at the time) Adrian Gonzalez.

More from Brookover:

But what’s done is done, and the Phillies have to live with what they paid Howard. It’s not as if they are stuck with a bad player. Howard ranked sixth in baseball and third in the National League in RBIs last season with 116, and that’s because he hit .298 with runners in scoring position.

The Phillies are stuck with a corner infielder who will miss at least a good portion of the first year of his enormous contract. Between 2010-11, 15 qualified first basemen posted a better WAR than Howard (3.0 total). Nine of them posted a better wOBA than Howard (.360), including Pujols (.403) and Fielder (.394). All qualified first basemen were better defensively over the two-year time period, according to UZR, which put Howard at -17.4, 3.5 plays worse than the second-worst defender Paul Konerko. Even acknowledging the huge margin of error that comes with UZR, even in a two-year time period, Howard’s defense has ranged from slightly below-average to atrocious, especially when you account for his inability to throw to second base.

Additionally, as mentioned before, Howard’s batting average with runners in scoring position is artificially inflated because defenders do not shift to the right side of the infield when there are runners on base. Of course, runs batted in is a hilarious metric to use as it is very much team- and batting order-dependent.

You can complain that Howard strikes out too much and doesn’t walk enough. You can complain that he struggles against lefthanded pitching and chases too many breaking balls out of the strike zone. These are legitimate gripes. It’s also a justifiable concern that Howard might not be back until at least the beginning of May.

That does not change the fact that he is the biggest power threat the Phillies have and he has put together some of the most incredible seasons in franchise history, including a franchise-record 58 home runs in 2006 and 48 home runs the year the Phillies won the World Series.

List of players with a higher isolated power (ISO, which is slugging percentage minus batting average) than Howard during the 2011 season:

Whether Howard portends to be a power threat moving forward remains to be seen, but it’s highly questionable given a foot injury that could sap his power. Such an injury is the risk you take when you try to preempt the market by signing a one-dimensional player at a non-premium position to a large, multi-year contract that takes him past his mid-30′s.

The clock starts ticking on Howard’s five-year, $125 million deal in 2012, and there is a large population that believes the Phillies overpaid for their slugger. Maybe they could have had Fielder if they had waited. It’s doubtful that Pujols would have left St. Louis unless the Phillies were willing to pay an absurd amount of money.

There are a lot of consolation prizes worse than Ryan Howard.

Howard isn’t a consolation prize. A consolation prize is given when you compete with everybody else at the same time and don’t emerge victorious. In other words, if the Phillies had attempted to sign Pujols or Fielder, failed, and wound up with, say, Derrek Lee, that would be a consolation prize. Instead, what the Phillies did was show up to the carnival before people had begun to file in, looked at some of the available prizes at the ring toss, decided that a few of them would require too many tickets, then played ring toss until they won the Limp Bizkit poster from 2000. Hours later, many people walked away from the stand with key chains and other throwaway items, while a select few others paid as much — maybe a few dollars more — to play ring toss but earned an autographed Les Paul guitar.

It’s hard to make the guy with the Limp Bizkit poster look like a prophet, but that’s what Brookover is attempting to do with this column. The deification of Howard has, for the most part, stopped entirely, which makes it surprising that Brookover took such a disingenuous look into an alternate reality. There is simply no honest way to spin it so that the Howard contract looks good. There wasn’t a way when it happened in 2010, and there certainly isn’t a way now as we approach 2012.