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Phil Sheridan’s latest column for the Inquirer is titled, “Howard injury may signal end of Phillies era”. Ryan Howard was recently placed on the disabled list with the same knee injury that has been nagging him all season. The Phillies haven’t ruled out surgery as an option to get the slugger back on track. Between June 11 and his last game on July 5, Howard had posted a .930 OPS in 86 trips to the plate and overall was hitting ten percent better than the league average. Sheridan says that with Howard gone, the Phillies may end up selling off some of the other standbys like Chase Utley, effectively ending arguably the greatest era of Phillies baseball.
The truth is, unfortunately, that it wasn’t Howard’s latest injury — nor the torn Achilles at the end of 2011 — that signaled the end; it was a foregone conclusion when GM Ruben Amaro officially signed Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract extension in April 2010. At the time, it was a popular move. Howard had an aggregate .961 OPS with 222 career home runs between 2004-09. That, all too often, is the undoing of such grandiose deals in baseball: paying for past production, rather than anticipating future production. The Angels are paying for it already with Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton; the Red Sox were feeling the weight of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez‘s contracts before suckering the Dodgers into assuming their salaries (and the Dodgers now wish they hadn’t).
Howard’s flaws were evident even at the time. Teams had begun employing an infield shift, cutting into his hit rate on ground balls hit to the right side. Opposing managers were quick to bring in left-handed relievers to neutralize him late in games — in 2009, Howard posted an OPS 453 points higher against right-handers than against lefties. Fastballs, which Howard either pulled deep into the right field seats or sliced over the fence to the opposite field, began disappearing in favor of sliders low and away. At the time the extension was signed, Howard was 30 years old and still two years away from free agency. The extension would not officially begin until 2012 at age 32. He will be 37 in 2017 when the Phillies will likely buy out the final year of his contract for $10 million. He was, and still is, a one-dimensional player whose flaws have only barely been outweighed by his one positive attribute, his bat.
Apart from being ill-advised, the extension signaled Amaro’s flawed going-for-broke strategy. Amaro traded three prospects to the Astros in July 2010. He signed Cliff Lee as a free agent in December 2010 to a five-year, $120 million deal. He traded four prospects to the Astros, including Howard’s potential replacement at first base in Jonathan Singleton, for Hunter Pence. It didn’t work out. The Phillies were dominated in the 2010 NLCS by the pitching-rich Giants, came up short in the 2011 NLDS to the well-rounded Cardinals, and missed the playoffs entirely last season. They will likely be scheduling October golf outings in several months as well.
Everything that has happened to Howard since he signed the dotted line was eminently predictable; none of it is shocking. His Achilles injury was indeed a freak injury, but also something that should have been considered in Amaro’s risk-reward calculus prior to offering the deal. Players in their mid-30′s are less durable than players in their 30′s, particularly first basemen with poor running skills. Howard’s recent knee injury is indeed unfortunate, but he was never going to span the length of his five-year extension avoiding the consequences of the wear-and-tear of a 162-game season.
Howard’s $25 million on the books was felt in a big way during the past off-season. When the Phillies could have been pursuing a big-name free agent or two to make one more legitimate push for the playoffs like Amaro wanted, they had to settle for signing an old, injured reliever in Mike Adams, trading for an unproductive third baseman in the waning years of his career in Michael Young, and trading for an effective coin in the wishing well in Ben Revere. None are the moves a team thinking itself a championship contender would make if not hamstrung financially.
If the Phillies wind up as sellers in the next few weeks, it will ultimately be for the better. Consider it the post-hangover clean up effort in your apartment after a weekend bender. The only difference is the Phillies still have to care for the elephant in the bedroom.