Spring Storylines: The First Base Black Hole

Well friends, we’ve finally come to the end. This season will be Ryan Howard‘s last in a Phillies uniform. He’ll receive his $25 million salary, then a $10 million buyout, and he’ll take his 380± home runs to an American League city (I’m assuming he hits about 20 homers in 2016). Until then, the Phillies will deploy Howard as the exceedingly expensive half of a first base platoon, which is just about the worst use of two roster spots on a young team I can imagine. That’s not a knock on Klentak & Co., as their hands are tied by a sunk cost incurred long before their stewardship of the local nine.

We’re hopefully approaching the point where it’s no longer en vogue to openly mock the Phillies, but it’s been fashionable for so long that by now you’ve been saturated with reasons why your favorite baseball team stinks. So I’m not going too far down that rabbit hole — after all, I’ve been Captain Optimism for quite some time now — but I am going to respectfully remind you that in 2016, the Phillies will be spending (effectively) $35.5 million on a first base platoon. Woof.

Ryan Howard, despite his well-documented and precipitous decline, managed to have the 8th-best ISO among 20 qualifying first basemen last year. That’s not saying a lot, but it’s decidedly nonawful. Hey, that was better than Jose Abreu, Miguel Cabrera, and Buster Posey. Of course, ISO isn’t an all-encompassing valuation of a hitter, but if you want to know if your first baseman is hitting the ball real hard, it’s a pretty good metric. Unfortunately, for that “empty” ISO — Howard registered -0.4 fWAR and a 92 wRC+ along with a 27.4% strikeout rate — the Phillies are paying Howard more money than any other first baseman in baseball not named Miguel Cabrera or Albert Pujols. If you tack on the buyout, Howard’s effective 2016 salary is tops among all players at his position. That is absolutely brutal considering Howard was 20th out of 20 qualifying first basemen in 2015 fWAR, and 40th out of 44 1Bs who had at least 250 plate appearances. Again, a sunk cost, but one that still carries a keen sting.

I’ve already written my thoughts on Darin Ruf, in my 2015 report card, and nothing has changed since then. In admittedly limited and spotty playing time, he hasn’t shown he can consistently hit right-handers. Well, in a technical sense, he can physically make contact, but as I said in November, “.212/.281/.380 against righties isn’t going to cut it, especially for a first baseman.” Nonetheless, Ruf isn’t a free agent until 2020, so until one of the prospect catchers or outfielders (Andrew Knapp, Dylan Cozens, or perhaps 1B Rhys Hoskins) hits so well that he forces the franchise to clear the way at first, Ruf is presumably here to stay.

If by some stroke of good fortune the Phillies are able to pay an American League club to take Howard at some point this season, perhaps Darin Ruf will get two or three months to play every day and maybe even hit righties a little bit. I want to make it abundantly clear that when I say good fortune, I don’t bear any ill will toward Howard. I want him to succeed, have a renaissance even. Badly. I’ll always love him for who he was, but it’s painful to now see the onetime superstar as the albatross around the neck of the franchise.

John Stolnis of The Good Phight recently made the case that the Phillies should pursue free agent Pedro Alvarez on the cheap. I respectfully disagree with John as there really doesn’t seem to be a point in signing Alvarez, who managed just 0.2 fWAR in 2015 amidst a 26.7% strikeout rate and a .243/.318/.469 triple slash line. It’s possible he isn’t even an upgrade over Howard, whose 2015 was strikingly similar at .229/.277/.443. Considering the Phillies have already surrendered $35 million to this black hole, why bother spending a penny more for a player who’s not going to move the needle much, if at all? Besides, it wouldn’t align with the organization’s new approach of letting their younger players prove themselves while the team is still down in the dumps. First base can be an option for other players who need at-bats, like Cody Asche, or perhaps Maikel Franco on occasion when Pete Mackanin wants to fit Andres Blanco and Franco into the lineup on a Howard/Ruf off day.

What’s done is done. If the sun shines a little bit on Ryan Howard this season, I’ll be first in line to cheer. If Darin Ruf proves me wrong and forces his way into 400-plus plate appearances, that’ll be great too. But realistically, we’re just looking to power through one more season before the real fun starts in 2017.

