Is Ryan Howard or Alex Rodriguez MLB's Worst Current Contract?

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2013

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 18:  Alex Rodriguez #13 of the New York Yankees reacts as he walsk back towards the dugout after he pinch hit and flied out in the top of the sixth inning against the Detroit Tigers during game four of the American League Championship Series at Comerica Park on October 18, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Alex Rodriguez gets scrutinized constantly for the huge salary the New York Yankees are paying him based on his current skill set and age. But is it possible that another player, like Philadelphia's Ryan Howard, has actually provided less bang for his buck?

There is no denying that both the Yankees and Phillies overspent on Rodriguez and Howard, respectively. All that venom directed at the player—in this case, mostly A-Rod, but Howard is not immune from it—gets overblown since the team is the one making the contract offer. 

But for the purposes of this discussion, we are not heaping blame on a player or a team. Instead, we are simply going to look at what value each team has gotten under its star's current contract and what it might be able to expect for the duration of the deal. 

There are a number of bad contracts in baseball that can be discussed, like Albert Pujols' or Josh Hamilton's in Los Angeles, but we wanted to focus on Rodriguez and Howard since they are both on the disabled list right now. 


The financials

In order to properly discuss what makes a contract bad, we must understand the particulars of the deal. 

Here is a look at the remainder of both Rodriguez's and Howard's contract, including years and money. 

(Contract information courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts.)

Both players are signed through the 2017 season, though Howard seems less likely to make it that far with the Phillies because the final year of his contract is a team option at $23 million. 

Rodriguez's contract is fully guaranteed until it runs out in 2017. The good news is that after 2013, his yearly salaries, while still exorbitant, do start to come down, and that will save the Yankees a little money they can use in other areas. 

However, one big difference between the two contracts is the duration. Howard's five-year extension started in 2012, meaning the Phillies have only paid him an estimated $30 million out of the $125 million he is guaranteed. 

On the other hand, Rodriguez's 10-year contract extension was signed after the 2007 season. He has played five seasons (not including this one, since he hasn't been physically able to yet) of that decadelong, $275 million extension and made $178 million (including a $10 million signing bonus and just over half his salary this season). 

Obviously, that disparity in salary already earned is going to skew things in Rodriguez's favor, but things are much closer when you look forward. Howard is owed approximately $95 million, compared to Rodriguez at $97 million. 


Father Time takes his toll

One of the things that separates Major League Baseball from the other sports when it comes to handing out contracts is the way teams apparently evaluate a player. Logic would say that you need to pay a player for what he is going to do. You don't have a DeLorean that contains the ability to go back in time, so the past means nothing. 

When Rodriguez signed his contract, the world knew that the Yankees were overpaying. But they were also doing it with the hope that he would eventually challenge and break Barry Bonds' all-time home run record of 763. That would mean extra dollars in tickets, television revenue and merchandise, both for the chase and eventual breaking of the record. 

After 2007, the 31-year-old was coming off an MVP season in which he hit 54 homers and was sitting at 518 for his career. 

Given the pace that Rodriguez was on, with an average of 37 homers per season, the Yankees might have expected him to beat that mark at some point in 2013 or 2014. 

But as it turns out, 2007 would be the last year that Rodriguez would stay healthy for an entire season. In the six seasons since signing that extension, A-Rod has yet to play more than 138 games in a single year and only played in 221 since the start of 2011. 

The Phillies actually rushed into an extension with Howard years before they had to. Even though his original contract didn't run out until after the 2011 season, the team locked up the slugging first baseman in April 2010, meaning he essentially had two full years before hitting free agency. 

Considering that Howard has what is known as "old-man skills" (hit for power and draw some walks but no other average or better tool), there were so many things that could have gone wrong even before the Phillies signed him to that extension. 

Unfortunately for the team, Howard, who was 30 the day he signed the extension and 32 when it actually started, did break down physically before the deal started. In fact, the last thing he did in 2011 was tear his Achilles in Game 5 of the NLDS loss against St. Louis that cost him three months of the 2012 season. 

One thing we can say positive about Howard is that he has at least contributed on the field in 2013. He isn't contributing much because he is a glorified platoon player (.302/.357/.522 vs. righties, compared to .173/.218/.321 against lefties) and a terrible defensive first baseman. But that is more than Rodriguez can say. 

