- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
A few years ago, Ryan Howard took batting practice by himself in a cage at the Philadelphia Phillies' spring training complex, trying to make an adjustment in his swing. It wasn't working for him that day, and he shouted out in anger repeatedly. Howard has always wanted to be a great player, which is why he has fought to get better: losing weight, altering his body, improving his footwork, improving as a hitter. "I think he wants to be Hall of Fame great," said a friend of his this spring.
Howard has demonstrated beyond any doubt that he will work to the best of his ability to make his five-year, $125 million extension pay off for the Phillies. He is a great player who gets it.
But Howard's professional integrity is an entirely separate issue from the question that was being kicked around baseball circles Monday night -- why would the Phillies commit that kind of money to a 30-year-old player with Howard's body and particular skill set?
Here's a simple barometer of whether or not this was a good deal for the Phillies: If Philadelphia were to put Howard on the trade market today, with almost seven years and $164 million remaining on his deal, how many offers would it get?
The answer, in all likelihood: zero.
Less than 24 hours into his contract, Howard -- a star in his prime -- is already considered by many in the industry to be overpriced.
Only a small handful of teams could afford to invest $25 million a year in any player, much less a first baseman who will probably be better suited to being a designated hitter within the next four to five years. The New York Yankees have the money, but they already have a younger, more athletic, well-rounded first baseman in Mark Teixeira. The New York Mets have never paid any player more than $18 million a year, and they have a young first baseman in Ike Davis who has a chance to be a good player for a lot less money, leaving the team to spend its dollars elsewhere. We've seen the Los Angeles Dodgers' financial plan, through the power of a court, and there are no plans to spend big money any time soon.
Theo Epstein, the Boston Red Sox's general manager, has slowly gotten away from investing long-term deals in older players. He has seen first-hand last year and this year how older sluggers can quickly lose their value. Given his management style, there is no chance that a team run by Epstein would commit that kind of money to a player over 30 years old unless he brought a wider array of skills to the table than Howard does, such as strong defense, or the ability to play a position at which high impact is more difficult to find, whether it be second base or shortstop or catcher.
Chicago White Sox general manager Kenny Williams has been investing his dollars in younger, more athletic players. The Chicago Cubs probably would be gun-shy, given the Alfonso Soriano contract: Just three-plus years into his eight-year deal, Soriano's days as a star player might be over. The St. Louis Cardinals intend to spend a lot of money on a first baseman, a guy named Albert Pujols. The Detroit Tigers already have committed big dollars to an All-Star first baseman who is much younger than Howard in Miguel Cabrera.
It's unclear why the Phillies had to do this deal right now, given that Howard already was signed through the 2011 season. They could have waited and put off the risk of committing so much money. One possible scenario would have been for Howard to hit the free-agent market at the same time as Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez and Prince Fielder, and you can bet that if the market actually played out this way -- with Pujols, Howard, Gonzalez and Fielder free agents all at once -- that the Phillies, armed with a big stack of chips, would probably have landed one of them. There are just not that many bidders at the high-stakes table on which the Phillies play.
Let's say, for argument's sake, that Howard had walked away and Fielder re-signed with the Brewers and Pujols went back to the Cardinals and Gonzalez signed with Boston. The Phillies would then have $25 million in payroll flexibility and would be in position to pursue one of the many first basemen who might be available by then because of financial constraints elsewhere: Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins, or the Cincinnati Reds' Joey Votto, or the Kansas City Royals' Billy Butler. There are almost no players as prolific as Howard, but there are a lot of really good first basemen, at prices that create flexibility for other moves.
Some of the major choices the Phillies have been making seem tinged with a mixture of apprehension and impulsiveness -- the kind of emotions it seems they should be immune to because of the organization's stature as a baseball power.
After the Cliff Lee/Roy Halladay merry-go-round of trades, the Phillies folks indicated that the reason they traded Lee without patiently calling all teams to assess his market value was that they had to clear payroll at that moment -- three months before they had to start writing the checks. They swapped Lee for prospects partly because they were concerned about losing too many prospects, leaving executives in other front offices to note that the Phillies could simply attempt to fill that talent gap by flexing their dollars in the amateur draft or in the international market -- the way the Red Sox continue to do (for example, the Red Sox signed a catcher from Cuba).
