In many ways, there has never been a career like his. No past performance to
lean on as evidence to suggest that after 3 1/2 years in a major league uniform,
first baseman Ryan Howard is worthy of the 18 million dollars he has submitted
to arbitration. This much can be stated as factual. In a steroid stained era
where home run numbers were inflated almost daily, the 29 year old Howard may be
the most prolific home run hitter since Babe Ruth.
Weighty words indeed, but not necessarily hyperbole. His three full season home
run totals of 58, 47 and 48 are certainly Ruthian like numbers and in a bit over
half of a season in 2005, he hit 22 more. This means he has averaged, yes
averaged pray tell, 49 home runs per season. During that time he has also hit a
home run every 11.7 at bats per season. For all players with over 2,000 at bats
only Mark McGuire has ever done better and the evidence is overwhelming that he
was one of the players tainted with the steroids blot on his record.
Yes, these power numbers are better than Babe Ruth, better than Hank Aaron,
better than Barry Bonds, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. Better even than Mike Schmidt, still widely considered the greatest power hitter in Philadelphia
Phillie annuals. Aristocratic company to be sure. And if baseball history is to
believed, Howard at 29 years of age [he won't be 30 until the end of November]
is just now entering his prime power seasons, the years from 29-32.
For his part, the Phillie slugger is remaining quiet about his request, as well
he should. This is no time for public proclamations, no time for bombast and
braggadocio. After all, the decision is not personal, merely professional and
Howard has uttered nary a discouraging word since he joined the major league
club back in early summer of 2005.
No doubt he feels his request is justified, not only because of the Herculean
power numbers over the years but because of the many accomplishments he has
accumulated over his somewhat brief time in the major leagues. To wit, Howard
was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2005 despite playing just a bit
over half of a major league campaign with 88 games. During that period he hit
.288 with 22 home runs and 63 RBI, capable numbers even during a full season of
Yet, this was merely a brief cameo appearance for someone who truly burst onto
the national stage in 2006, the year he hit 58 home runs, knocked in 149 runs
and batted a cool .313. For much of September it appeared that he would break
the untainted home run record of 61 home runs hit by former New York Yankee
right fielder Roger Maris back in 1961. Of course, Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire and
Sammy Sosa have all eclipsed that total but all have been linked to steroid
controversy and it remains for baseball history to determine the relevance of
Not so Howard and not so his 58 home runs in 2006. Those numbers were acquired
on merit and only the fact that the opposition began walking him with alarming
frequency during the September playoff push kept him from the magic 61 home run
total. That he followed up that '06 campaign with home run totals of 47 and 48
during the past two seasons is even more impressive, especially given the fact
that they helped lead his team to first a NL playoff berth in 2007 and a World
Championship in 2008.
Speaking of individual honors, he was voted the NL Most Valuable Player in 2006
and finished second in the voting in 2008, behind Albert Pujols of the St. Louis
Cardinals. He has also won two home run titles and two RBI titles during this
period. There is no reason to suspect his 2009 totals will be any less
impressive if he stays healthy since he is playing in a ball park completely
suited for his individual hitting strengths while being surrounded by such
talented teammates as Chase Utley, Raul Ibanez, Jayson Werth, Jimmy Rollins and
With all of this in mind, his request for an 18 million dollar award in
arbitration seems perfectly just and well deserved. Fair enough. Still, from the
Phillies point of view, the case for their offer of $14 million is not without
merit also and equally deserving of a day in court. Make no mistake, they have
gone out of their way to praise Howard and make sure that no one mistakes the
appreciation and fondness they have for both his deeds and his person. He is a
valued member of the team's core, along with Utley, Rollins, Cole Hamels and
Brad Lidge and Phil GM Ruben Amaro has stressed this repeatedly, both publicly
For their part, the Phils feel that a 14 million dollar offer represents a 40
percent raise over his $10 million arbitration award from last year and is very
much in line with a player who, despite his incredible offensive numbers, still
had a disappointing season average wise [.251] and was in a profound slump for
much of the '08 campaign. Only his staggering September push, when he hit 11
home runs and knocked in 32 runs, helped him to his final numbers and not so
coincidentally helped the team to a playoff and eventual World Series berth.
