The broken road leads us back to the Howard contract

This is a follow up to today's column about the lack of options the Phillies will have on the free agent market and why their only hope might have been to part ways with Chase Utley.

Let's be clear. This is about Ryan Howard's contract. Not Jimmy Rollins'. Not Cliff Lee's. Not even Jonathan Papelbon's, as atrocious as it will soon seem. The Phillies are in their current state of irreversible decay because they decided to invest $25 million per season in a declining 32-year-old player at a position that -- and this is the important part -- will offer the most bountiful supply of options on the trade and free agent markets this offseason, just like it has in every offseason in recent history. Again, do not focus on the dollar amount, or even the production of the player as it compares to other members of the lineup. The burden the Phillies currently carry is the immovable weight at first base.

That probably sounds harsh. Hell, it is harsh. Ryan Howard is one of the greatest players in Phillies history. His 2005-07 seasons were as responsible for baseball's re-birth in this city as any other cause you can identify. He helped this team win a World Series, and two NL championships, and five division titles. But with large contracts come large responsibilities, and if the signee feels like those responsibilities are not fair, well, there are plenty of $650,000-a-year jobs to be had across Major League Baseball. Howard's job occupies 1/25th of the Phillies' active roster spots but 1/7th of their payroll, which makes him three-and-a-half times more important, and three times more repsonsible for separating success from failure, than the utilitarian view might hold.

Again, the important thing is not the man, or the skillset. Rather, it is the position that he plays. Jimmy Rollins is guaranteed to make $11 million next season, and his production this year might not be what you expect out of an $11 million player. But Rollins plays short stop, 

And even if the Phillies were able to trade Rollins away, they would not be able to replace him with a player who is anything more than, at best, a marginal upgrade. That is not disputable. What follows is the complete list of short stops who are scheduled to reach free agency this offseason: Jhonny Peralta, Stephen Drew, Yuniesky Betancourt, Brendan Ryan, Cesar Izturis, Alex Gonzalez, Rafael Furcal, Alexi Casilla, Willie Bloomquist, Clint Barmes, John McDonald, Alfredo Amezaga.

That's it. Peralta is the only one you can argue represents even a slight upgrade over Rollins. But keep in mind he hit .239/.305/.384 with 13 home runs last season and is reportedly facing a 50-game suspension stemming from the BioGenesis mess. Last offseason, the Red Sox agreed to pay Stephen Drew $9.5 million to play short stop in 2013 after two seasons in which he'd combined to hit .238/.313/.373 with 12 home runs in 681 plate appearances. They did this despite the fact that they have a player in Jose Iglesias who is a much better hitter than Freddy Galvis. And guess what? Boston is probably thrilled that Drew is hitting .228/.311/.408 with seven home runs in 302 plate appearances this season.

You can argue that Rollins is a bad fit for this Phillies lineup, but you can't just invent some mythical short stop who does all of the things you think a short stop should do and then yell for Ruben Amaro Jr. to sign or trade for that player. Very few of those players exist, and the ones that do are not available. Period.

First base? That's a different story. Forget about the past couple of offseasons and the various options the Phillies would have enjoyed had they not decided to bestow a five-year, $125 million deal on Howard two years before he was scheduled to become a free agent, essentially guaranteeing him seven years and $164 million (more than the Mets guaranteed David Wright or the Red Sox guaranteed Dustin Pedroia). Let's just focus on the situation moving forward.

If the Phillies bring back Chase Utley, which they are planning to do, it leaves them with four top-half-of-the-order bats who are left-handed: Howard, Utley, Dom Brown and Ben Revere. Rollins, meanwhile, has struggled mightily against lefty pitching over the last three years. Problem is, all of the marquee hitters available on the free agent market this offseason, at least those who play positions where the Philies have holes, are left-handed hitters.

Catcher: Brian McCann

Outfield: Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson

The best righthanded hitter available is Hunter Pence. Beyond him, there are some guys who would be worth a gamble: Carlos Beltran, Corey Hart, Mike Morse, Nelson Cruz. But with the possible exception of Beltran, who will be 37 years old and could easily resign with St. Louis, the only way you'd feel comfortable heading into a season with one of them as your marquee offseason acquisition is if you could pair them with a no-doubt-about-it commodity in the middle of the order, much the way the Phillies added Raul Ibanez to two such commodities in Howard and Utley in 2009. But Utley and Howard are no longer those commodities. Once again, Amaro sat in front of the media and talked about how the Phillies needed their big money players to stay healthy, and to perform. Utley has done one of the two this season, missing a month with an oblique injury. But he and Howard are not suddenly going to become Benjamin Button and start aging in reverse. Utley still has yet to play everyday for more than four consecutive months on his balky knees. Remember, the oblique injury allowed him to take a month off from regular duty this season. Howard has gone two straight years logging league average production. Yeah, guys like Beltran and Ibanez and Lance Berkman have shown that life does not necessarily end at the first sign of death. But it will be a bit disingenuous if the Phillies act put off when one or both of Howard and Utley underperform their contracts next season.

Fact is, the Phillies seem destined to enter yet another season counting on a litany of variables to work out in their favor. Now, imagine if they had an opening at first base. Suddenly, they can afford to add another left-handed middle-of-the-order bat. Maybe they entice Brian McCann out of Atlanta. Maybe they sign Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury. Maybe they avoid long-term deals and instead go after Granderson. Now, they can look to add a right-handed power bat at first base. Corey Hart has played there. Mike Morse has played there. Mike Napoli can play there. Kendrys Morales can play there. As mentioned, Morse and Hart can also play the outfield. Napoli can catch. Granderson, Ellsbury, and, to a lesser extent, Choo, can all play center field.


1. Granderson/Choo/Ellsbury LF (L)

2. Utley 2B (L)

3. Hart/Morse/Morales/Napoli 1B (R)

4. Brown RF (L)

5. Rollins SS (S)

6. Revere CF (L)

7. Asche 3B (L)

8. Ruiz C (R)


1. Revere CF (L)

2. Utley 2B (L)

3. Hart/Morse/Cruz LF (R)

4. Brown RF (L)

5. Howard 1B (L)

6. Rollins SS (S)

7. Asche 3B (L)

8. Ruiz C (R)

Either way, it's an awfully left-handed lineup, an aspect we delved into more in today's column. But doesn't LINEUP A look a little better? Plus, the combination of Granderson/Hart might cost you combined what Howard will earn next season, which might give you can extra $10 to $15 million to spend on the variety of other wholes that pock this roster. Who is going to pitch after Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon?

The Phillies are in a bad spot right now, but it's a spot that is a result of their questionable planning, and it's a spot that now requires some difficult decisions to be made if they hope to fix it.

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