It seems that any discussion of Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard has to start with his contract. Admittedly, it is a massive contract, paying him $125 million over five years. But the way some people criticize the deal, you’d think that it was the reason why the Phillies have struggled in 2013.
The problem isn’t Howard’s contract. The problem is his lack of production.
There has been speculation that if the Phillies hadn’t signed Howard to his current contract extension in 2010, they could have either spent the money elsewhere or signed him at a lower price. This may very well have an impact going forward, but would the 2013 Phillies really be in better shape if Howard was being paid less?
It wasn’t that long ago that people actually feared the Phillies lineup, and Howard was the biggest reason why. He would hit over 40 home runs a season, and it seemed like every year he would have at least one hot streak where he would almost single-handedly carry the team.
It was a stretch to expect another season like that from him, but during Spring Training there was actually a lot of optimism surrounding Howard. He was crushing the ball in the exhibition games, and with his Achilles injury more than a full year behind him, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that he would at least duplicate his 2010 numbers. (276 AVG, .353 OBP, .505 SLG., 31 home runs)
Unfortunately, Howard hasn’t matched those numbers, and at his current rate, he won’t even come close. While Howard’s numbers have traditionally improved in the second half of the season, he’s currently on pace for 20 home runs, which is not an ideal total for a cleanup hitter.
Some people argue that if it wasn’t for his massive contract, Howard would have replaced by now, but it isn’t like there are many viable alternatives.
It’s a frightening thought, but John Mayberry and Kevin Frandsen are both probably weaker against right-handed pitching than Howard is against lefties. There have been suggestions that the team could platoon Howard with Darin Ruf, but Ruf isn’t exactly tearing it up in AAA, and if the team was that high on him, he’d likely already be playing in the outfield.
If the team thought that Howard’s numbers could be supplemented via trade, it would likely be the Phillies’ lack of trade chips that held up the deal, not an inability to take on more salary. Based on their past behavior, if the Phillies thought a trade target would make a difference, they wouldn’t back out due to the money.
The money isn’t the issue. The problem is finding a guy who can put up legitimate middle of the order numbers, and those types of players are simply not easily obtained. I still believe that Howard has the capability to do that, but unless he actually does, the Phillies offense will continue to struggle.