Amaro can also point to the disturbing fact that evidence suggests that Howard
is becoming less patient at the plate, and thus more prone to strikeouts and a
lower batting average. His average over the past three full seasons has
plummeted from .313 in '06 to .268 in '07 and his eventual .251 batting average
in '08. Should this trend continue, it will be hard to distinguish him from the
likes of Adam Dunn, a player who is now a free agent and so far unable to find a
team willing to sign him for his asking price of $14 million per year.
The Phillies also have to be concerned about the fact that increasingly, Ryan
Howard is being cast as basically a "one tool" player. No longer can
he be counted on to produce a high batting average, and his fielding, running
and throwing skills have never been satisfactory. The team has to be concerned
that should he ever lose his power bat they will be paying a huge salary for a
player that no longer fits their needs.
Another factor worthy of discussion, though one that the team would never
acknowledge publicly, is the philosophical aspect of all this. Simply put, if
Ryan Howard wins his $18 million arbitration request the Phils will be faced
with the disquieting prospect of paying their first baseman more than they are
paying their second baseman and shortstop combined. Considering that those
players, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, are integral parts of the team's
success, this does pose as a potential season-long dilemma. Not one to rear its
ugly head as long as the team is winning, but should the club struggle in 2009
it could very well become a clubhouse distraction.
Far from the maddening crowd, it would seem that a logical solution would be a
compromise. Judging by past Phillie negotiations in similar situations, the team
would try and meet the player in the middle and then nudge the offer a tiny bit
further in order to give the appearance that the player "won" the
negotiation battle. In reality, both sides won. The player feels he has done
well while the team feels it has A] kept the player satisfied and B] avoided a
possible acrimonious arbitration hearing with all the ramifications of hard
feelings and resentment possible.
In fact, this has been the standard operating procedure in Philadelphia for many
years and has been dealt with quite successfully. No further evidence is
necessary than the artful job done by Amaro and Company in navigating the
potentially dangerous waters of arbitration eligible players like Cole Hamels,
Ryan Madson, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton and Chad Durbin. All six
of these players reached recent agreement on contract terms and they were all
done with stunning lack of acrimony or disharmony.
The team's reigning World Series MVP and ace of the staff, Cole Hamels, was
inked for three years at roughly $20-million while both Madson and Werth had
some years of free agency bought out with their multi-year deals. In particular,
the signing of Ryan Madson represented a watershed moment in Philadelphia
Phillie history since his agent is the notorious [at least in Philadelphia]
It was widely assumed that with Boras as first officer of the negotiations for
the Phillie set up man, the team had almost no chance of re-signing the talented
Madson. To categorize past negotiations with Boras as acrimonious would be a
misnomer since the reality is that with past Boras clients, there were no
negotiations. The most recent and probably most famous of the non negotiations
was with former Phillie hurler Kevin Millwood. While out on a hunting
expedition, the talented Millwood was prepared to allow his agent to negotiate
in good faith with then Phillie GM, Ed Wade.
Wade made what was considered at the time a very fair offer of three years, $30
million. Not only did Boras reject it out of hand, but failed to even inform his
client of the offer. Needless to say, Millwood was quite unhappy with his agent
and eventually was forced to settle for a one year deal. And long-time Phillie
phans are still quite familiar with the non negotiations for former top draft
pick, J.D. Drew back in the summer of 1997. Despite their best and most sincere
efforts, the Phils were unable to convince Boras and his client of the allures
of Philadelphia and the recalcitrant Drew eventually went back into the 1998
draft, where he was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals.
Thus, the signing of Madson, along with all of the other arbitration eligible
players has shown that the Phillies, under the new regime of Ruben Amaro, are
continuing to make a concerted effort to not only satisfy their players but to
avoid the arbitration process if at all possible. The chances are excellent that
the team would probably like to settle with Howard for a deal along the lines of
$16-million with possibly $2-million in incentive offers. Seems all well and
good to the casual observer and a most likely scenario given the teams affection
for the slugger.
