What if the Phillies had waited until after 2011 to re-sign Ryan Howard?


Looking at this picture above pains me on so many levels. The first level, seeing Ryan Howard in pain after tearing his Achilles, is pretty hard in itself to take. The second is, at least to this point,  Howard has never returned to the form of even being a 30 homerun hitter since this injury, let alone the annual MLB homerun leader that he once was.  The third level that this picture pains me on is that this was the final out of a 2011 NLDS loss to the Cardinals, that crushed my dreams that the winningest (and funnest) team in franchise history would produce the second parade down Broad Street in a four years. I guess the most painful part for me was that this groundout, which not only ended the season but left a bad taste in my mouth in terms of what to expect from Howard going forward, came an hour before my 16th birthday. That birthday sucked.

But what if that was it for Ryan Howard’s Phillies’ career? The possibility existed.

After three straight seasons of 45 plus  homeruns and 135 plus RBI’s, the Phillies gave Ryan Howard a three-year/$54 million contract extension prior to the 2009 season, that covered Ryan Howard’s final three seasons of arbitration eligibility. Think what you want about Howard, but during that four-year stretch he was putting up steroid-esque power production (the type of  power production that Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez were in their primes), without steroids. Howard more than earned that deal.

For the first season of the three-year deal, all was well in Philly. Howard completed his fourth consecutive season of 45 plus homeruns and 135 RBIs, while winning NLCS MVP en route to the team’s second consecutive World Series appearance. Sure, Howard didn’t exactly put on a clinic in the World Series that year, but with the exception of Chase Utley, no one on the Phillies team did. Howard was also only one season removed from performing pretty well in the Phillies’ 2008 World Series title run, so it was hard to be too disgusted with Howard.

After five seasons of that type of production, I began to cringe over the idea of how big Howard’s next deal could be. Remember, a few years ago, teams weren’t handing out $100 million contracts left and right like they seemingly are now. The Phillies had never given out a $100 million deal in their team’s existence, through 2009.

The one thing that I thought might save the Phillies from having to shell out a deal of over $150 million for Howard, was the fact that he wasn’t eligible to become a free-agent until after the 2011 season. By the time free-agency started, Howard would have been 32 years-old. While Pat Gillick and his philosophy of never giving any player longer than a three-year deal had retired after the 2008 season, I figured Amaro wasn’t going to give Howard a seven or eight year deal at the age of 32. I figured that Amaro had learned something under the guidance of a Hall of Fame General Manager. I couldn’t have figured more wrong.

Howard got off to uncharacteristically fast start in 2010, batting .335 through the first 19 games.  Sure, he only had three homeruns to date, but Howard typically didn’t hit a ton of homeruns early in the season.

On the morning of April 27th, 2010, Howard woke up with nearly two-years and 40 million dollars left on his three-year extension, with the idea of his future not really a concern in the mind of most. Generally, most fans hoped that the Phillies and Howard would reach a longer term deal prior to his free-agency, but it was far from a pressing issue.

Howard went to bed on April 27th, 2010, as a much richer man. While the Phillies were on a West coast roadtrip in San Francisco, word broke that the Phillies had tacked on an extra five years to Howard’s current deal, to the tune of $125 million. Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro, long before he was dubbed “Ruin Tomorrow Jr.”, said this at a presser regarding Howard’s new deal.

"“We just felt it was good timing for us,” Amaro said. “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.”"

Good timing, what does that even mean? I can’t lie to you, at the time of the deal, I felt a sense of relief that I knew Howard wasn’t going to walk after the 2011 season. And hey, five years and $125 million isn’t a bargain, but Howard’s production more than warranted that type of deal. Had Howard been a free-agent after the 2009 season, he very well could have gotten more money annually than that on the open market, and certainly wouldn’t have gotten more years. The problem was that Howard wasn’t a free-agent after the 2009 season. Or the 2010 season. There was absolutely no need to lock him up during the 2010 season.

