CD's Connect the Dots...Paying a Private Ryan

There is little known about what slugger Ryan Howard thinks concerning his negotiations with the Philadelphia Phillies. Nor is it important or necessary. It is known that he is soon to enter that nebulous salary area where the team may deem him more expensive than not. With an arbitration hearing right around the corner, the Phils are faced with the dilemma of...paying a private Ryan.

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 play.

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 their totals.

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 Shane Victorino.

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 and privately.

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] Scott Boras.

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 numbers.

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 remained high.

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 '09 campaign.

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 the organization.

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 private Ryan.

Columnist's Note: Please email all questions and comments to and I will respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast

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