Birth of an Albatross: The Ryan Howard Extension
The sabermetric era has had a notable effect on the general baseball viewing population, from the fans in the $3 seats, to the media, to the higher-ups. Gone are the days, in most circles, where players are valued by being "RBI" men, by being clutch, and by being in the good graces of most media men.
Philadelphia, though, is not one of these circles, apparently. Apparently they find it necessary to provide Ryan Howard with a $125 million dollar extension for his age 32-36 seasons. Outside of a more casual Phillie fan identifying their team's "desire to succeed", it's hard to find anyone who likes this contract.
The terms of the contract are $20 million dollars in 2012 and 2013, with $25 million for 2014-16. The team also holds a $23 million dollar option in 2017, with a $10 million dollar buyout. Immediately, one can see the downside of paying a player this much.
To dive immediately into everyone's favorite player/salary evaluating metric, WAR, we can use Howard's salary to see what level of performance needs to be attained to "live up" to the deal.
Let's assume that in 2012, teams will be playing $4.25 million per marginal win on the free market, and that this figure goes up by five percent per year consistently until 2016. After doing the math by dividing his salary by this dollar per win approximation, you get annual WAR totals of 4.7, 4.5, 5.3, 5.1, and 4.8, or 24.4 total. Essentially, that's all star caliber production for 5 straight seasons.
Can Howard possibly do this? Perhaps, as he totaled 4.9 WAR in 2009, which multiplied out, would make him exactly worth his contract. Of course, this defies absolutely all sorts of logic to assume no age-related decline.
To do a quick study on the potential effects of aging on Mr. Howard, one can consult his baseball-reference page for similar hitters. For his full seasons, his best age-comparable players are:
26: Norm Cash
27: Norm Cash
28: Cecil Fielder
29: Richie Sexson.
Cash was by far the best of the three, and can give some hope to this contract. Even Cash, though, was only decent in his age 32-36 seasons, going .265/.361/.471. Respectable, but certainly not worth $25,000,000 AAV at first base.
Far more damning, however, are the 32+ age numbers of Cecil Fielder and Richie Sexson. Neither one made it to age 36, and not by a mile, for starters.
Fielder, a two-year wonder to begin with, finished off his career in MLB with a .249/.344/.439 line in 1,589 PA from 1996-98. Even worse, Sexson limped home in his career, going .211/.306/.392 in 818 PA from 2007-08.
Is there a high-end, however? Of course, and his name is Willie McCovey. While McCovey had injury problems at some points between ages 32 and 36, he still performed well, hitting .264/.408/.524 with 122 HR. Of course, when you need to use a Hall of Famer and all-time great to make a favorable view of a player's future, you have truly become too much of an optimist.
In a vacuum, this deal is bad enough. However, the contextual elements of the deal make this one truly one of the worst contracts ever given to a player, even when it is yet to begin.
For one, this move ruins any chance the Phillies have to be flexible with their roster, and likely is the end of the line for Jayson Werth in Philadelphia. Werth is the opposite of Mr. Howard, in that he is chronically underrated. A quick glance at their numbers from 2007-09 show why this is the case:
Howard: .266/.363/.565, 136 OPS+, 10 SB / 2 CS
Werth: .276/.376/.494, 124 OPS+, 47 SB / 5 CS
At a glance, it seems to be that Howard is a better offensive player, which is important. However, Ryan Howard, while vastly (and admirably) improved in the field thanks to his commitment towards exercise, is still just an okay first baseman. Werth, on the other hand, is one of the best defensive corner OF's in the majors. Also, as a player with better "young man" skills, Werth seems to be better profiled for a more graceful decline.
This causes a lot of chaos on the Phillies roster. Already hamstrung with many large contracts, the Phillies will now have to make hot prospect Domonic Brown MLB ready to start in right field in 2011, and then find the funds to sign a replacement for Raul Ibanez in 2012, which should be no easy feat given that they already have $87,000,000 obligated to 8 men. With what looks to be a good young core in Atlanta, it is already hard to see the Phillies being able to survive attrition and stay on top of the East.
More alarmingly, this deal did not need to get done. Howard's current deal expires in 2011, the same time younger men like Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder hit the market. Would it have not made sense to use the extra two years of contractual control over Howard to see how age will affect him going forward, and to possibly use Gonzalez, Fielder, and others to help drive down Howard's asking price? It is truly ridiculous that a team can pay this much money without even a bidding war taking place.
One detail, though, that strikes me as the most alarming is simple: Ruben Amaro Jr. can not properly value his players.
Thanks to late season runs for the Phillies in 2007 and 2008, as well as a terrific 2008 World Series performance, Howard has become something of a folk hero to many members of the media. Despite not ranking in the top 25 positional players according to WAR in any of the last three seasons, Howard has found himself in the top 5 of MVP voting in each, including a 2008 candidacy that should not have even been a consideration. It's fine to like and actively root for a player, Howard shows a good work ethic, a good attitude, and of course, he does have a very good bat as well.
The job of Amaro, though, is to see through these media creations. His job is to make hard decisions, and to properly allocate financial assets so that other needs can be addressed when needed.
Amaro did not do that here. In fact, Amaro did something that the drunk in the standing room could have done, which is offer his favorite player a blank check and sign off on whatever he wrote down for a dollar value.
This fact, for a Phillie fan, should be scary. It is clear that Amaro can be sold on hype, and it is also clear that he was gifted into a team with a loaded roster, and seems ready to spoil it with bad moves.
In an age where baseball front offices are attracting more smart people than ever, it simply becomes logical that a team cannot succeed for a sustained period without shrewd minds at the top. What Amaro did is not shrewd, instead, what he did was careless. He has essentially put the near-future of his franchise on the shoulders of a man with a skill set notorious for earlier-than-average declines, when he had a year and a half before this even became an issue. That, of course, is the saddest thing about this deal.
Howard, in his time in the heart of the Phillies' lineup, has accomplished something few others have: win the hearts of the Philly crowd. Unfortunately, if history and research indicate anything, Howard is soon to become the face of the decline as well. I am sure that Howard will be able to invest some of his $125 million into ways to ignore the naysayers once 2016 rolls around, though.
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