It’s fitting that, on Groundhog Day, Phillies fans are reliving a familiar scenario.
Just last year, Ryan Howard and the Phillies were charging toward an arbitration hearing, unable to reach an agreement after Howard’s $10M asking price was submitted.
Now, nearly a year after Howard was awarded his riches, the Big Man has requested $18M in arbitration. The Phillies have come in at $14M, a record in itself should this case go to a hearing once more.
Win or lose, Ryan Howard will get paid.
He should also get a trade.
I will not argue that what Ryan Howard has done in his relatively short time in the Major Leagues is remarkable. His power production is unrivaled for a player early in his career. He hits home runs everywhere, though having Citizens Bank Park as home turf is certainly no detriment. He has already made history.
Howard is also on the precipice of financial history as well, and it doesn’t bode well for Philadelphia.
Consider what Howard has already accomplished. In 572 career games, he has…
- 2,071 ABs
- 177 HRs
- 283 extra-base hits
- An MVP award in 2006, and a runner-up in 2008
- A .279 average, .380 OBP, and .970 OPS
- A World Series title
An impressive resume, to be sure. And it’s certain that Howard and his agent will want to emphasize these points ad nauseum at any potential arbitration hearing. What Phillies advocate Tal Smith will want to point out are numbers more like the following:
- 692 Ks
- A decline in batting average, OBP, slugging, walk rate, and WPA
Don’t let quantity outweigh quality. Both sides of this argument have equal weights of valid points to make later this month, should a hearing take place.
And while we see that Howard has declined in quite a few areas over the course his three full seasons, it’s important to approach these numbers rationally.
Looking at Howard’s BABIP – or, batting average on balls in play – we see more of a return to normalcy than a regression to Rob Deer-like status.
During his 2006 MVP campaign, more than 36% (.363) of the balls Howard put in play – strikeouts and home runs are excluded – found ground and gave him a hit. That’s a number few players will ever attain, and it signifies a fair amount of luck.
Though it may partially be due to the increased use of an infield shift against Howard and batters like him, Howard’s BABIP fell to .336 in 2007 and a very low .289 in 2008.
For comparison, Albert Pujols had a .340 BABIP on his way to posting a .357 batting average, but that’s in line with his career.319 figure in that area. Howard’s career BABIP is .334. Perhaps it’s safe to say that Howard suffered through a bit more than his fair share of bad luck last year, with more balls in play than usual finding fielders than grass.
What BABIP has no read on, however, are strikeouts and poor fielding, and let us not forget that, on August 24, Howard was posting an offensive line of .227/.316/.475 prior to his mammoth, season-saving September explosion.
It’s difficult to get an accurate read on Howard. It’s easy to point to his power numbers, but those alone can not pay a player with Howard’s descending OBPs $18M. Runs batted in are nice, to be sure, but unless a player hits 120 solo homers every year, he’s going to need runners on base during his at-bats to drive in. To that end, RBIs really aren’t a true measure of a player’s worth.
So, the question I pose is this: would you pay a 29-year-old first baseman with incredible power but well below average defense $18M, knowing full well that two more arbitration years – and two more considerable salary raises – follow?
Were he not in the position to make this kind of money, I would absolutely accept the pitfalls that come with Ryan Howard’s baseball skill. I’d accept the poor defense and innumerable bad at-bats in exchange for those precious game-changing swings and seemingly clockwork September explosions.
But for the sake of the future of the Phillies, trade options absolutely must be explored. Replacing Ryan Howard’s production would be very difficult, if not impossible. But if Howard wins, say, $25M in arbitration in 2010, that’s money better spent on pitching and long-term deals for core players, especially if Howard’s declining trend continues.
It’s certainly debatable, and we know for certain that Howard will not be dealt before opening day, and almost certainly not before next offseason.
What could the Phillies get? What would they need? Who could fill the hole?
Pitching would be an obvious target. Brett Myers will be eligible for free agency next winter, Jamie Moyer can’t pitch forever, and beyond Cole Hamels, what certainty does this rotation have outside of league average ball from Joe Blanton?
As bullpens grow in importance, relief prospects would certainly be welcome, too. Those details, however, would only be purely speculative and not even worth discussing until a trade appears more likely or necessary.
What we know is this: Ryan Howard is still a tremendous talent, but is beginning to show signs of decline already. His salary demands are becoming a burden, and it may be in the best interest of the organization to explore trade opportunities for the big slugger.
It’s not the east choice, and many fans may not understand. But for the future of the organization, it’s absolutely an avenue that must be traveled.