If the past is any indication, and it probably is, there is little reason for
optimism that a deal with Ryan Howard will get done and the unhappy prospect of
yet another arbitration hearing in February is at hand. In a little known, but
oh so true factoid, the reluctant slugger has not signed his name along a dotted
Phillie line contract since he first inked a professional deal back in the
summer of 2001. Oh, he always signed his standard minor league contracts back in
the years 2002-2004 but has yet to ink a deal with the team ever since ascending
to the major leagues in 2005.
During that period the Phils have been forced to "renew" his contract
in 2006 and 2007 and battle Howard in the arbitration process during the spring
of 2008. It is particularly well worth noting that in 2007 Howard made what may
have been a very telling decision about just what he thinks about negotiations
in general. When the team would not meet his demands, they offered him $1-million
if he signed, or a renewal deal of nine-hundred-thousand if he didn't. Rather
than sign a contract he deemed unworthy, he took the renewal deal rather than
sign a contract. The far reaching implications of that incident might well be
coming to light now.
Clearly, he appears to have been "stung" by the fact that he was not
drafted until the fifth round of the 2001 draft after what was viewed as a very
mediocre junior year at Southwest Missouri State that spring. Howard had enjoyed
a spectacular sophomore season in college and all the professional scouts were
touting him as a potential first round pick in the 2001 draft. He then suffered
what former Phillie Asst. GM Mike Arbuckle referred to as "draft-itis"
during his junior campaign, and his stock dropped along with his collegiate
The Phils picked him in the fifth round and set out to insure his success by
allowing him to feel comfortable at every level of his minor league ascension.
While the organization has been criticized for moving Howard up the minor league
ladder at almost a "snail's pace", in fact they were determined that
he would dominate at every level in order to make sure his confidence level
The strategy worked well and when he finally made the major leagues to stay in
2005 after an injury to incumbent first baseman Jim Thome. Still, there are many
who feel that Howard has never forgiven the Phillies for keeping him in the
minor leagues for so long, despite the undeniable fact that it appears to have
worked out well for all parties concerned.
It has also been rumored that he is profoundly influenced by his father and that
his dad has convinced him to aspire for a long-term deal in the range of $200-million.
The fact that he has already hired and fired no less than three agents in a bit
over three years certainly lends credence to the fact that someone other than
his agent is providing him with advice and council. Regardless of just who has
Howard's ear, be it his father or his present agent, the respected but tough
minded Casey Close, the fact remains that the Phils are facing the prospect of
yet another arbitration hearing...and the eventual departure of the slugger,
either through free agency or via a trade.
Again, for his part, Ryan Howard has uttered nary a word. Though Amaro indicates
that negotiations are on-going and that he remains optimistic of a settlement,
the past, as well as Howard's reluctance to speak have given all the appearances
of yet another standoff...and one with possibly very unpleasant ramifications
for the team.
Truth be told, the Phillies at first glance appear to be very much in a
lose-lose situation should this case go to arbitration. If Howard is once again
able to convince an arbitration panel that he is worthy of $18-million request,
the Phils are faced with the prospect of paying their first baseman a contract
that is just to the south side of $20-million. This will push their team player
payroll over the $130-million total and might preclude them from making a Joe
Blanton type deal should one be available come July.
If, however, the arbitration committee deems the Phillie offer of 14 million as
sufficient, then expect Howard and his camp to be very unhappy. They already
view their side as grossly underpaid over the course of a professional career
and are unlikely to just accept the decision and move on. Admittedly, Howard has
never been anything but the consummate professional since he arrived in
Philadelphia and was one of the happiest and most ebullient players during the
championship celebration last fall. It is hoped that this will continue, win or
lose the arbitration hearing. Logic dictates, however, that given the past
history, this seeming slight could well be something that lingers long into the
Clearly, the Phils would like to settle and have even discussed a multi-year
deal with their first baseman, probably somewhat in line with what Chase Utley
signed for a few seasons back [7 years, 85 million.] Howard didn't even take
this offer seriously and has reportedly indicated that he wants at least double
the salary for probably about the same number of years. This would guarantee him
a contract well into his mid-30s age wise, and the team isn't inclined to give
him a contract for that much money.
