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Ryan Howard contract good news for rest of NL East

The surest way to destroy a perennial champion in baseball is from the inside. A great franchise can get fooled by its own success into thinking it can do no wrong. It reacts to success by dishing out cushy contracts to its core members (locking them up well beyond the point where they can be expected to remain productive) and reacts to failure by overspending on outsiders.

The result is a bloated, inflexible roster that handcuffs the team in future seasons, leaving it incapable of quick-fix solutions to intractable problems. All it can do is wait until all those contracts expire and endure the inevitable decline. This is precisely what happened to the Baltimore Orioles in the late 1990s (with Albert Belle, Scott Erickson, Brady Anderson, et al.) and the New York Yankees (Bernie Williams, Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina, et al.) in the middle part of the 2000s, and it is what's happening to teams such as the Chicago Cubs (Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Kosuke Fukudome, et al.) and Houston Astros (Carlos Lee, Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman, et al.) right now.

By contrast, the Philadelphia Phillies were in a fairly enviable position. Coming off back-to-back National League pennants, and with the makings of another champion in 2010, they had their core locked up in long-term deals -- but mostly smart contracts that would expire at just the right time for the team to retain its precious flexibility. As we've written before, this arrangement left the Phillies a defined window for fulfilling their mini-dynasty, but also gave them the flexibility to cut ties with one or more declining veterans at exactly the right time and use the savings to re-load and keep the ship afloat.

That is what makes the Phillies' signing of Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract extension on Monday so puzzling. The deal tethers the Phillies to a lumbering first baseman -- at a staggering cost of $25 million annually (or a little less than one-fifth of its current payroll) -- through his mid-30s, when players almost inevitably suffer significant declines in production. Such deals are how perennial champions turn themselves into bloated underachievers.

For argument's sake, let's give the Phillies the benefit of the doubt. Howard, 30, has been a model superstar, combining consistency and durability (at least 144 games played in each of the previous four seasons) with unmatched power (an average of 50 homers and 143 RBI in those same four seasons). He has shown a willingness to work on weaknesses -- losing weight and improving his defense during the past couple of seasons -- and he has an impeccable reputation off the field.

Let's also assume the Phillies can project their future revenues accurately and are confident they can afford the Howard deal from start to finish. (By the time the contract starts in 2012, they will be out from under Jimmy Rollins, Brad Lidge and Jamie Moyer, among others.)

There are still plenty of reasons why the move was ill-conceived:

1. For $25 million a year (only Alex Rodriguez has a higher AAV, or average annual value) you should expect a flawless player. But Howard is far from flawless. He remains susceptible to left-handed pitching (.207/.298/.356 in 2009, .226/.309/.446 for his career) and breaking balls (witness the New York Yankees' dismantling of him in the 2009 World Series). And despite his improvements on defense, he is still just average with the glove.

2. There was little incentive to make the deal now. Howard was already signed through 2011, and the Phillies could have used the next two years to get a better gauge on how Howard aged through his early 30s, how the rest of their roster shaped up, and how the market for first basemen played out.

3. First base is a particularly easy position to fill. Want a superstar? Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez and Lance Berkman all reach free agency after 2011. Want to spend your money at a more premium position (such as shortstop) and sign a stop-gap at first base? No commodity in baseball is more freely available.

Inevitably, the pundits have singled out Pujols and Fielder as the big winners in the Howard deal -- as their market prices just went way up.

But I'll add another group of winners: the other four teams in the NL East. None have shown any ability to stop the Phillies' run atop the division. But with the Howard move, the Phillies are showing an ability to do it themselves.

By Dave Sheinin  |  April 27, 2010; 9:23 AM ET
 
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Comments

I like this deal, and I don't think it's the beginning of the end of the Phillies run in the NL East. There are few players in the major league that can hit 40+ homers and drive in 130+ RBIs each year, and Howard has been the best at it since making the move to the majors.

His defense has significantly improved this season, and he's a little more patient at the plate. When you also factor in the intangibles of Howard's clubhouse and off the field personality and leadership, and the fact that he's a phan phavorite, it makes good sense to ensure he remains a Phillie.

Congrats, Howie! Glad to see you'll be sticking around in Philly!

Posted by: Phan42 | April 27, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

There is some logic to your reasoning, but your overall argument is flawed.

