Ryan Howard needs a contract…and a trade

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…

Ryan Howard homers during Game 4 of the World Series

  • 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.

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26 Comments

Filed under General Bull

26 responses to “Ryan Howard needs a contract…and a trade

  1. ateatum

    Great post

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  3. Dusto

    I could see a match with Derrek Lee and a few pitching prospects. You’d save at least a million bucks and get a decent return. Lee is on the downside of hs career, but he will be a free agent after 2010. I guess the prospects would have to be pretty good too…

  4. blueelvis

    It’s all well and good to suggest trading Ryan Howard, but there are only a few major league teams that could take him (and his enormous number) on. Do those teams have the type of farm systems that would warrant a trade of Howard? If they do have the talent, would they want to trade it away to get the same thing you suggest the Phillies should get rid of? The only team that I could possibly see doing it would be the Yankees, and with the contracts that they have just handed out, and the draft picks they lost doing so… I don’t think they will be in a position to do it. $25M is a lot for a DH, because that’s what Howard really should be. Unfortunately I think the Phils are saddled with him until he’s a free agent. You should just be happy that Boras isn’t his agent.

  5. Ben

    Personally I think Howard is one of the most overrated players in the game. He swings for the fences everytime. A lot of players could drive in as many runs and hit as many home runs as he does if they batted like him. He strikes out way too much and it hurts the team. Strikeouts are a rally killer and I hate that. He provides little speed and can have lapses in defense over a first. He is not worth what he wants in arbitration and is in his prime. He is not going to get any better.

  6. T

    “A lot of players could drive in as many runs and hit as many home runs as he does if they batted like him.”

    Except no one else does. If everyone “tried to bat like him”, they would just strike out more, hit a lot of fly ball outs and hit .176.

  7. JAMES DUCKWORTH SLC UTAH

    IT IS WHAT IT IS
    YES HOWARD IS A GREAT PLAYER
    BUT FOR THE TIMES WAY TO GREEDY
    I SAY SIGN AND TRADE HIM

  8. thatsmyboye

    Blueelvis: I believe that to be the biggest obstacle of any particular deal. Let’s assume he plays out this year for the Phillies and has a year at a 2007 or 08 level. That’s pretty good, but it means he’ll get another raise.

    And you’re absolutely right. The number of teams that could afford to take that on – not to mention the prospect of another raise if they can’t buy pout that arb year – is minuscule.

    Maybe a better option would be to sign him to a deal that buys out his remaining arb years and then find a suitor.

  9. Pingback: Why not Adam Dunn? « The Phrontiersman

  10. GoPhils

    Ben wrote, “He swings for the fences everytime. A lot of players could drive in as many runs and hit as many home runs as he does if they batted like him.”

    Season starts in April, Ben. Before embarass yourself again, you should watch a few games on the TV and get a feel for how the game is played.

  11. George Korey

    Howard reminds me of a young Richie Allen.He even looks like him. I agree eventually he needs to be traded for pitching. We will eventually lose him anyway in the near future. Slugging 1st baseman are a dime a dozen. I also remember the Phillies with Richie Hebner and and then free agent Pete Rose at 1st. I still believe if we kept Hebner, spent the money on free agent starting pitchers instead of Pete Rose we would have 2-3 more World Series trophies. The dynasty’s win with pitching and defense. You can always find home run hitters. Lookt now with Burrell, Dunn, Ramieriez etc….

  12. GoPhils

    George Korey wrote, “The dynasty’s win with pitching and defense. ”

    GoPhils wonders, If the Phillies could ship off Ryan Howard and bring back slick-fielding Rico Brogna, would they be more likely to repeat?

  13. GoPhils

    thatsmyboy describes Howard as a player “with incredible power but well below average defense” but offers nothing to substantiate his claim about the defense.

    Here are Howard’s 2008 rankigs among starting NL first basemen in some of the more sophisticated defensive statistics:

    Range factor per 9 innings: 5th of 15

    Ultimate zone rating per 150 games: 8th of 15

    Range Runs: 5th of 15 ( This stat measures how many runs above or below average a fielder is, determined by how the fielder is able to get to balls hit in his vicinity.

    I could go on, but my guess is nobody’s going to believe me anyway.