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16 comments

  1. Romus

    February 19, 2016 08:13 AM

    If by some fortune the Phillies and also Ryan Howard, are able to find a buyer come end of July, some contender (more than likely an AL team) who could get him into one last playoff scenario, that could be a positive for all.
    My math may be off, but by then he would still be owed 1/3 salary for 2016 (approx. $8M) and the buyout of $10M. Phillies could pick up a sizable chunk of that if a better return could be had in exchange for Howard’s services.

    • Steve

      February 19, 2016 08:36 AM

      I expect the Phillies would have to pick up the 10 mil buyout right off the bat in any trade discussion. No team is going to want to tie themselves to that. Even if the phillies pick up most of Howard’s 2016 contract, i doubt the return is any better than a low level project or a high level low ceiling type player. It is what it is, lets just hope Howard provides us with a few big HRs and a few good memories in his final season.

  2. Major Malfunction

    February 19, 2016 08:47 AM

    He was something to see in his prime. But even if you ball all that together, THIRTY FIVE MILLION to play this year….in a platoon? What any player hopes to make in his lifetime, Howard will eclipse it in 1 season by platooning .220, 15 HRs, and data proven worst 1B defense in baseball. If he’s lucky! Don’t get me wrong, I love to see a renaissance too, but let’s face it, we’ve ALL been waiting for that since at least 2012. It’s over. It’s over to the sum of $35 million.

    2017 can’t get here fast enough That will really start a new beginning with all last traces of the RAJ regime buried and the real beginning of the next generation of Phillies putting it altogether.

    • Romus

      February 19, 2016 09:33 AM

      I hope MacP/Klentak do not indulge in authoring such large extended contracts….though if the likes of Nola, Franco, JPC, Williams, Alfaro, Thompson, ViVe, Appel et al, all pan out…..oh boy, there can be some sizable contracts to be handed out in 4/5 years.

      • rlh1004

        February 19, 2016 10:37 AM

        The thing is, the Phillies are one of handful of clubs who can legitimately afford large contracts. It just needs to be done wisely.

        My only real beef with the Howard contract was the fact that it was extended when he still had 2 years remaining on his original contract. The value of the contract at the time was right in line with his market value. Let’s all remember that, at the time of the extension, Ryan Howard was still one of, if not the, most feared hitters in the game.

        I’m not a fan of Amaro, but I really don’t hate on him as much for the Howard contract as a lot of guys. Nobody knew he would get hurt and how badly his production would fall off after that.

      • schmenkman

        February 19, 2016 10:51 AM

        @rlh1004, if they were going to extend him, the latest they would have done it would be leading up to the July 2011 trade deadline, so they extended him about 15 months earlier than they should have (we can debate whether they should have extended him at all, but I have to think that one way or another they intended to extend the “Big Piece” rather than let him test free agency).

      • JRFarmer

        February 20, 2016 09:26 AM

        @rlh1004
        “Nobody knew he would get hurt and how badly his production would fall off after that.”

        This fallacy has exceeded its shelf life. The Howard extension was widely panned the day it was announced, and it was panned for the exact reasons that turned out to be a horrible reality. Injury or not, his production was expected to fall and render this contract a laughing stock.

        crashburnalley.com/2010/04/26/howard-gets-extension-through-2016/

    • Major Malfunction

      February 19, 2016 11:59 AM

      Uh yes, completely blame Amaro for that dunce contract. There was no data to support that extension price even before he started tanking.

      When it comes to all times Phillies with 1000 or more games played, Howard ranks 26 out of 33. He’s actually below Pat Burrell’s 16.7 total WAR and just above Clay Dalrymple. Remember him? Of course you don’t nor was he worthy of $125M.

      If any team would have offered them 5 years $125M, we would have lost our minds and assumed RAJ had done the same. It’s all about perspective and analytics. RAJ wasn’t good at either He did the bad business approach of throwing money at problems rather than doing something as simple as using a sort table on bbref.com to see what he was paying for.

