Playoff contenders aren't supposed to be looking to trade a league leader in home runs and RBI. Playoff contenders aren't supposed to be shopping players that won the Rookie of the Year award three years ago and the MVP award two years ago.
Playoff contenders aren't supposed to be subject to a barrage of trade rumors about their superstar long after the trade deadline and long before the playoffs have ended.
Yet, for some reason, Ryan Howard's days in Philadelphia are numbered.
In Philadelphia, it isn't uncommon for superstars to get booed and heckled whenever they're in a slump. Fans may even throw objects at them when things get really frustrating. Howard's situation, on the other hand, is a totally different animal.
He is no longer slumping, and he is doing more than his fair share towards helping the Phillies fight for a playoff spot. True, his batting average has plummeted (from .313 in 2006, to .268 in 2007, to below .230 this year), and he's striking out often enough to shatter his own single-season record, but these were never the things that made Ryan Howard a superstar (even with that .268 average and 199 strikeouts, Howard still finished fifth in NL MVP voting).
Howard's value comes in his power; his ability to crank out league-leading home run and RBI totals year after year. By that measure, Howard is as valuable as ever.
So why is dishing out $100 for one of those new Ryan Howard home-alternate jerseys not a very good idea?
First and foremost, the Phillies already have plenty of offensive talent. Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, and Pat Burrell (should he return to the Phillies) are all very capable hitters that can provide plenty of hits, steals, and homers.
They also have a great supporting cast, consisting of guys like Jayson Werth, Pedro Feliz, Geoff Jenkins, and Greg Dobbs. Losing Howard would certainly reduce the Phillies' offensive production, but by no means would the effect be a major problem.
On the other hand, the Phillies have two areas where they could use some improvement. The first is pitching. The Phillies have gotten lucky this year, with newcomers Brad Lidge and Chad Durbin bolstering a bullpen that struggled in 2007, turning it into a successful one in 2008.
The starting rotation, on the other hand, hasn't been as lucky. It saw success late in 2007, as Kyle Lohse's addition turned the Phillies' rotation from shaky to solid. However, as the bullpen got better, the rotation got worse.
Brett Myers spent much of the season struggling with inconsistency, and Kyle Kendrick has struggled to repeat his stellar rookie season. Newcomer Joe Blanton has had his own difficulties as well, and he hasn't been able to live up to the expectations many had for him on Opening Day.
The other deficiency the Phillies have is in prospects. A weak farm-system might not be a huge concern for a team that's sure to be a contender for at least the next few seasons, except for the fact that prospects can be used in trades to make key acquisitions.
One recent example of this is the deadline deal that the Phillies reportedly rejected that would have brought outfielder Matt Holliday (second in 2007 MVP voting only to Jimmy Rollins) and lefty closer Brian Fuentes to Philadelphia in exchange for Shane Victorino, major-league ready starter J.A. Happ, Phillies' top pitching-prospect Carlos Carrasco, and catcher Lou Marson.
Such a trade would have given the Phillies a season and change of an MVP-caliber player and a rental on one of the league's best closers. The problem is that the Phillies couldn't afford to part with Marson and Carrasco because Marson and Carrasco were two of a select few Phillies' prospects that had a real shot at starting in the majors.
The Phillies can't afford to pass up offers like the Holliday/Fuentes one if they want to win a World Series. Trading Howard would sacrifice offense (which the Phillies can afford to lose) in favor of a top-notch starter, or a boatload of prospects that can be traded for whatever the Phillies may need down the road (to solve a problem like their pitching woes, or in case of an injury to a key player).
The reasons for a Howard trade seeming inevitable run much deeper than just filling holes in the organization. The prospect of three more years of arbitration hearings between Howard and the Phillies isn't pretty, but with no serious long-term contract talks having been had between the two parties, it looks like that's what they have in store.
The hearings require the Phillies to openly argue about why Howard doesn't deserve the money he wants. They can put a player and his team at odds, causing tension that can carry onto the field. The Phillies have given long-term deals to Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, and a deal with Cole Hamels has been talked about quite a bit.
However, this hasn't been the case with Howard, who has performed at the same level as Utley, Rollins, and Hamels. Three more years of arbitration would not be a pretty sight, to say the least, yet these two parties are showing no signs of avoiding it.
So, if the Phillies deal Howard, what alternatives exist for the Phillies at first base? Lefty Greg Dobbs has hit pretty well this season, but he's valuable as a pinch-hitter and is probably not everyday-starter material (at least not yet).
Perhaps a platoon with a righty (a free agent or a player that would come in a trade) such as Doug Mientkiewicz or Kevin Millar could make a good short-term fix, but the Phillies could probably do better.
One interesting thing to watch for this offseason is how the Phillies deal with free agent Pat Burrell, who played first base his whole life, moving to the outfield shortly before being called up to the majors.
His defense might end up being weaker than Howard's, but he'd be a more-than-adequate offensive replacement. In addition, if the Phillies are willing to raise their payroll a bit, Matt Holliday could then be brought in to play left field. It's hard to consider Burrell and Holliday being a major downgrade over Burrell and Howard.
One team that would fit Howard quite well is the Yankees. Hank Steinbrenner has promised major changes this offseason, and Howard fits the bill. The Yankees could buy out Jason Giambi's massive contract, and make Howard their first baseman of the future.
In return, the Yankees could offer a package consisting of any combination of prospects, Joba Chamberlain, and Xavier Nady (should Burrell not return).
A trade featuring Chamberlain is certainly the most intriguing prospect, because while he's struggled a bit in his new role, he could offer the Phillies a top pitching-prospect, something that they could really use.
A rotation of Cole Hamels, Joe Blanton, Brett Myers, Joba Chamberlain, and Kyle Kendrick has the potential to be the best in the National League in 2009, and it would certainly give the Phillies a bright future on the mound.
For now, all Phillies fans can do is continue to watch intently as Howard, along with the rest of the Phillies, try to prove their value down the stretch. Only time will tell whether or not Howard has a future in the "City of Brotherly Love."
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