Now that Prince Fielder has landed in Detroit and Albert Pujols in Anaheim and Adrian Gonzalez in Boston, one thing has become unmistakably clear: one way or another, the Phillies erred in their management of Ryan Howard's service time and salary.
Heading into 2012, the Phillies can only hope that their decision-making on the back end of Howard's career proves wiser than it did on the front-end. But that is very much up in the air, and has been since April of 2010, when they signed the slugger to a five-year, $125 million extension that begins this season.
I have little doubt that Ruben Amaro Jr. meant what he said when he told Rich Hofmann that he views Howard's contract as a positive in light of Fielder's nine-year, $214 million deal with the Tigers and Pujols' 10-year, $254 million pact with the Angels.
"I'm kind of happy," Amaro told Rich. "Really happy. Because if I would have had to put an 8- or 9-year deal on Howard's deal right now, that would be a little disconcerting. Right now, we have Howard for the next 5 years. I kind of like that idea rather than having to do an 8- or 9- or 10-year deal.
"You can say what you want about Ryan Howard and how he stacks up against those guys, but there's not too many people who, over the last several years, have had this kind of production - and he's right there in the mix with those guys."
Except, on the Accuracy Meter, that last statement ranges somewhere between "Excessive Generosity" and "Pure Fantasy" (or between "Innocent Naivete" and "Blind Ignorance"). First, nobody in baseball is "in the mix" with Pujols. Second, even when you acknowledge the value of his inevitable pursuit of baseball's most hallowed records, as well as his future induction into the Hall of Fame (presumably wearing an Angels cap), his new deal is an over-priced and ill-conceived anomaly. So throw him out of the equation. Third, if you think that Howard himself would have been in line for a Pujols-type contract as a free agent at 32 years old, you might as well stop reading now and get to work on the hate email that I will receive later this afternoon (just remember that the proper spelling is, "Y-O-U-APOSTROPHE-R-E an idiot").
For everybody else, when you look at all of the first baseman in Howard's peer group who have signed contracts over the past few years, it becomes clear that the Phillies overpaid.
Disclaimer: for the sake of this argument, we are going to grant Amaro his assertion that Howard is "right in the mix" with Fielder, as well as Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez. We will do this because we do not want the Tee Party wing of the Ryan Howard Fan Club to start flying their Don't Tread On Howie flags while ignoring the crux of the discussion (Get it? T-e-e party? Like the plastic thing you hit baseballs off of as opposed to pouch of dried ingestible herbs. . .nevermind). And we do not want all of the OBP-hugging, SABR-community-organizing, Saul Alinsky, Make-WAR-Not-(Big)-Piece radical socialists out there to pick up their weapons of the left (like, say, data) and engage in their Math Warfare. So everybody just take a few deep breaths and allow your blood to return to room temperature and focus on the argument at hand.
The notion that the Phillies pulled off a coup by getting Howard to agree to a five-year deal lies somewhere between disingenuous and downright silly. Howard's extension was a five-year deal in name only because he signed it with two years and $39 million remaining on his existing contract. The simple Truth is that in April of 2010, the Phillies were on the hook to pay Howard $164 million over the next seven years, buying out five years of free agency. Everything else is semantics.
And when you compare a seven-year, $164 million deal that buys out five years of free agency to the aforementioned contracts. . .well, you be the judge:
In 2009, Teixeira signed an eight-year, $180 million contract on the open market. At the time, his career numbers were nearly identical to the ones Howard would boast the following spring, when the Phillies tacked on the five-year extension. Howard had more power (.586 slugging percentage with 222 home runs compared to a .541 slugging percentage and 203 home runs), while Teixeira hit for better contact (.290 average compared to Howard's .279), played better defense, and was a switch-hitter who was effective against both righties and lefties. They were just about even in reaching base (Teixeira .378 OBP, Howard .376 OBP) and scoring/driving in runs (one every 3.6 PA for Howard, one every 3.8 for Teixeira).
Like Howard's deal, Teixeira's ran through his 36-year-old season. But over the course of Howard's de facto seven-year extension, he would earn an average of $23.4 million per season, while Teixeira would earn $22.5 million.