First, your argument assumes Howard's production is somehow less than ARod's - AAV is a Sabre stat, which is nice, but doesn't tell the whole story. Since 2005, Howard has more home runs and RBI than any other player in MLB... and remember, in his first 2-3 years, Howard didn't have a lot of help on the Phillies. His four consecutive seasons of at least 45 home runs and 135 RBIs has only been matched by Babe Ruth and Sammy Sosa. Not Pujols, Fielder or any other power hitter in history.

Secondly, you again assume Pujols/Fielder will be available in 2011-2012. Can STL let Pujols walk? If they do, at that point, could a team like the Phillies actively bid with the deep pockets of NYY or BOS? Unlikely. As for Fielder, he doesn't have Howard's numbers, and unlike Howard, hasn't lost 30lbs of flab to turn himself into a more complete player. Gonzalez is a nice player, and better defensively, but again, your're looking at a potential bidding war for a player that might not be able to hack the tougher environs of the NL East. They also set the market for 1B and can let other teams over-pay for Pujols, Fielder and the like.

Lastly, your argument presumes the Phillies did this for no good reason. You missed the bigger picture. Roy Halladay and Chase Utley (you might have heard of them) are signed through 2013.(Club has 2014 option in Halladay). The final year of Howard's deal is not guaranteed ($10 million buy) and, unlike the contract Mark Texeira signed, Howard does not have a no-trade clause. Also, by creating cost certainty with Howard, that lets the Phillies explore options with their other pending free agents, most notably, Jayson Werth. They now have the parameters for a deal with Werth. At the time Howard's extension takes effect, the Phillies could also (if they choose) shed the contracts of Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Brad Lidge and Raul Ibnanez. So, they have additional payroll flexibility there as well.

Howard's deal makes sense for the Phillies... and isn't good news for the rest of the NL.

Posted by: CalamityJaneF4U | April 27, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

CalamityJane.....are you kidding. WTF? Are you a closet writer or just a wanna be reporter. Howard is not worth 25 million a year. HE IS NOT!!! Your Phillies blew this one. I hope they do more of this because the Nats will take over the reins of the NL East. I can see giving Doc 25 million for three years but to give Howard that much as he goes into his thirties is a HUGE mistake. But the classless Phillies fans will shower him with boos in a couple of years. Maybe even vomit on him.

My dislike for Philly fans grow each year. So write your nonsense and then use the paper for hankercheifs in 2012.

Posted by: eddie5 | April 27, 2010 11:03 AM | Report abuse

Another reason the MLB needs a meaningful salary cap.

Posted by: fearturtle44 | April 27, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

I like this deal, and there's no way Howard's getting booed in Philly unless he somehow turns into a self-centered diva and talks his way out of good graces (see Schilling, Curt; Rolen, Scott).

Posted by: DontWannaMyPostID | April 27, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

This article is LUDICROUS! Since becoming a full time starter NO ONE has scored more than Ryan Howard, look it up. That stat alone trumps his strikeouts and his "susceptibility" to left handing pitching. Also Ry How is a power hitter/slugger..which suggests that for his role on the team his best years are actually ahead of him. When you have one of the best players at his position in any sport (especially a home-grown talent) you lock that person up before they hit the open market and a bidding war ensues. This is a championship quality move not a champion buster.

Posted by: GreenDemon36 | April 27, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

The point is not if he is worth it or not; the point is would he have signed for less or could the Phillies have signed him to the same deal a year or two from now. If Howard gets hurt this year, the Phils will look pretty silly. Other than perhaps the Red Sox and Mets nobody would have offered $100 million for five years. It doesn't mean Howard won't be worth it, it just means the Phillies could have done better for themselves.

Posted by: jaguar2490 | April 27, 2010 11:50 AM | Report abuse

Hard to knock the Phillies for making this deal. Odds are Pujols goes for much more money. Berkman is not the answer for them (age and injury history), Fielder is more of an injury risk and less of a good guy and the Phils have a WS and an NL pennant with Howard, which may finish with HOF type numbers. All of the stuff in the piece about how teams take on long term contracts and suffer the inevitable decline is overstated. Sure, some clubs spend irrationally, but locking up star players long term is what builds dynasties and every year contenders too.

What is interesting about this deal is how much Dunn will now likely get on the market -- a LOT more than the Lerners are willing to pay for him and a lot more than they could have goten him for had they been serious in ST about making a deal. Dunn is damn near the same player, yet is better versus lefties (he'd hit 50 HR's in Philly) and his woeful glove is actually coming around to a tolerable level.

