If you jump into your way, way back machine and set the dial for the spring of 2010, you’ll notice some half-hearted rumbles about the Phillies exploring a Ryan Howard for Albert Pujols swap. These were quickly and unsurprisingly snubbed.
Move up to April 26 and Ryan Howard was the proud owner of a five-year, $125 million extension. A sixth year option for $23 million has a good chance to be accepted thanks to a $10 million buyout. The real head scratcher is that the deal doesn’t kick in until the 2012 season. In other words, the Phillies signed away almost two seasons of talent evaluation in return for what most in the analytic community would describe as a nearly guaranteed negative return on investment.
Unsurprisingly, the extension was widely panned and remains a go to example of questionable talent evaluation. However, Buster Olney shed some light on the Phillies thought process today in a pair of tweets.
By the way: This Pujols situation is EXACTLY what the Phillies gamed out when they talked internally about Pujols for Ryan Howard swap.
And to be clear: That Phillies’ internal conversation about Howard for Pujols took place last spring, BEFORE Howard signed his contract.
Let’s try to break down the time table. As we have already noted, prior to negotiating the extension with Howard, the Phillies brass talked internally about pursuing a Howard-Pujols swap. This idea may strike many readers as ridiculous, but there is some merit to the thought. Howard is originally from St. Louis, making the move a homecoming for him and the kind of public relations score required to avoid riots in St. Louis. Further, while Howard will never fill Pujols’ Goliath sized shoes, he can certainly provide some serious production. In the interest of not traveling too far down this particular rat hole, let’s just say there are ways to make this idea work for all parties involved.*
In any event Ruben Amaro Jr. and friends moved past their Pujolsian fantasies, at least the version where they play the protagonist (or antagonist depending on your perspective). It seems they concluded that it was quite possible that the Pujols situation would deteriorate in St. Louis, but not worth the effort of trying to acquire him. This could be because they believed the Cardinals could not be swayed or simply because they were worried that Pujols’ demands would be implacable.
This left the Phillies brass with a new decision to make. Should they extend Howard or gamble on a free agent market that could include Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, Pujols, and the other lesser names. Clearly the Phillies chose against gambling on the market, a decision that is easy to justify. Which left them with one final pressing issue – when to sign the extension.
Ultimately, the result of this revisionist account of events is that the Phillies’ decision makers foresaw today’s Pujols fiasco and decided to lock up Howard before he noticed the opportunity to play in front of his hometown Cardinals. If this is truly the thought process Amaro Jr. followed, the Howard extension now makes a little more sense.
*Yesterday, Dave Cameron ridiculed the idea of a Mark Teixeira or Howard for Pujols swap. There are many reasons such a trade would not work. Pujols has said he will exercise his no-trade clause. If he changes his mind, the Cardinals should be able to pursue healthier packages than a mere Teixeira or Howard exchange. However, the Cardinals may seriously consider a similar swap after the season. The Yankees or Phillies could free up roster space and payroll by swapping Teixeira or Howard for a couple fringe prospects. The Cardinals would essentially be landing a respectable replacement bat and two draft picks. The trade would of course be contingent on Pujols agreeing to terms.