Thursday, April 29, 2010

Howard Goes to the Bank

I'm late to this, but in case you've been living under a rock, the Phillies just signed first baseman and 2006 NL MVP to a 5 year, $125 million extension. The reaction to this deal has been swift and overwhelmingly negative, and it's hard for me to disagree.

Let's be clear, Ryan Howard is a very good baseball player. I think that's actually gotten lost a bit in the criticism of the contract, but I don't want to take anything away from his on-field ability. His wOBA from 2006-09 has been .436, .396, .366, and .393. In terms of WAR, he's been worth 6.8, 4.2, 3.3, and 4.9 wins, respectively. Taking out the down year of 2008, he's been a very solid player and a key cog in the Phillies machine. And hey, in 2008 he hit 48 home runs and the Phillies won the World Series.

But the question isn't whether or not Howard is a good player, it's whether he's worth the money Philadelphia is committing to him. And the answer to that question is a resounding no. For one thing, Howard was already under contract through next season, so the Phillies were under no pressure to extend him now. For another, Howard is already 30 years old. The Phillies are committing themselves to paying a $25 million salary to 36 year old first baseman in 2016. In a word, that's crazy. Especially because first base isn't a premium defensive position, and because Howard isn't anywhere near the best player at that position. In my opinion, he's not even in the top 5. According to Fangraphs, Howard has only been worth $25 million once in his career, his stellar 2006 season, when he was worth $25.3 MM. It's just crazy to assume he'll be worth that on the other side of 33 years old, especially since Howard has pretty severe platoon splits, limiting his effectiveness late in games when other teams bring in left-handed relievers to pitch to him.

At least one commentor has called this the new worst contract in baseball. I won't go that far. Howard is a productive player, and he has real off-field value to the Phillies franchise as well, but it's not going to be anywhere near what he's going to be making. I'm not sure this will hamper the Phillies in the way that, say, the Vernon Wells contract is hampering the Blue Jays, but I do think it will become a very real burden once Howard hits his mid-30's, and unless the Phillies come up with a crop of good young players under team control between now and then, it will probably start keeping them out of the playoffs before long too. It certainly makes the Yankees policy of waiting until current contracts expire look better.

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