The year after Howard's deal, Gonzalez signed a seven-year, $154 million deal when he was one year away from free agency. Once again, a player whose career production matched or exceeded Howard's and who was closer to free agency than Howard signed a contract through his 36-year-old season at more favorable terms than Howard did.
Ditto for Miguel Cabrera in 2008: an eight year, $152.3 million contract that bought out his first five years of free agency -- four of which would come before the age of 32.
So the Phillies essentially gave Howard seven years of financial security at a market or slightly-above-market rate despite the fact that they still had control over him for two seasons. That is why the 2010 extension was an eyebrow-raiser. The Phillies gave Howard a market contract without getting anything in return. And the assertion that the contracts signed by Fielder and Pujols somehow validate Amaro and Co.'s decision-making is ludicrous when you consider the fact that Howard would have been on the free agent market WITH A RUPTURED ACHILLES HEEL. Yeah, well, injuries happen, right? Of course they do! Which is why you expect some financial sacrifice from a player when you give him a five-year contract extension that doesn't kick in for another two years. After all, when a club makes that type of guaranteed commitment two years before it has to, it takes on a certain amount of risk. Like, say, the player suffering a traumatic injury before the extension even kicks in.
When comparing Howard's deal to the rest of the sport's star first basemen, you must take his age into consideration. Forget about years. The Tigers gave Fielder nine years this offseason, but last offseason the Red Sox only gave Gonzalez seven years. In 2009, the Yankees gave Texeira eight years. The common thread is not the length of the deals, it is the age at which they will expire. All three players will be paid through their 36-year-old seasons. Same goes for Howard.
Would a car-buyer be "very happy" if he bought a Range Rover with 135,000 miles on the odometer and later discovered that his neighbor paid less money for a similar model that had only 65,000 miles on it? That's essentially what Amaro is saying.
Forget the years and total value of each contract and look at what each team will have paid each player by age:
(MIN means player was paid at or near the MLB minimum; All other figures in millions of $)
|Age 21||Age 22||Age 23||Age 24||Age 25||Age 26||Age 27||Age 28||Age 29||Age 30||Age 31||Ages 32-36|
Although studies differ on the exact trajectory of a baseball player's physical production (try this one for starters), they all agree that the average hitter's peak year comes somewhere between the ages of 27 and 30, after which he enters a decline phase.
Yet the Phillies will pay Howard nearly twice as much money between the ages 32 and 36 than they did between the ages of 27 and 31 ($125 million vs. $64 million). Compare that to Fielder ($119 million vs. $111 million), Teixeira ($113 million vs. $73 million) and Gonzalez ($106 million vs. $62 million).
Since 1980, only 15 players have averaged 30 home runs per season from age 32 through 36. And only two of them played before the supposed height of the so-called "steroid era": Andre Dawson and Mike Schmidt. Five of them have either tested positive or been implicated by the media for steroid use (Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield). The other eight are Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, Jim Thome, Andres Gallarraga, Carlos Delgado, Luis Gonzalez, Jim Edmonds and Greg Vaughn.
Since 1980, only 13 major league first basemen have posted an OPS over .800 in at least 2,000 plate appearances between their 32-year-old and 36-year-old seasons. In the National League, only 33 players at any position have accomplished that feat.
Sure, Howard hasn't been in the majors as long as some other guys, but he also wasn't resting in a hyperbaric chamber before getting the call to the show. He was playing just as much baseball as he is now. To date, scientists have not proven that the human body ages slower on minor league dirt.
The fact is, since 2009, three other teams have signed sub-Pujols first base stars to mega-deals that expire after the player's 36-year-old season. The Phillies will pay Ryan Howard more than all of them, a decision they made two years before they had to.
Heading into the 2012 season, Howard and Fielder have nearly identical OPS -- ..929 for Fielder, .928 for Howard.
In Howard's first 12 major league seasons, he will have earned about $180.5 million, and he will be 37 years old.
In Fielder's first 12 major league seasons, he will have earned about $176.6 million, and he will be 34 years old.
The current labor market suggests the Phillies either promoted Howard too late, or paid him too early. Now, it is up to the big guy to make them look smart.