Be that as it may, where does this leave both player and team? Can this clash of
the titans be resolved both gracefully and successfully for all involved.
Perhaps, but probably not. Rather, it seems obvious that the Phillies are
prepared, budget wise, to pay their slugger whatever the arbitrator deems as
fair and just for the upcoming season. But only for the upcoming season.
Should Howard win his case, and he is certainly no acolyte when it comes to this
process, the Phils face the prospect of a $25-million request for the 2010
season. This seems an amount that they would not be inclined to pay. This is
Alex Rodriguez-like money and the Phils have consistently stated that they would
never be interested in acquiring the talented but expensive Yankee third
baseman. Perhaps they would have a change of heart for one of their own [Howard
is, after all, a home-grown talent] but where would that leave future
negotiations with Rollins, Utley, Hamels and future stars like Michael Taylor
and Dominic Brown?
More than likely, the Phils would at least privately explore the possibility of
trading Howard while he is still two seasons from free agency. He cannot become
a free agent until after the 2011 season and might have value for a club like
the Boston Red Sox, especially if David Ortiz should slip as age creeps up on
him. The rule of thumb in baseball is that a team can acquire equal numbers in
talent for equal number of years available in service.
In other words, if the Phils want to acquire two very talented players in return
for Howard, they will likely have to move him after the '09 campaign, when he
will still offer his new team two seasons of service. Should the Phils decide
not to trade him until after the 2010 season or at the mid-point of 2011, they
can expect to get no more than one skilled player in return.
Of course, the Phillies could decide to roll the dice and keep Howard until he
is eligible for free agency following the 2011 season. Should they do that, they
could A] try and sign him to a multi-year deal or B] offer him arbitration once
more, insuring that they will recoup some draft picks should he reject the offer
and sign elsewhere. This seems the least likely scenario unless the team
continues to reach the playoffs and World Series with regularity until then.
Winning is, after all, the greatest panacea possible to all the ails the human
spirit in professional sports.
For Phillie neophyte GM Ruben Amaro, it has mostly been a successful off-season.
The winter hot stove league has seen him sign free agent left fielder Raul
Ibanez while reluctantly allowing fellow left fielder and long time Phillie, Pat Burrell, to depart. He has addressed the teams bullpen needs with the signing of
Chan Ho Park while reinforcing the catching department with the deal for Ronny Paulino. He has sought to further the teams desire for young power hitters by
dealing speedy but still raw prospect Greg Golson for the more advanced power
skills of John Mayberry Jr.
Amaro has done a masterful job of getting the signature of no less than nine
potential arbitration eligible cases by inking Cole Hamels, Jayson Werth, Shane
Victorino, Greg Dobbs, Ryan Madson, Clay Condrey, Chad Durbin, Eric Bruntlett
and Joe Blanton. He re-signed potential free agent hurlers, Jamie Moyer and
Scott Eyre. By all accounts, he has enjoyed a most impressive winter wonderland.
Yet, his most difficult and undoubtedly trying time lies directly ahead with the
Ryan Howard negotiations. Will Howard be amiable to a compromise agreement? As
of yet, he is not saying and in this case, silence is unlikely to be golden.
Still, the Phils will continue to try and iron out a deal with the slugger and,
in the unlikely event that it happens, face a probable contentious arbitration
hearing in late February. Once the decision is announced, the angst begins for
Poet Bertrand Russell once observed that "nothing is so exhausting as
indecision, and nothing is so futile." The Phils are neither inclined to
become exhausted nor indecisive so a coming storm cloud is likely right over the
horizon, with a 2009 off-season as its anticipated arrival. Until then, the team
will continue the daunting but increasingly expensive proposition of...paying a
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