The Tenth Inning – Week 3 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
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By Mike Ivcic
Originally, this week’s column was going to focus on the five starting pitchers who had been the biggest surprises of the year, both for better and for worse. Midway through, however, news of the Phillies’ signing Ryan Howard to a five year, $125 million contract came across the screen, forcing a change of columns on my part. Since I had already finished the “good” part of the column, that is included after the Howard comments. The “bad” portion will come next week as part of a collection that will include starters, relievers, and position players who all need to improve their play to make their teams better. And now, on to this week’s edition of “The Tenth Inning.”
Earlier today, the Phillies announced that they had signed first baseman Ryan Howard to a 5-year contract extension for $125 million guaranteed. The deal calls for $20 million in 2011 and 2012, along with $25 million in 2013, 2014, and 2015, for a total of $115 million. The deal also includes and $23 million option for 2016 and a $10 million buyout, thus the additional $10 million. Got the math? Good, because now it’s time to explain why the Phillies will come to regret that signing.
First off, the player himself. Howard is currently 30 years old, and will turn 31 after the end of the 2010 season. That means this contract will take him right through the end of his prime, putting the option year right after his 35th birthday, a milestone at which point sluggers like Howard generally begin to decline. The length of the contract makes perfect sense, and as he’s led the NL in RBI’s in three of the last four years, it would seem like a very smart signing – on the surface.
But that only takes into account Howard, and not the other 39 Phillies on the major league roster. In actuality, this signing is a clear statement to four individuals that they should begin looking for their ticket out of town – Brad Lidge, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, and Cole Hamels – mostly because the Howard contract kills any salary flexibility for GM Ruben Amaro. He’s already spending $138 million this year, and that’s without paying $6 million to Roy Halladay that the Blue Jays are picking up. Below are the commitments – already – for the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies
Ryan Howard = $20m
Not included on that list are Jimmy Rollins who has an $8.5 million option, along with Greg Dobbs, Werth, Chad Durbin, and J.C. Romero, all four of whom are outright free agents. Even if the Phillies pick up Rollins’ option (which would be smart) it would still put them at just under $130 million for 2011, which would not include any salary bumps for arbitration-eligible players like Kyle Kendrick, J.A. Happ, and the like. It’s doubtful that even another World Series run would allow the payroll to increase much for 2011 in the current financial state, meaning they’re looking at around $140-$150 million for 2011, leaving only $10-$15 million to find a right fielder and reliable lefty in the bullpen. Doable, yes, but it leaves no room for error.
After the 2011 season, however, the following players will become free agents – Hamels, Rollins (assuming the ’11 option is picked up), Ibanez, Madson, Lidge, Baez, Schneider, and Gload. The last two are expendable, but that now leaves the top three righties in the bullpen, the starting shortstop and leftfielder, AND the number two starter ALL as unrestricted free agents (though Lidge has a $12.5m option that will likely be declined). Ibanez will walk (or retire) and the Phillies won’t care, but this is where the decision comes in. Depending on the right field situation in 2011, they might have to worry about that in this situation too, but choices will need to be made. My guess is they let Lidge walk and try to throw his money and Ibanez’s money together to sign Hamels, but I think he signs elsewhere regardless. Madson will likely come back, but the bullpen is now down two arms and they could likely be in need of one or two corner outfielders, while Halladay, Howard, and Utley will continue to command $55 million combined and all three will be 33 or older. Even if Hamels resigns, it pretty much prevents the Phils from signing another big bat to replace Ibanez, and we still haven’t even touched who’s playing shortstop, who’s on the bench, and who’s in the bullpen if that happens. Plus, it’s still incumbent on Happ and Kendrick to fill the back of the rotation behind Blanton, and after last offseason any call-ups or trade depth has been significantly diminished.
In short, the Phillies have clearly indicated that their window of opportunity is now, and have elected to mortgage anything past the next two years in an effort to claim another World Series title or two. I would counter, however, that despite the numbers, Howard would be easier to replace that either Rollins or Hamels. Lefties who have the stuff that Hamels does are huge commodities in the game, and Rollins is the unquestioned leader of the ballclub. Both of those players bring not just high skills, but certain intangibles to the team that can’t be duplicated by just anyone. Howard has often been compared to Adam Dunn – not exactly a flattering comparison. A better defensive first baseman who could hit over .300, hit 20-25 homers and drive in 100 runs would easily make up for the loss of Howard, come at a cost of $10-$15 million less per year, and ensure Philly kept their financial flexibility beyond 2011.
So the Phillies have just committed $125 million to a career .279 hitter who is currently averaging 1.2 strikeouts per game and will reach 1000 career K’s this year. To be fair, I’ve never considered Howard a true “cornerstone” players, but signing this contract means he’ll sure have to be one for the Phillies. Even so, Amaro and Co. appear to have channeled their inner-Al Davis. The motto for the next two seasons in Philly should be, “Just Win.” Because if they don’t, 2012 will bring with it the harsh reality of just how tough it is to not only get to the top – but stay there.
Now the original column…
Five “Good” Surprises
Livan Hernandez, Washington Nationals
Mike Pelfrey, New York Mets
Carlos Silva, Chicago Cubs
Andy Pettitte, New York Yankees
This week’s question: Now that Ubaldo Jiminez has thrown the Colorado Rockies’ first-ever no-hitter, who are the only three teams that have yet to have a pitcher throw a no-hitter?
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