    Look, Howard is a solidly average defensive player at the least important defensive position on the field. His defense doesn’t help his value, but it doesn’t hurt it either.

    Offensively, his declining stats are a big concern. Enough of a concern that I woulld not sign him to a long-term deal until I see what he does this year.

    But, if he puts up numbers for the next six or seven years equal to the numbers he put up in the first three years, he will be a Hall of Famer, and those of you calling for him to be traded will go down in Philadelphia sports history with the numnuts who ran Richie Allen and Wilt Chamberlin out of town.

  14. Peter

    Giants fan here, I put Matt Cain on the table, who else do you want for Ryan Howard? How about our young 1B Travis Ishikawa and OF Fred Lewis with Cain for Ryan.

    Lincecum is the only untouchable on the big league roster, but we have a number of untouchables in the minors…

  15. Peter

    And by the way, you Phillie fans that went to get rid of Howard are absolutely nuts…I will go ahead and take an MVP, potential Hall of Famer and one of the great sluggers of our time any day….

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  17. GoPhils

    Peter … If we left it up to our knucklehead fans to make the deals, we’d trade you Howard for Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand. Then, when we were losing 100 games a year, we’d bitch about how cheap the management is and wax nostalgic about the golden era of Richie Friggin Hebner.

  18. Yankee Fan

    your an idiot. Howard is your best player. You want to trade him? Trade him to the Yankees, and we will take him and use him or trade him for somthing we need. The writer is an Iditot just needed to say that again!

    Congrats i was goning for the phillies all playoffs. (NYY was not in)

  19. Ohpityme

    The Howard for Cain deal is okay-ish in theory but it fails to take into account that Howard is:
    Left handed…why would he go to San Fran? His HR totals would drop so much that he might not even make it to 500.
    And that SF is another NL club and he really would benefit from being long term at a AL club.
    Trades I can think of off my head are :
    Toronto for Roy Hallady but Phillie would need to throw in at least one good pitching prospect as well because Halladay is one of if not the best pitcher in the league.
    Anaheim for Santana, Morales and a few more prospects.
    And I’m sure Boston have the prospects to get it done and they could do with a power threat to eventually supplant Ortiz and Howard is very Mo Vaughn alike.

  20. SC

    Yankee Fan: Howard isn’t the second, or even third best player on the Phils (Rollins, Utley, Hamels).

    What about a Howard for Carlos Pena and some of the Rays’ minor league pitchers (Davis/McGee [who just had TJ surgery]/Niemann)?

  21. Padre

    SC looks like they get it. I want Howard on my team BUT only if I can continue to put a World Series contender on the field. I’m not sure that kind of money for his contributions do that.

  22. Padre

    Hey Peter the Giant fan, you already had that player. Was he worth it? I look at the cost of a player in terms of the investment and, ultimately, the return on that investment. I really like Ryan Howard but he’s no Albert Puhols and won’t give the Phils that kind of return on their money. Fortunately for him, there’s no non-contract related salary issues… yet.

  23. thatsmyboye

    Thanks for all the comments so far. Please remember to keep it civil.

    GoPhils: I regret not including exact figures on defensive metrics. You are correct in saying that Howard is about in the middle of the pack defensively. Range factor for a first baseman is a little misleading, but I’ll grant you that he rates decently in that area.

    However, for a guy whose cumulative fielding value over replacement has been -0.2 over the last three years to have his BATTING value over replacement plummet steadily (60.6 to 33.5 to 19.9), you’ve got to be better than just average.

    We already got our championship with him. Do I love the guy? Do I want to see him mash for us? Absolutely on both counts. Realistically, though, his inflating salary, concerns about durability given his body and size, and declining offense give me reason to believe we can assure ourselves of great future MLB talent now, instead of just getting a couple draft picks when Howard is probably declared a Type A in 2011.

  24. thatsmyboye

    At least, I’m assured in that no opposing GM seems to have come out and called him on that yet.

  25. Padre

    The fundamental building blocks of a great player don’t change. Defense counts. If you want great-player money than play great defense too. I would be willing to give that aspect of his game a little more time if there was some indication that he cared about it and/or was working on improving it. I’ve seen neither.

  26. Pingback: Please, don’t ever be like this « The Phrontiersman

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