Friday, December 19, 2014

State of the Phillies: First base

This week, the Daily News and High Cheese will be taking an in-depth look at the Phillies roster moving forward, breaking down the state of each position as it relates to the future and the present. In Tuesday's newspaper, Ryan Lawrence will look at the infield. Today, we'll start things off with a look at first base.

State of the Phillies: First base

Ryan Howard struggled at first base after he returned from the disabled list in early July. (Matt Slocum/AP file photo)
Ryan Howard struggled at first base after he returned from the disabled list in early July. (Matt Slocum/AP file photo)

This week, the Daily News and High Cheese will be taking an in-depth look at the Phillies roster moving forward, breaking down the state of each position as it relates to the future and the present. In Tuesday's newspaper, Ryan Lawrence will look at the infield. Today, we'll start things off with a look at first base. 

The success of a lineup is dictated by the economics of salary and personnel distribution, and the Phillies' production at first base in 2012 was a prime example. The market of talent in baseball features a strong supply of players who can both hit for power and reach base at rates above the league average. Of the $178 million that a team can spend before it exceeds the luxury tax threshold, the Phillies allocated 14.05 percent to their starter at first base. Really, the number is slightly higher than that when you factor in the $10 million that each team is required to pay for player benefits, which counts against the threshold (in other words, teams can spend about $168 million on player salaries before going over the threshold). In 2012, the Phillies flunked those economics, as their production at third base was well below league average in most major offensive categories.

I. 2012 production, Phillies first basemen (NL rank out of 16 teams in parentheses)

AVG: .234 (13)

More coverage
 
High Cheese: The state of second base
 
SportsWeek: How the Phils can get back to winning ways
 
Analyzing the 40-man roster

OBP: .308 (13)

SLG: .415 (11)

OPS: .723 (13)

HR: 27 (4)

RBI: 102 (3)

RS: 75 (10)

BREAKDOWN: Ryan Howard struggled after he returned from the disabled list in early July, hitting .219/.295/.423 with 99 strikeouts in 260 at-bats in 71 games. Howard maintained his knack for hitting with runners on base (his 56 RBI in 71 games would equate to 127 RBI in 162 games) and for hitting home runs (14 HR in 71 games equates to 31 HR in 162 games). But a .219 batting average and .295 on base percentage are significant detriments: if you value RBI, you must value runs scored, and a hitter must reach base in order to score runs. Howard recorded career-worst marks in walk rate, strikeout rate and at-bats-per-home-run. The first three months of the season featured Ty Wigginton (62 games, .757 OPS) and John Mayberry Jr. (24 games, .625 OPS) getting the bulk of the action at first base. Combined, the result was production that was well below what the majority of other National League teams received from first base. 

II. Future Salary Commitments (Edited to reflect lux. tax threshold increase to $189 mil in '14)

2012: Ryan Howard, 33 years old, $20.0 million (14.05 percent of luxury tax threshold)

2013: Ryan Howard, 34 years old, $20.0 million (14.05 percent of luxury tax threshold)

2014: Ryan Howard, 35 years old, $25.0 million (13.23 percent of luxury tax threshold)

2015: Ryan Howard, 36 years old, $25.0 million (13.23 percent of luxury tax threshold)

2016: Ryan Howard, 37 years old, $25.0 million (13.23 percent of luxury tax threshold

2017: Ryan Howard, 38 years old, $23.0 million or $10 million buyout (13.23 percent or 0.00 percent of luxury tax threshold)

Flexibility: None. Howard is still owed $95 million in annual salary over the next four seasons, plus a $10 million buyout in 2017. His luxury tax cost is $25 million a season over the next four years, and he will be 33 years old during the 2013 season.

III. 2013 Organizational Depth Chart

  1. Ryan Howard, 33, $25 million average annual value (AAV) signed through 2016
  2. John Mayberry Jr., 29, pre-Arb (2.095 service time), club control through at least 2016
  3. Laynce Nix, 32, $1.25 million AAV signed thru 2013.
  4. Darin Ruf, 26, pre-Arb (< 1.000 ST), club control through at least 2018
  5. Erik Kratz, 33, pre-Arb (<1.000 ST), club control through at least 2018

BREAKDOWN: First base will not be a priority for the Phillies for the foreseeable future. Manuel said late in the season that he thought Kratz could handle spot duty at first base, although there is no indication that will play a major role in 2013. Ruf, like any player with one month of big league experience, is an unknown, although he is the best chance for the Phillies to have some young depth at the position over the life of Howard's contract.

IV. Potential for personnel upgrades

TRADE POTENTIAL: None. Even during Howard's healthy 2011 season, his .253/.346/.488 batting line and 33 home runs were nearly identical to Adam LaRoche's .271/.343/.510 and 33 home runs for the Nationals this year. LaRoche, of course, was making $8 million in AAV compared with $25 million for Howard. Just to give Howard away to another team, the Phillies would likely have to eat at least half of the money remaining on his contract.

Disagree? Prior to 2011, Paul Konerko signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal that covered his 35, 36 and 37 years old seasons. Howard is due to earn $75 million for his 35-to-37-year-old seasons, plus a $10 million buyout for his 38-year-old season. If Konerko's contract is what the free market would bear for those years of power production at first base, there is little reason to expect that a team would assume more than that amount in acquiring Howard. Factor in the fact that Konerko's number have been better than Howard's over the past few seasons, and that Konerko is not one year removed from a ruptured Achilles, and it is pretty safe to say that the market would view Howard as, at best, a $12.5 million-per-season player over the remaining four years of his contract.

The time for maneuvering at first base was the last few seasons, when Howard, Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols and Adrian Gonzalez all signed new deals. The Phillies made their choice, and now it is on Howard to prove them right or wrong.

FREE AGENT MARKET: With a slew of elite first baseman having signed contract extensions over the previous few seasons, the 2013 market is not a strong one. Assuming the Nationals exercise LaRoche's $10 million option, the only potential everyday players available are Mike Napoli, Carlos Pena and James Loney. The rest: Jason Giambi, Eric Hinske, Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee, Casey Kotchman, Ty Wigginton, Lyle Overbay, Xavier Nady.

V. First base: In conclusion

The Phillies have no choice but to believe that Howard will get back to the production level he offered when they signed him to a five-year, $125 million contract extension during the 2010 season, when he still had two years left on his existing deal. The first baseman was not in the same physical condition that he was before his surgery, which the Phillies hope will be rectified by an offseason of his usual training regimen. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has acknowledged that the Phillies' future will be dictated largely by the performance of the players who are earning significant dollars, and Howard is the most crucial member of that club. 



David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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High Cheese is your place for the best Phillies coverage from the Daily News.

David Murphy Daily News Staff Writer
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