So let’s say that Phillies and Howard had exploratory talks during the 2010 season, but decided to table discussions at least until the off-season. That would have drastically changed the future of the Phillies.

On August 1st, 2010, shortly after the Phillies had acquired Roy Oswalt in an attempt to make another World Series run, Howard suffered an ankle injury sliding into second-base against the Nationals, that cost him 16 games on the disabled list. Howard didn’t necessarily struggled in his return, as he hit seven homeruns in September, but only hitting 33 homeruns and driving in 108 RBIs certainly didn’t help his value.

While I’ve learned not to put anything past Ruben Amaro, I wonder if this slight injury and a slight dip in production from Howard in 2010 wouldn’t have kept the Phillies from holding off on an extension for Howard that off-season. Even if they were willing to talk with Howard, I also wonder if Howard wouldn’t have operated under the thought process that if he waited until the 2011 off-season, he could have a rebound 2011 season, where he stayed healthy, and get more money. If he negotiated after the season, but prior to his free-agency, the looming threat of free-agency might have also driven his price up.

So let’s again assume that for a variety of reasons, Howard entered the 2011 regular season as a lame duck. That season Howard played 152 games, batting .253 with 33 homeruns and 116 RBIs. While the Phillies set a franchise record with 102 wins that season, it was pretty evident that having three $20 million plus pitchers on your roster, was going to tie you down in terms of continuing to try to build an elite offense. It was also pretty evident that while Howard was still one of the better power-hitters in the National League, he was no longer hitting at an All-Time power clip.

For me, that would have been enough to decide that if Howard wanted to test the free-agent market to see if he could still land a deal that guaranteed him five or six years, I’d let him. Being that Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols were also free-agents that off-season, I’m not sure that a desperate team like the Marlins wouldn’t have tried to overpay Howard to make up for missing out on Pujols, but if they did, then so be it. The Cardinals, who ultimately refused to overpay Pujols, could have a potential landing spot for Howard as well, as he is from Missouri. In all likelyhood, Howard would have had to take even more of a discount to play in St. Louis than to return to Philly. 

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If you look at a team like the Cardinals, they didn’t overpay for Pujols, and instead allocated the resources to building a complete team. Sure, they had a better farm system than the Phillies, which allowed them to find guys like Matt Adams and Matt Carpenter that put them back in the World Series just two years later, but they elected to build a whole team, not overpay a declining team legend.

All that is hypothetical though, because we never got to see what Ryan Howard’s true market value was. Besides the fact that he was locked up long-term, Howard ended up tearing his Achilles on a groundout to end the 2011 season, which happened to come against the Cardinals. After a down year (at least by his standards), an injury like this likely would have ended any chance of Howard getting a a five or six year deal. If he wanted to test free-agency and find that out for himself, then fine. But considering that Howard didn’t play until after the fourth of July that next year, it’s hard to imagine anyone would have given Howard anything more than a one year prove-it, type of deal. You would tend to think that Howard would have ended up getting that type of deal in Philly.

Of course, at that time the Phillies were an extremely aggressive in both free-agency and trades, trying to get a second championship in five years, so I wouldn’t have put it past them to make a run at Albert Pujols. At that time Pujols was still considered the best player in the MLB, and was fresh off of a World Series MVP. In some senses the Phillies lucked out that they weren’t in a position to give Pujols a nine or ten year deal, because despite the fact that he is still producing better than Howard, his deal is back-loaded and the idea of paying Pujols $30 million in 2021 (when he is 41 years-old) is scary.  Even if they didn’t structure the deal that same way that the Angels did, Pujols would have been making $20 million in his late 30’s and into his early 40’s. If the Phillies ever sign anyone to a deal like that, even if it was Willie Mays, I might never watch the team again.