      • schmenkman

        February 19, 2016 12:23 PM

        “Amaro” here should mean “ownership/front office”. While Amaro arguably could have (and should have) resisted, I believe ownership wanted to lock up Howard.

  3. Dante

    February 19, 2016 12:44 PM

    Quick question – why is the $10 million declined option included in the hit for 2016? The cap considers buyouts in the year it is applicable, in this case 2017. I’m not sure when they would actually have to pay the money out, but I doubt it’s at the time of the decline (say, November). I’ve seen this done elsewhere too regarding Howard, but never in discussions for any other player.

    • Adam Dembowitz

      February 19, 2016 01:27 PM

      What cap?

      To the larger point, I guess it’s a matter of perspective. The team won’t be employing Howard in 2017. They’re going to decline his contract option after the 2016 season is over, and pay him $10 million. Whether they send that check in November 2016 or January 2017, I honestly don’t know. The reason I choose to look at it as $35 million for the 2016 season is that Howard will be playing elsewhere in 2017.

      • Dante

        February 19, 2016 01:44 PM

        Of course, I meant luxury tax calculation purposes.

        Regarding the luxury tax calculation, see Addendum A page 263 of the CBA, which says the club option buyout is treated as a signing bonus, and pro-rated over the guaranteed years of the deal. This is why Howard’s contract is treated/considered as 5/$125, though he was only getting paid $23 mil/year. If they were to exercise the option, only the difference between the option salary and buyout is the hit for the option year.

        Nonetheless, I think it’s misleading to say they are paying him $35 mil this year when his actual paychecks will be $23 mil and luxury tax consideration is $25 mil. To your point about him playing elsewhere in 2017, that’s true, but they will be paying him $10 mil to do so.

  4. Steve Kusheloff

    February 19, 2016 02:09 PM

    If the Phillies get 35 homers and 85 RBIs from first base, that wouldn’t be too bad. We could always stick Ruf in the outfield and get him some ABs against righties, but we got a lot of bonafide outfielders we need to look at.

  5. Eddie

    February 19, 2016 07:53 PM

    “That’s not a knock on Klentak & Co., as their hands are tied by a sunk cost incurred long before their stewardship of the local nine.”

    This seems to reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of sunk costs, as it implies “well, he already has the contract, so you gotta play him.” The idea of sunk costs, properly applied, means you *ignore* his contract in deciding what to do: the money is (effectively) already gone no matter what they do, so it should be ignored in decisionmaking.

    ISTM there were several better options that had more upside potential:

    -Play Ruf everyday and see what happens
    -Give Asche time there to develop him as a useful bench player
    – Sign Napoli/Chris Carter/Mark Reynolds/etc. as a flippable bounceback candidate.

    • Adam Dembowitz

      February 20, 2016 12:08 PM

      You selectively took my quote out of the context of the prior sentence, which is that the team is using two roster spots for a first base platoon. The platoon itself is an acknowledgement of the sunk cost…they’re playing a $500,000 player three days a week instead of their $25 million man! Which is one of the underlying themes of the article. You know well enough that the Phillies aren’t just going to cut Ryan Howard so they can play Darin Ruf everyday.

      • Eddie

        February 21, 2016 01:47 PM

        I’m not taking anything out of context, because you just repeated the same error: You say the “platoon itself is an acknowledgement of the sunk cost;” Yes, it is …. and that’s the problem.

        Smart managers don’t acknowledge sunk costs, they ignore them. The ONLY thing that should factor into the decision is “what has the best likely outcome going forward.” If they/you think the chances of Howard bouncing back and regaining value are greater than the chances of Ruf/Asche/someone else having a breakout season when given the chance, well, then fine: I’d disagree, but it’s a rational and defensible choice.

        But when you say things like “Considering the Phillies have already surrendered $35 million to this black hole, why bother spending a penny more for a player who’s not going to move the needle much, if at all?” It suggests to me you are letting the sunk costs factor into your thinking. If signing Alvarez costs a penny, and you think he’s worth two pennies more than Howard, then the rational move is sign him and cut Howard, $35 million be damned.

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