Ryan Howard’s Contract

>“We felt No. 1, he’s one of the elite offensive players in the game. We could have waited another year and a half or so and dealt with it later on, but the fact of the matter is we decided he is that important to our organization and to our club and to our future.”
-Ruben Amaro Jr, Phillies GM, per Jayson Stark

Ryan Howard and the Phillies agreed to a five year, $125 million extension yesterday, with Howard already being locked up for the 2010-11 seasons.

Let me rephrase that in super-dense and ultra-serious macroeconomic terms: Ryan Howard was sitting on Ebay, with an opening bid of $72 million, two years left to bid, and no current bidders. However, the Phillies opened up their computer, saw no bids and the time remaining, and then inexplicably clicked the “Buy It Now” button for $125 million anyway. I should also mention that the item has an estimated delivery time of two years, and you can’t buy insurance in case the Ryan Howard is damaged before arrival. If you read the small print, it mentions the item can’t be used as effectively against lefties.

It’s an awful, awful contract for the Phillies.

That’s not to say the Ryan Howard is an awful player, because he’s not. Ryan Howard is a career .279/.374/.583 hitter with 225 home runs – that’s awfully good. BUT . . . I’m not sure it’s elite, as Ruben Amaro says, especially considering Howard plays first base, where everyone can hit. He’s clearly not the best player at his own position, nevertheless one of the best among all MLB players.

For comparison, what some other hitters have done since Howard’s rookie year in 2005 through 2010:

Ryan Howard – .279/.374/.583
Albert Pujols – .333/.437/.631
Lance Berkman – .295/.406/.547
David Wright – .308/.394/.516
Alex Rodriguez – .303/.407/.578
Adam Dunn – .249/.384/.522
Derrek Lee – .308/.391/.544
Jason Bay – .279/.378/.511

Howard has all but Pujols beat in slugging percentage, but average and on-base percentage, not so impressive when compared to the Jason Bay’s of the world – and on-base percentage is roughly twice as valuable as slugging percentage.

In fact, if you take Fangraphs’ list of the players who have created the most runs above average over the past three years, Ryan Howard comes in a whopping 17th place. Is that great production? Well, obviously, it’s great production, but a better question is if it’s elite production, production worth a ton of money. I’m not so sure it is. Adam Dunn has created more runs over the same period of time – is he an elite offensive player that deserves $25 million a year?

Howard is behind seven other first baseman on the list: Pujols, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, Miguel Cabrera, Berkman, Kevin Youkilis, and Carlos Pena. Should the eighth best hitting first baseman in baseball be considered an elite player? Should the eighth best anything be considered elite?

However, that’s not the biggest problem with this “Buy It Now” deal. Here’s the kicker: Howard is 30 right now – because he got off to such a late start, he’s actually older than Albert Pujols, who willed himself into existence two month after Howard was born. Howard will be 32 when the five year deal kicks in, when he’ll start to become achy and old and his production will start to decline, if it hasn’t already.

Think about this: Baseball-Reference lists Richie Sexson as his most similar batter by age to Howard. Richie Sexson was out of baseball at age 33 – actually, the whole top three most similar batters by age, the other two in the trio being Mo Vaughn and Cecil Fielder, were out of baseball before age 35. That’s not a good omen for someone signed through age 36, with a buyout for his age 37 season.

To top it off, Howard’s lefty-righty splits have gotten progressively worse every season since 2006, all the way down to a .653 OPS last season against southpaws. Howard may wind up a platoon candidate if he doesn’t figure out lefties – a $25 million platoon player.

So there’s all that against the deal – but in the Phillies defense, I get what they’re thinking is. Ryan Howard has led the league in home runs twice. He’s lead the league in RBI three out of the past four seasons. He has home run power to all fields, which makes him a freak – and no man on the planet hits home runs with more STYLE than Ryan Howard. Not that many baseball players look “cool”, for various reasons – the tight pants, being Kevin Youkilis -  but Ryan Howard looks cool whenever he hits a home run. Plus, Howard seems like a stand-up guy, and it takes a lot for me to say that. As someone who roots for the New York Mets, I don’t like the Phillies, their mascot, their city, the Eagles (band or team), the Tom Hanks movie, or anything that has to do with Philadelphia – but I kind of like Ryan Howard.

Well, not really.

What I mean is, if I had to pick a Phillie to not hate, or at least hate less, and I couldn’t pick Nelson Figueroa, I would probably pick Ryan Howard.

Good guy, RBI man, looks cool hitting home runs – what’s not to like, right?

Well, actually, a couple of things. At this point, plenty of people can explain why RBI are a poor way to measure offensive production, and why big, old first baseman don’t necessarily age well. They could explain that, taking all things into account, such as defense and difficulty of position played, Ryan Howard might not even be the third most valuable player on his own team, behind Chase Utley, Jayson Werth, and Jimmy Rollins. They could explain that Howard hasn’t been worth $25 million in any season so far in his career, and that it doesn’t make sense to expect him to suddenly get better and become more valuable at ages 30-36. Lots of people can explain these things – just not the people that run the Phillies, because it doesn’t appear they understand it.

The general direction of the Phillies gives me hope as a Met fan. Last off-season, Raul Ibanez was a questionable signing, but it worked out, at least for his first season. That was defensible, and the Phillies were proven right, for now. Then, this off-season, the Phillies oddly dealt off Cliff Lee when they didn’t necessarily need to, in the name of saving money and prospects. Understandable, though some disagreed.

Then they gave Howard an unnecessary extension. No defense for this one last one.

Also, no everyday player for the Phillies is under age 30. The injury bug has already begun to bite.

The Phillies have been making strange decisions since Amato took over as GM, some of which worked out – Raul Ibanez – and the Phillies are still the best team in the NL East, but they’re old, and this contract and the weird departure of Cliff Lee do not bode well for the team’s decision making process – it’s become suspiciously Metsian.

Which is good news for the Mets, because the more inept franchises there are in the division, the better their chances become for stumbling back into the playoffs.

In one way, the Ryan Howard deal isn’t good news for the Mets, because Ryan Howard is really good at baseball, and is going to be playing for the Phillies for a while. But, in another way, it is good news for the Mets, because Ryan Howard isn’t THAT good at baseball, and the Phillies decision making appears to be shaky.

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