Ryan Howard is still guaranteed $80 million through 2017. (AP)
When the Phillies added five years and $125 million to Ryan Howard’s contract in April 2010, they did so to avoid entering a bidding war after the 2011 season.
It was extremely early for an extension, and it was met with justified criticism, but the reasoning was that the Phils didn’t want to miss out on locking up a power-hitting first baseman after 2011. Initially, Howard was set to become a free-agent after the 2011 season, along with first basemen Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez.
Pujols ended up signing a 10-year, $250 million contract that looks completely ludicrous after seeing how sharply he’s declined in just the first two years. Gonzalez signed a seven-year, $154 extension after being traded to the Red Sox, but was used to free up Boston’s payroll by being dealt to the Dodgers. On Wednesday night, the Tigers agreed to trade Fielder and $30 million to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler (see story).
Those mega-deals for first basemen ... they tend not to work out.
The Fielder/Kinsler trade got me thinking about Howard’s tradability, how it’s at an all-time low. Fielder had a poor 2013 season by his standards, but still fetched Detroit a stud middle infielder and salary relief. If Ruben Amaro Jr. shopped Howard right now, he’d be lucky to spend more than a few minutes on the phone with a rival GM.
Howard, who’s missed 173 games the last two seasons, is owed $85 million through 2017. He’s set to make $25 million in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and has a $23 million club option for 2017 that can be bought out for $10 million.
He’d need to return in 2014 and reestablish his value to draw any interest on the trade market. A .265/.340/.525 season with 36 home runs would do the trick.
Does Howard even still have that season left in him? He hasn’t slugged that high since the year the Phillies lost to the Yankees in the World Series. And, while Fielder has walked more than he's struck out in two of the last three seasons, Howard’s plate discipline has gotten worse by the year. His on-base percentages since 2009: .360, .353, .346, .295, .319.
But let’s imagine Howard does come close to those numbers in 2014, while also avoiding injury. At that point, he’d have two years and $60 million left on his deal. That sounds significantly more tradable, especially if the Phillies pick up some of the money.
It could work if, at that point, the Phils -- in order to clear up payroll like the Red Sox did with Gonzalez, the Tigers did with Fielder and the Angels wish they could do with Pujols -- agree to pay Howard’s $10 million buyout and also pay 40 percent of the rest of his contract. That would mean an acquiring team would essentially be buying Howard for two years, $30 million. The Phillies would be paying $30 million in dead money.
If Howard was a free agent coming off that imaginary 2014 season, most teams would be willing to sign him to that short-term contract. Carlos Beltran is proof. He produced for the Mets in 2011 after two injury-plagued years, was traded to the Giants at the deadline and then signed a two-year, $27 million deal with the Cardinals.
And that’s where we’re at on the Howard trade front. It’s improbable, but not impossible for the Phillies to get out from under that albatross contract. It would just take a revival from Howard in 2014 and a commitment by the Phils to pick up half his remaining money. You wouldn’t get a Kinsler back, or probably even a top-tier prospect, but you’d free up $30 million, get younger, become less left-handed, and put together a different looking lineup.
Many Phillies fans lashed out after the Carlos Ruiz contract, but Chooch’s three-year, $26 million contract isn’t the real issue here. The five-year, $125 million contract Howard’s in the midst of is. Without it, Chase Utley’s deal, Ruiz’s deal, even the Marlon Byrd deal would look more acceptable.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the next year. If Howard hits and the Phillies contend, they won’t want to get rid of him. But if he hits and they don’t contend -- which is a legit possibility -- then the Phillies would have a chance to press the reset button on a deal that hasn’t worked out.
The caveat? Howard can block a trade to the same 21 teams as Cliff Lee. Such a headache, this contract.