January 23, 2008

Ryan Howard vs. The Phillies

There's trouble with the Philadelphia Phillies. Coming off its first NL East crown in 14 years, the team is facing a contentious contract dispute with its most prominent player, Ryan Howard. The player and team have not yet come together on a short-term or long-term contract, so the matter is not headed to binding arbitration,

As usual in Philly, there's been a lot of complaining from irate fans. And as with most such situations in this town, it looks like most of the complaints are coming from people who either don't understand the rules of baseball, the rules of arbitration, or any of the facts of the situation whatsoever.

Here are the facts: blocked by Jim Thome at first base with the Phils, Howard became a first-time major league regular at the age of 26. As soon as Thome was traded, Howard emerged as a slugging superstar, winning the NL Rookie of the Year in 2005, before hitting 58 home runs (a team record) and being named NL MVP in '06. Last year, despite showing up overweight, going through a couple of prolonged slumps, Howard still had a strong year, smacking 46 homers and 136 RBIs, for an "OPS+" of 144.

Under baseball rules, a team has the right to, essentially, pay a player whatever it wants for the first three-plus years of his career. After that, the player is arbitration-eligible. After 2006, when Howard was not yet arbitration-eligible, the Phils renewed his contract for $900,000, a near-threefold increase over his salary the year before, and also an all-time record salary for a non-arbitration-eligible player. The reaction among Philly fans and media was that the Phils had "lowballed" Howard, since they hadn't paid him an even million.

After 2007, when Howard reached arbitration eligibility, many expected the Phils to hand Howard a long-term deal, as they had the previous offseason when other young star, Chase Utley, reached arbo eligibility. That has yet to happen, and the teams appear set to enter arbitration next week with the Phillies offering $7 million and Howard countering with $10 million. The arbitrator is required to choose one number or the other, although the vast majority of arbo cases are settled before they even reach the table.

The reaction by fans and media now? Once again, it's the "Phillies are cheap" meme. How dare they not give Howard what he wants? Why not sign him for 7 or 8 or 9 years? And besides- best keep Howard happy- or else he'll leave the team.

I find it hard to object to anything the Phillies have done at any step of the way. The argument must begin with this: Howard is under the Phils' control for four more seasons. He can't be a free agent until after the 2011 season, and therefore the team is best-served by maintaining cost-certainty for as long as possible. That's not being "cheap," that's just smart management. They're merely, for now, shielding themselves from the very real risk that Howard will start to decline within a year or two.

Howard is the exact sort of player- defense-challenged first baseman, power-hitting but strikeout-prone, weight problem- who tends to flame out in his early-to-mid 30s- and now, he's 28. What if Howard turns into Ryan Klesko? What if he's another Mo Vaughn, another 1B beloved in his city who, it turned out, Boston got rid of at exactly the right time? And to use an example closer to home, what if he's Pat Burrell, making huge money and largely disappointing at the end of a long-term deal?

I'm not saying the Phils should get rid of Howard. He seems to be a wonderful young man, I love watching him play the game, and if he shows he can stay in shape and cut down on the strikeouts, signing him to an extension may not be such a bad idea. But don't forget- Howard, even if he loses in arbitration, is looking at a $7 million salary, an eightfold raise over last year.

The Phillies are cheap? Their payroll last year was around $100 million, which was in the top ten of the league. They beat a team down the stretch, the Mets, that had a payroll more than $50 million higher, but lost in the playoffs to the Rockies, a team paying their players about $30 million lower, which shows that maybe payroll isn't everything. $100 million? I wish the Pohlads were that cheap.

Keith Law has additional, similar thoughts, and also tosses in some shots at that blithering idiot Bill Conlin.

Posted by Stephen Silver at January 23, 2008 01:13 PM

I think you mixed up the numbers halfway through this - you have the Phils offering 10 million and Howard wanting 7.

Posted by: Jeremy at January 23, 2008 11:44 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?