The Ryan Howard deal: examining a baby albatrossby Joshua Fisher
April 27, 2010
Well, I guess this means we know which National League team would be the first volunteer to hop circuits should realignment so require. As you've surely seen, Ryan Howard and the Phillies agreed to a five-year, $125 million extension to his current contract. Howard will be a Phillie through at least 2016, and if the extension plays out as drawn up, he'll earn $144 million between the beginning of this year and the conclusion of the pact. Howard will be 32 by the time the extension even takes effect. The early returns on the Phillies' generosity are in, and they aren't pretty.
Bill Baer at Crashburn Alley:
Most Phillies fans will love the extension, as it keeps a fan favorite in town for a long time. Stat-savvy fans immediately dislike the deal. Most Phillies fans will come to loathe the deal in several years when the Phillies are hamstrung by Howard’s relatively large salary and declining production.
Already, Howard has shown signs of decline; his walk rate has declined every year since 2007 and sits at a paltry 3.6 percent thus far in 2010. His BABIP has been lower as more and more teams have employed an infield shift against him. Opposing teams also have been bringing in more left-handed relievers to face Howard and his production against them has swiftly dropped. His strikeout rate has declined gradually but so has his isolated power. Using FanGraphs’ pitch type linear weights, Howard’s production against the fastball has dropped every year since 2006. He has swung at more and more pitches outside of the strike zone every year since he came into the majors. Finally, his whiff rate (swinging strike percentage) has increased every year since 2006.
This will be a fun ride for two, maybe even three more years, but it will quickly become tumultuous.
Hardball Talk's Craig Calcaterra:
Here's a list of Ryan Howard's most comparable players through age 29—his age for the 2009 season—according to Baseball-Reference.com: Richie Sexson, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Willie McCovey, David Ortiz, Tony Clark, Mark McGwire, Carlos Delgado, Fred McGriff and Norm Cash. The only two guys on that list who didn't fall off a cliff before age 36 are McCovey and McGriff, and they were a heck of lot skinnier than even Ryan Howard 2.0 is. The rest of those names should constitute nightmare fuel for Phillies fans.
But the thing is, Howard doesn't even have to fall off a cliff in the next five years for this deal to be bad. It's bad on day one. Why? Because while we all like Howard, he's not as good as many like to think he is. Lefties are kryptonite to him. He doesn't walk nearly as much as a slugger like him should. While he's better than he was on defense, he's still bad and, before this contract was signed, seemed like a guy who was on the DH-express.
Rob Neyer, toiling away at ESPN:
But Howard's going to be paid like one of the best players in the sport, and he's not. Not one of the very best. Last year, enjoying one of his two best seasons, Howard might have been one of the 30 best players in the majors. Maybe one of the 25 best. And maybe, just maybe, if you stretch the boundaries of analysis and tilt everything in his favor, he was one of the 20 best players in the major leagues.
That was 2009. What will we (and the Phillies) be trying to do in 2015? Make a case for him as one of the 40 best players in the majors? One of the 50 best?
Ryan Howard's new contract is a testament the enduring power of the Are-Bee-Eye. It's also a testament to old-school ignorance: ignorance of aging patterns, ignorance of position scarcity, ignorance of opportunity costs ... hey, take your pick. The Phillies have done a lot of things right over the last few years. But this is a big bowl of wrong.
And finally, Phillies fans, I'll subject you to Matthew Carruth's post at Fangraphs:
Even if you think baseball’s salary per win goes up to $4.25 million this coming offseason and rises at a 5 percent clip every winter through 2017, Howard will need to produce an average of 4.75 wins from 2012 through 2017 just in order to justify his salary. If you factor in that Howard gets (even more) long-term security from this deal, then that average production levels goes up to 5.3 wins.
In other words, Howard will need six seasons that were better than his 2009 season, except over his 32-37 years. I’m not sure I would lay even money on him achieving even half of that. This contract is both incredibly risky and unnecessary since Howard was already signed through 2011. Say hello to baseball’s newest worst contract.
Pretty painful stuff, huh? Whether you're a mathemagician of the highest order or just a casual fan, it's clear that this deal makes no sense whatsoever. It's the worst sort of mistake: it didn't have to happen. While there will be drums and drums of virtual ink spilled on just how remarkably disastrous the contract itself is, I think there's some canary-in-the-coal-mine action going on here, too.
It's not just what the contract will mean to the Phillies organizationally. They're locked into tens of millions of dollars each year at the easiest position to fill in the National League. This probably means they'll lose Jayson Werth, so Domonic Brown needs to be ready to go sooner rather than later. The Phils will likely have to suffer the drama playing out in Boston over David Ortiz, but might still owe Howard $100 million while it unfolds. Howard, a fan favorite, seems destined to end up vilified for making what is, in a vacuum, a pretty great decision for himself. Should the Phillies fall far from their current perch atop the division, however, Howard will quickly come to symbolize the organization's decline.
