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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Ryan Howard and a Megabucks Long-Term Contract

All we heard in spring training was about the Phillies' going head to head with Ryan Howard and trying to hold the line on salaries. Howard, eligible for salary arbitration for the first time, was asking for $10 million; the Phillies' countered with (what some fans considered was a miserly) $7 million. During the time leading up to the arbitration, we heard fans and pundits offer that the Phillies' ownership was being predicably cheap, that holding the line on this rare slugger was a mistake and guaranteed to put him in a Yankees' uniform in 2012. Howard won the arbitration, and, to both parties' credit, they handled the matter (at least publicly) with dignity.

The season then began, and people began to forget about Howard and his contract issues. After all, he did just win $10 million, and the beginning of the season transcended contractual matters. Then a funny thing happened -- Ryan Howard looked like he forgot how to hit for the first say 35 games of season, waving at all sorts of junk and hitting a paltry .174, or roughly his weight in the eighth grade. Suddenly, all of those folks who had challenged the Phillies' wisdom of not giving Howard Miguel Cabrera-like numbers (and, after all, Cabrera showed that he couldn't lay off the junk food last year, while Howard has a nutrionist who helps keep his big-boned physique in check) grew silent, about as silent as they were loud when the Phillies disagreed with the first baseman's arbitration number.

Instead of advocating that the Phillies open up their vault for Howard, they were silently praying that their slugger would return to form. Thankfully, within the past 10 days, the slugger has started to hit. Put Howard's recovery along with the return of Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino, and the Phillies somewhat dormant bats (yes, they have been hitting homers, but their team batting average was among the worst in the NL) are going to start making quite a racket (witness last night, when OF Jayson Werth cranked 3 home runs and knocked in 8). All of this, of course, is positive for the Phillies.

But then there's that lingering question of a long-term deal for Howard and what he's worth. Current Phils' GM Pat Gillick doesn't like long-term deals. Then again, Gillick is retiring after this season and his heir apparent, Assistant GM Ruben Amaro, might feel differently. Still, the bright folks at Baseball Prospectus have been consistent in their belief that Howard doesn't project for consistent production over the course of say, a seven-year deal, because players with his size historically don't play well into their mid-30's (especially without the assistance of performance enhancing substances). Names such as Bobby Bonilla and Mo Vaughn, among others, come to mind. The former got heavy, and the latter got so heavy that he had orthopedic problems (ankle) that rendered him unable to play. Atop that, Howard is (very) streaky, and then you wonder whether at 28 (Howard will be 29 in November), Ryan Howard is worth a 7-year, $140 million deal (Chase Utley a year ago receive a 7-year, $84 million deal -- while Utley hasn't slugged the way Howard has, he's more likely to be productive -- very, perhaps -- at 36 than Howard is). Finally, there's the Barry Zito albatross, which is that no GM wants to give a long-term deal to a hitter who turns out to be the hitting version of Zito, the Giants' hurler who got $126 million in a long-term deal a few years ago only to fall off the cliff.

It's not easy to be a GM, is it. Sure, you have to pay for the top talent, because it's hard to have a top team if your payroll isn't in the top third of all of baseball. I believe that the numbers show that, and while the Rays and Marlins are doing well right now with (much) less than the traditional front-runners, it's only mid-May, and novas tend to flame out over the summer. It's an age-old story in baseball. Yes, right now the Rays and Marlins are doing well and the Rays particularly project out well over the course of the next several years, but their current formulas are much more ones as to how to rebuild a team than they are to build a champion now. That digression aside, do you lock up Howard at what he wants, negotiate something in the middle, or keep on taking him to arbitration until he's in his early 30's?

Somehow, so long as Howard continues to do an excellent job of keeping his own middle in check, I think that the middle is where both sides will (reasonably happily, too) end up.


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