Posted by: dfh21 | April 27, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

The best reason to lock up players long term is to trade them security for dollars - give up the potential free agent bonanza and we'll give you a couple of extra years. In this deal Howard gets to have his cake and eat it too. It's risky but might work out fine for the Phils, but it's hard to believe they came out ahead financially.

Adam Dunn is no Ryan Howard, but as a perennial 40 hr guy does he now become harder to sign for the Nats?

Posted by: utec | April 27, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I don't think anyone is saying Howard is a bum, I think the salient point is the fact the Howard could have been locked-up for a lot less than $25/year and you could have waited until the off-season to do it. As someone already mentioned, even if you paid him the princely sum of $20M/year (which he would have signed), you have $5M/year to fill gaps in other areas. Also, he is not a free agent until after 2011. What if he gets permanently injured this year?

It almost seems as if Philly was bidding against themselves in this situation. Reminds me a little bit of the Arenas situation.

Posted by: BT23 | April 27, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Is this written by Wilbon? This article is another reason why the Post is junk. Idiot Bloggers who think they are journalists.

Posted by: jpstuhr | April 27, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Whoa there cowboy!
"and the New York Yankees (Bernie Williams, Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina, et al.)"
Bernie Williams has FOUR World Series rings with the Yankees. He came up thru the Yankee system, so back off there. Surely, you could have picked out one of the many free agents the Yankees signed thru the years, rather than single out Bernie, a fan favorite, and retired as a pure Yankee.
He plays some pretty good jazz too.

Posted by: dorseylaw | April 27, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

@Calamity Jane-

Howard, Utley, and Halladay, albeit incredible players, are not going to duplicate their production over the next 4-5 years.

Your point about 'cost certainty' is ridiculous. The 'parameters' for signing Werth are that they cannot afford him. They already have the aforementioned three, Polanco, Victorino, Blanton, and Ruiz signed to expensive multiyear contracts. In 2012, these players will account for $85 mill. They aren't going to resign Werth. They are already handcuffed to declining veterans.

Keep in mind the Phillies could have kept Cliff Lee. Instead, Lee's salary is going to Howard. When it comes to free agents, the Phillies have NO flexibility, and will be without it for years to come.

@greendemon

There is no convincing trend that power hitters are better after 30. Exclude Bonds and McGuire. Check out Ortiz, Sexson, Belle, A Rod, Mo Vaughn, Sosa, Frank Thomas, Griffey jr. Tell me with a straight face that their best years were after age 30.

Howard may still be great for years to come, but I bet he won't lead the league in rbi's or homers over the NEXT five years.

Posted by: bigtriumverate | April 27, 2010 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I'm a Nats fan in Philly, so I know a thing or two about the Phillies right now. First off, Howard is a pretty outstanding fielder now. Second, Ryan Howard is about the money (his contracts always state he won't sign autographs unless paid to do it). They might have been able to get him for less, but they probably could just as easily have had to pay more once Pujols and Gonzalez hit the market and get tons of money as well. Third, just like stated before, Howard is locked up, so the Phillies can concentrate on other free agents. There's risk and reward with long term contracts, but I'd sure rather take the risk on one of the best players in the game then, say, Austin Kearns. Also, Phillies fans would have been outraged if Howard went somewhere else, so guess what? Their ownership actually listened to what the fans want. Talk about a concept foreign to DC! I don't think this signing will be the end of the Phils reign, but I wouldn't be unhappy if Howard turns into Mo Vaughn once he hits like 33. Still, doubt that's gonna happen.

Posted by: drobins7 | April 27, 2010 12:45 PM | Report abuse

It's a bad deal because there was no competition for his services. No one else would have paid him anywhere near this kind of money for five years.

You want to pay him 25 mil a year for the next three years, fine. But to pay him that over five is just dumb.

The Phillies overvalued him because they have had success with him on the club. They will come to regret this contract in two years.

Posted by: rickroll | April 27, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

"I like this deal, and there's no way Howard's getting booed in Philly unless he somehow turns into a self-centered diva and talks his way out of good graces (see Schilling, Curt; Rolen, Scott)."

I guess that explains why Phillies fans booed self-centered divas like Steve Carlton and Mike Schmidt back in the day. Of course, the neo-Phans are all now wearing their jerseys. Those guys HATED playing in Philly and would have left in a minute had they played in the free agent era.

Posted by: thelonghaul | April 27, 2010 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Granted, without HGH and steroids most players will not be as propdcutive in their mid-to late 30's as they were 98-2004. However, there is a good case to be made based on pre-steroids era ball players that worked out, such as Carlton Fisk, that they can maintain bat speed and power. That, and guys like Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were very productive at that age.