Why am I so concerned this spells doom for the Phils' mini-dynasty? It's not just the money, the years, the roster inflexibility, and the negativity sure to follow this ill-fated extension. I mean, it is all those things, but there's more: The Phillies don't get it. And, really, there's no harsher indictment of an organization.
The Ryan Howard extension indicates that the Phillies think they're above the system. It's like they looked at the mega-contracts and decided, "You know what? Our guy is in that class." Well, there's Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. They're both earning ridiculous sums, but (a) they profile much better in their decline years and (b) it's the freaking Yankees. If any team can do whatever the heck it wants, its the Yankees. But guess what, Philadelphia: Even the Yankees don't burn through resources as egregiously as you might think.
"But Joe Mauer!" Ruben Amaro will shout. "A smaller market team is giving one player $23 million per year!" Yes, that's true. But he's also the best player in the league, an asset defensively, possessing skills that will age well, and—oh yeah—he's only 27. Miguel Cabrera's making a ton of money over a lot of years, too, but he's just a day older than Mauer. Now Carlos Lee, Vernon Wells, and Alfonso Soriano...those are some deals that are better indications of the future of Howard's new deal.
But I digress. The point here is that Howard's extension tells me the Phillies aren't interested in sustainable growth. While the Phillies are certainly in a position to spend handsomely on players, even the wealthiest clubs cannot afford to so aggressively compromise their long-term futures. Given the complete absence of any sort of reason to get this done now, I can't help but think the Phillies see themselves as something they're not. Yes, they're kicking some serious tail at the ticket booths, but what happens if the club hits a dry spell?
In extending Howard so needlessly, the Phillies bring their 2012 commitments to $87 million, and that covers just eight players. Given that Cole Hamels is one of six players who will either be extended or paid via arbitration, it's easy to see the Phillies' effective 2012 commitments are over $100 million. That's an unacceptable burden to place on a non-Yankees franchise, especially considering that every single player under contract through 2012 is likely to be worse then than he is today. Storm clouds on the horizon, these contracts.
What's so frustrating for a fan of good decision making is how easily this problem could have been avoided. Before the Howard extension, there were some problems the Phillies would have to overcome to maintain their current level of talent. The seven other contracts, alone, posed serious-enough issues. Adding Howard's to the list nearly guarantees roster cataclysm. Letting Howard walk after the 2011 season, by which time he'll really need a DH spot anyway, would have been painful. But it would have been the right move.
The inability to focus on the future will end up costing the Phillies dearly. And I can't see it ending well for Howard, either. Philadelphia won't suffer his struggles lightly, not when he's barely worth a roster spot, let alone $25 million per year. And, perhaps worst of all, the signing shows that Ruben Amaro's trust—however it is distributed—is misplaced. Amaro references Howard's remarkable work ethic as a reason not to fret over the back half of this deal. Unfortunately, that's a verse that mostly falls on deaf ears.
If nothing else, Howard's contract is certain to leave a legacy. Many commentators are projecting its impact on the next deals for Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez. I think this effect might be overstated. Yes, Pujols will get his. But I really believe Howard's deal so shockingly excessive and unnecessary that it will have a cooling effect on the market for sub-Pujols first basemen. After all, who is going to pay this kind of money? Not the Yankees, locked in at first base and designated hitter already. Not the Red Sox, too savvy to make this kind of commitment. Not the Phillies, newly-hung with a massive albatross. Not the Astros or Cubs, saddled with dead weight anchors of their own.
Maybe I'm being naive, but I really see this disaster of an extension as a breaking point. Designated hitters masquerading as first basemen must not be paid as the most valuable players in baseball. And, if the early reactions to the contract are an indication, the outcry over this deal is going to be impossible to ignore. This deal is indefensible. I know it, you know it, Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Doug Melvin know it. Only the Phillies don't. And, more than anything else, that should terrify Phillies fans everywhere.
Just three and a half months ago, I ranked the Phillies as the best organization in baseball from a fan's perspective. I wrote, "[T]hey're just moving in the right direction. The Phillies look to be in great position to make the postseason tournament each year going forward." Well, this is decidedly the wrong direction. And I sure feel a whole lot worse about the organization's future today than I did yesterday. The move itself is bad enough. What it says about decision making at the top of the Phillies' ladder is worse. This won't end well, and I'm not particularly looking forward to watching it fail.
Josh is a lawyer in the Kansas City office of Bryan Cave LLP. He created the website DodgerDivorce.com.