Or, how to ruin what had been labeled a potential dynasty.
You’ve probably already heard about Ryan Howard’s MAMMOTH contract extension for five years and $125 million. You may have even read some of the analysis that discusses just how crazy this contract is. Well, here are my two cents.
For starters, I just don’t understand why the Phillies are doing this now. Unless they have an economist on staff who is predicting that major league baseball salaries to spike, this is a bad deal now. According to FanGraph’s valuations, Howard has been worth just under $20 million per season over the last 4 years. Even if Howard maintains his current productivity, the Phillies will be paying a 25% premium for that production starting in 2012.
Of course, Ryan Howard won’t be able to maintain that level of production. Unlike some of the other players who have been locked up long term, Ryan Howard is already 30. The Phillies just committed $25 million per year until he’s 37 and baseball is typically not very kind to aging left handed sluggers. In fact, baseball is downright cruel to aging left handed sluggers. Ryan Howard’s top four comparable players coming into this season were Richie Sexson, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, and David Ortiz. If that list doesn’t make a Phillies fan’s blood run cold, I don’t know what would. Sexson was pretty good at 30 and 31, terrible by 32, and out of baseball after his year 33 season. Fielder was all right in his early 30’s, but was out of baseball following his age 34 season. Mo Vaughn is widely considered one of the biggest free agent busts in history, after signing an enormous deal with the Angels following his impressive age 30 season, Vaughn was mediocre, before missing his entire age 33 season and was out of baseball following a brief and ineffective appearance in his age 35 season. Sadly, David Ortiz’s struggles don’t really need much explanation. Every one of these players had sharp declines following their age 30 or 31 season. The Phillies have now committed money well beyond that.
To top it all off, the Phillies are an NL team, so they won’t be able to hide Howard at DH. They’re committed to trotting him out there every day until he is 37, or they eat enough of the guaranteed money on his contract to move him to a power starved AL team. He’s a tolerable defender at first right now, but given his size, I can’t imagine his defense holds up over the course of the contract.
The sad thing is that the Phillies were positioned perfectly to avoid this whole mess. Sexson and Vaughn ended up being tremendous busts, but their original teams knew when to pull the plug. The Red Sox and the Diamondbacks both let their star first basemen walk, even though neither team had a star prospect moving up to fill the role. In fact, what makes it even more depressing is that the Phillies went through all this when they traded Jim Thome to the White Sox following the 2005 season. For the mere cost of Thome and $22 million (about half the money left on his contract) the Phillies received Aaron Rowand, who put in two solid, relatively inexpensive (if you don’t hold the $22 million against him) years in center field, before moving west to become a free agent bust in his own right.
So, if you’ve skipped ahead to the end for a Cliff’s Notes summary, this is a terrible, terrible deal for the Phillies because:
- Howard is already pretty old (30)
- Howard was already under contract for next season, so there wasn’t any reason to rush this.
- Howard is likely going to be overpaid in year 1 of his new contract extension.
- The baseball gods hate large, unathletic, left-handed sluggers.
- Howard’s mediocre defense can’t be hidden in the NL.
- And finally, perhaps most depressingly, they’ve learned nothing from their own mistakes and mistakes of other teams within the last ten years.
By all accounts Howard is an exceptional person and a pretty damn good ballplayer right now, but there is no doubt in my mind that this contract bites the Phillies in the ass down the line. The Red Sox are in a tough situation with David Ortiz right now, a former face of the franchise, but imagine if the Red Sox owed him $25 million a year for another 3 years AND he had to play the field. It would not end well.