My biggest problem with this post is citing the Giambi/Mussina/Williams example. Giambi was a solid major leaguer who became an MVP becasue of steroids. His drop off had as much to do with a pharmaceutical deficit post-2003 as age, plus the guy still hit 32 homers and 92 RBIs the last year of his contract. As for Mussina, this shows how little you know about baseball. He was one of the most consistent pitchers in the game with the Yanks, averaging 15 wins adn almost 200 innings a year. Plus, Williams was productive in his last big contract except for the final year. I would take that mid-2000's Yankees team with all of its playoff appearances over my pathetic Orioles.

Posted by: TheWingedShield | April 27, 2010 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Methinks you've over analyzed this one . . . .Phillies a lock to win the NL East! . . . and probably on to win the pennant for the third straight time!

Posted by: dennisbyrne | April 27, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

@the wingedshield

can't agree with you more..Howard is not a steroid user and is never injured (knock on wood). He never misses games! And all he has done is produce the kind of numbers since he first got to the show that are second only to Babe Ruth. Let me see: historic player locked up longterm for $5 million more than he's being paid now before he hits the open market and his cost is jacked up...yeah I'm sure the rest of the division is just grinning today

Posted by: GreenDemon36 | April 27, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

First of all there is NO ONE Philly fans wouldn't boo. They booed Santa, they booed a ref who was injured, they've booed HOFers. Trust me, they will boo Howard when he inevitably declines 2-5 years from now.

Makes me very happy to see the Phillies let Cliff Lee leave and now pay a slugger w/ obvious flaws ARod money into his mid 30s.

I'm all for guys making as much as they can, but I still can't accept that ANYONE is worth $25m. Especially not in a 2nd tier market like Philly. Maybe the Yankees can do it but that's it.

As bigtriumverate pointed out, in 2 years, they will pay $85m and still need their entire bullpen, three starting pitchers, a RF, a LF, a SS and all of their bench. Can they really afford all that? Doubt it. Looking forward to watching it.

Posted by: Avar | April 27, 2010 3:59 PM | Report abuse

Doom and gloom due to inking Howard for big bucks is wildly overstated.

The Phils can easily still add pieces moving forward. In 2012 they have Rollins, Madson and Ibanez coming off the books, they'll have bought out Lidge for a song and Moyer is gone after 2011 - -that's $43M right there. And they have the ability to move Werth now if they choose for something to add to the system, or they can sign him for something like Bay money, likely less. They have a revenue generating club in a huge way and the guys they have locked up are almost all dependable, star caliber players in their prime.

The Phils are the best franchise in the NL right now, hands down, no one even close. And there is no reason for that to change for years to come. They have 5 guys with more than 10 years of MLB service time on their 40-man roster. Handcuffed to declining veterans? Uhhmm, no.

So, if Howard is worth $125M, then Dunn is worth at least $100M -- or at least I am sure that is what Dunn's agent is telling Adam right now.

Posted by: dfh21 | April 27, 2010 6:15 PM | Report abuse

I am a phils fan in Massachusetts and think the deal is good. The Phils have displayed the ability to generate additional revenue and can certainly raise ticket prices without fan backlash because their current prices are so reasonable. Sign Worth to a big deal, continue to win and the fans will follow in droves Deal with it DC and the Phillies fans will be taking over your stadium for years to come.

Posted by: phillies2008 | April 27, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

I love it. The same Philadelphia fans who ran McNabb (age 33) out of town are now arguing that Howard should be paid top dollar to play from age 32 to 36.

Of course Ryan Howard is an excellent ballplayer--though not, of course, the best at his position. The Phillies might be smart to keep him around a few more years, and they might have business reasons for making him the face of the franchise. But there's just no way that Howard's performance in 2014, '15, or '16 will justify this amount of money.

Howard is much more likely to weigh 300 pounds in 2015 than to win a World Series with the Phillies that year.

Posted by: hungrypug | April 28, 2010 11:48 AM | Report abuse

The Phils won't win the WS this year; they probably won't even make it beyond the first round. Even putting aside the fact that they're showing their age, no single NL team since the '88 Dodgers has won twice within the same decade. You could look THAT up, too.

GO NATS!

Posted by: MikeH0714 | April 29, 2010 6:47 PM | Report abuse

Smart analysis. Exactly right.

Posted by: Craig_Colgan | April 30, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

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