Things have gotten so bad for Howard against southpaws, though, that Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has taken to benching the high-priced first baseman when one starts against his team. That was before he needed surgery on his knee that will cost him six to eight weeks.

Age catches up to you quicker in sports than it does in everyday life. Rodriguez is 37 years old, and Howard is 33. 

Per Bill Madden and Teri Thompson of the New York Daily News, there were rumors that Rodriguez was looking to retire after playing in some rehab games in order to collect the remainder of his salary and avoid a possible suspension from the Anthony Bosch-Biogenesis situation, though that doesn't appear to be true since he has moved up to Triple-A and could rejoin the Yankees soon. 

So even though their present skills have significantly declined, it doesn't seem likely that either one will walk away in the near future. 


Value already added under current contract

This is going to be a huge win for Rodriguez. Regardless of what we think about his contract now, it is important to remember that from 2008-11 he was still a very good—at times great—player. 

In 2008, Rodriguez was a 6-WAR player after hitting .302/.392/.573 with 35 home runs and 18 stolen bases. His defense was starting to drop off and he missed 24 games, but the production was still terrific. 

The next two years (2009-10) saw Rodriguez break the 30-homer barrier twice, and he averaged nearly four wins above replacement during that span. Even in 2011, despite missing 63 games, A-Rod posted a WAR of 4.1 with a .276/.362/.461 line and 16 home runs.

Last year was Rodriguez's worst full season in the big leagues, yet he still managed to post a .272/.353/.430 line, hit 18 home runs and steal 13 bases with a WAR of 2.1. 

For those of you keeping track at home, that puts Rodriguez's total value, based on WAR, at 20 since the start of his 10-year contract. He also contributed 129 home runs in the last six years. 

Howard doesn't have that much time under his current deal, just last year and the 80 games he has played in 2013, so it would be impossible for him to put up the total numbers that Rodriguez has. 

However, we can also point to just how bad Howard has been since that contract kicked in. His power is still there, as evidenced by the 14 homers in 71 games last year and 11 in 80 games this year. 

But there is no other category that Howard is performing like an average big leaguer—or even a replacement-level player. His inability to hit left-handed pitching and propensity to strike out has held his average and on-base percentage down (.244/.327/.463 since 2012). 

Howard's WAR in 2012 was minus-1.1, meaning the typical replacement-level player from Triple-A would have been better for the Phillies than the player they were paying $20 million. 

This year hasn't been much better, as Howard has compiled a WAR of 0.4. Among qualified everyday players in the National League, that ranks second from the bottom. 

Dan Szymborski of (Insider subscription required) wrote a piece about how little value the Phillies have gotten and will get from Howard, using the ZiPS projection system to show that both the physical comps used to evaluate the first baseman—player like Richie Sexson, Mo Vaughn and Jim Gentile, all of whom washed out in their 30s. 

The basic premise of the piece was that the Phillies, for all their millions spent thinking Howard would remain a franchise cornerstone, are going to receive very little value (5.0 wins above replacement, to be exact) over the duration of the contract.

Using that formula, Szymborski notes that the Phillies will lose around $94 million on their investment if you include the $10 million buyout in 2017. (For the record, while his contract will also be a loss for the Yankees, Rodriguez is "only" projected to be an $88 million failure.)

On top of that, the big elephant in the room that no one seems to remember is that the Yankees did win a World Series with Rodriguez during this current contract in 2009. In fact, A-Rod was the star of that postseason by hitting .365/.500/.808 with six home runs and five doubles in 15 games. 

When you win a championship, it doesn't matter how outrageous the contract looks years later. That team and player aren't going to trade that title for anything, so Rodriguez has a huge leg up on Howard. 


The surprise result

Rodriguez routinely gets mentioned as having the worst contract in all of professional sports, especially when you consider all of the extraneous factors the Yankees have to deal with.

But taken strictly on performance and value added, while it is tempting to say Rodriguez is ridiculously overpaid, it is clear that Howard will end up as a bigger bomb. It just doesn't get talked about because the Phillies "only" bought into him for five years instead of 10. 

At least the Yankees got a title out of their investment, even if it has come with a lot of headaches and media spinning. The Phillies aren't going to win a championship anytime soon, unless something miraculous happens over the next four years. 


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