The Phillies acquired Halladay and gave him a three-year, $60 million deal, they indicated, because they weren't sure whether they would be able to re-sign Lee and they wanted to be sure they came out of 2010 with at least one elite starter. Said a rival general manager to that: "How many teams do they think can pay $20 million a year to a pitcher?"
Now they have set up Howard to have the second-highest salary in the majors after the 2011 season, all the way through the 2016 season, when he'll be 37 years old.
It's the easy play; it's the kind of play that feels good today. And Howard is the kind of person who helps make this investment feel good, today.
But halfway into the contract, the Phillies may well have enormous regret. They are a financial power, and the only strategy that would put them in competitive jeopardy would be getting overextended with contracts on older stars. The Yankees learned this thanks to George Steinbrenner's impetuousness in the mid-80s, and time will tell if this kind of impatience hurts the Phillies, as well. They had the power to wait.
• Jonathan Sanchez outdueled Roy Halladay, giving another example of why Sanchez has the ability to be pivotal in the NL West race. He has evolved as a pitcher to the point that on any given day, he can match up against any pitcher -- and he is the No. 4 starter in the San Francisco Giants' rotation, behind Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and a resurgent Barry Zito.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Peter Schmuck thinks it'll be awhile before the Orioles consider a change at manager.
5. Some moves worked out for a couple of AL East shortstops, writes Richard Griffin.
Dings and dents
From Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information:
Josh Johnson and Yovani Gallardo each had three RBIs on Monday. The most recent time a pair of pitchers had three or more RBIs on the same day: June 9, 1999. There were bizarre circumstances here. Both pitchers were relievers -- Guillermo Mota and Curt Leskanic -- and each hit a three-run homer.
The last time a pair of STARTING pitchers had three or more RBIs on the same day: May 15, 1984 -- Tim Lollar and Joaquin Andujar.
1. The Nationals walked in the winning run.
3. Halladay heard cries of "overrated!" on Monday.
4. The Pirates are having the worst week in their history, as Dejan Kovacevic writes.
6. The Tigers' bullpen had a bad day, but Detroit rebounded.
7. From John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Information -- why Jered Weaver of the Angels won Monday:
A. He had a strike percentage of 67.9; this percentage has increased in each of his five starts this season.
B. With his fastball getting hit (4-10 Monday, .204 before) he went to his off-speed stuff (50.0 percent of pitches Monday, 37.4 before); the Indians went 3-15 with five of seven K's versus non-fastballs (opponents hit .222 with fewer than half their K's versus Weaver's non-fastballs before Monday).
8. Why Dan Haren won, also from Fisher:
A. He had devastating off-speed stuff: hitters went 1-for-6 versus cutter and curve (6-10, 2 HR versus cutter and curve entering Monday).
B. He had his usual nasty splitter: 5 of 10 strikeouts came on his splitter, and there was a chase percentage of 61.5 with the pitch -- now 23 of 38 K's and chase percentage of 55.7 with his splitter this season.
9. The Jays got outslugged, writes Mark Zwolinski.
10. The Patience Index: Josh Willingham, Asdrubal Cabrera and J.D. Drew (six plate appearances each ) saw 30 or more pitches Monday; the most patient hitter of the night was Franklin Gutierrez, who saw 27 pitches in four plate appearances -- an average of 6.8 per.
• Here's an ugly Braves stat, courtesy of David O'Brien.
• The Twins and Tigers meet tonight for the first time since Game 163.
• Citi Field is playing to the Mets' strengths, writes David Waldstein.
• The worries over Justin Morneau's spring training turned out to be unmerited, writes La Velle Neal.
• Joe Torre is the owner of a Kentucky Derby long shot, writes Bill Finley.
• Jim Leyland is not happy about the Tigers' travel schedule.
• The Dodgers' owners are nothing but grief for Torre, writes Joel Sherman.
• The Yankees hung out at the White House, as Mark Feinsand writes.
And today will be better than yesterday.
Buster Olney likes Ryan Howard a lot as a ballplayer, but this huge new deal seems curious: If they let him wait, and he hit the market with Pujols, Adrian G. and Fielder, the Phillies would have likely landed one of those guys.