Let’s assume that hypothetically, the Phillies don’t sign Pujols or Fielder, and rather they choose that they want to bring Howard back. With uncertainty about his future, and Howard still hoping to land a major pay-day, the two sides agree to a one-year $20 million deal. For the purposes of this article, ignore the amount of money Howard got on the one year deal, because I really thought it would be difficult to quantify what type of deal Howard would get with this injury. Considering it is on a one-year basis, it really doesn’t matter. All that matters, is that Howard ended up returning to Philly for the 2012 season.

Howard didn’t end up playing until July 6th of the 2012 season, after attempting to rehab his torn Achilles. Going off that assumption, I would hope that the Phillies would have signed a free-agent who could hold the position over (Derrek Lee and Casey Kotchman could have been fits), but if they didn’t do that during the actual 2012 season, I’d tend to think that they wouldn’t do it in this scenario. That would mean that the 2012 Phillies still would have had the platoon of Ty Wiggington and John Mayberry starting at first-base for the first three months.

Once Howard ultimately came back in 2012, he struggled mightily, batting .219 and striking out 99 times in just over 250 at-bats. You could certainly make the argument that both the Phillies and Howard would have been better off having him sit out the entire 2012 season, but being that he would have been on a one-year basis with the team in this scenario, I’m not sure they wouldn’t have rushed him back even sooner.

After the 2012 season the best available free-agent first-baseman was Adam Laroche, so I’m not sure what the Phillies next course of action would have been. They could have brought Howard back on another one-year deal, but they’d still be bringing back someone who wasn’t fully healthy, as they attempted to re-tool for one last run with the 2008 core. That’s if Howard decided he wants to take another one-year deal. If they went after someone like Laroche, you would be giving a two or three year deal to someone who is a solid player, but won’t give you the type of production that Howard would if he managed to get healthy.

It’s also worth noting that Darin Ruf exploded at Double-A that season, hitting 38 homeruns and 104 RBIs that year, so he could have been an option to be the starting first-baseman for 2013, should the Phillies have elected to let Howard walk. Then again, the way the organization has handled Ruf since hasn’t exactly led you to think that they thought highly enough to move on from the greatest first-baseman in franchise history (even if he was hurt), to give him a shot to be a starter.

Regardless of what the Phillies would have ended up doing with Howard, the important part is that they would have had the choice if they waited on an extension. Ruben Amaro and the Phillies front-office took away that option, a year and a half early, by re-signing Howard in 2010. I’m not sure I would be able to second-guess them as much if Howard was killing it during the 2011 season and they locked him up to avoid getting in a bidding war in free-agency, but had they waited, they would have seen that he wasn’t still playing at a $25 million level anymore in 2011.

I feel for Howard in a lot of senses, because I think he has been given a raw deal. He completed the most prolific five-year power span in team history and he got paid. He got paid too early, but it’s ridiculously unfair to say that he never earned getting paid. And I think people that try to paint Howard as a dog, couldn’t be more wrong. Howard didn’t get paid and mail it in, he got paid and get got seriously injured. I’m not going to kid you and say that I wouldn’t dump Howard’s deal in a second, but I respect how hard he has worked to try to get back to his old form, even if it appears that he never will.

At fault isn’t necessarily Howard, but Ruben Amaro and the front-office for tying down the franchise with a contract unnecessarily early. Saying that the organization couldn’t have predicted Howard would get hurt is a convenient excuse, except for the obvious fact that if they waited on the extension they wouldn’t have had to predict anything, because he did get hurt.

Not having Howard’s massive deal on the books now, might have allowed the Phillies to build a more complete bullpen. Then again, I’m scared what Amaro would have done with that type of money, given his two most recent big relief deals (Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams)  have been disasters. The same could really be said for building a bench or trying to land star outfielders, at least juding off of how he handled signing Raul Ibanez and the entire Hunter Pence fiasco.

It would be franchise-changing if the Phillies didn’t have Ryan Howard’s contract hampering down their payroll. It would also be franchise-chaning if Ruben Amaro wasn’t hampering down the entire organization.