David Murphy: Phillies need big numbers to match Howard's big number$

The Phillies have a lot of money tied up in struggling Ryan Howard's contract.
The Phillies have a lot of money tied up in struggling Ryan Howard's contract. (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: September 19, 2012

NEW YORK - The list of people who have attempted to play $25 million-a-year baseball fewer than 12 months after rupturing an Achilles' tendon is a short one, which means very few of us can relate to the struggles that have plagued Ryan Howard throughout most of the last 3 months. Charlie Manuel has not done it, Ruben Amaro Jr. has not done it, and the author of this column certainly has not done it. So the fairest course of action is to grant the slugger a mulligan and assume that an offseason of conditioning is an adequate prescription for his funk.

That is exactly what Manuel and Amaro did on Monday when asked about Howard, who went 0-for-4 with a strikeout and saw his batting average fall to .225 in a 3-1 win over the Mets. The manager said the lack of strength in the first baseman's surgically repaired left leg is affecting the weight shift during his swing. Amaro concurred, and said the offseason should provide ample time for Howard to rebuild the muscle memory he lost when his leg was immobilized.

"I have every confidence that he'll be back and producing at a more Ryan Howard-esque rate," the general manager said.

The uneasy truth is that the Phillies have little choice in the matter. They made their choice 2 years ago in the form of a contract extension that guaranteed Howard $125 million from 2012 through 2016. No amount of offseason maneuvering can counteract the weight of 14 percent of the payroll occupying one spot in the lineup. That, more than anything, is the lesson of 2012. If Howard's production does not come close to equalling the $25 million in payroll space that his salary occupies, the Phillies will struggle to turn this season into a distant memory. Same goes for Chase Utley and the $12.125 million average annual value of his contract, and Jimmy Rollins and his $9.5 million price tag (and Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels, and Roy Halladay).

Throughout the Phillies' tenure at the top of the National League East, the economics of baseball worked in their favor, as players such as Rollins, Utley, Hamels, Jayson Werth and Shane Victorino outperformed their contracts. Combined with the steady expansion of their payroll, which grew from about $98 million on Opening Day of 2008 to about $113 million in 2009 to about $138 million in 2010 to about $166 million in 2011, the front office was able to plug its holes with money. The ability to add such players as Raul Ibanez, Lee and Pedro Martinez enabled them to eat the salaries of Geoff Jenkins and Adam Eaton. The additions of Halladay and Roy Oswalt helped blunt the impact of Jamie Moyer's struggles in 2010. In 2011, they again acquired Lee, and later added Hunter Pence, which helped offset expensive disappointments such as Oswalt and Brad Lidge.

But by the end of last season, the Phillies had reached something of a ceiling, their payroll sitting just under the luxury-tax threshold and their attendance revenue maximized. No longer could they afford to offset depreciation with new investment. They did not sign a power-hitting leftfielder to offset the potential losses of Howard and Utley. They did not sign a proven setup man to offset the potential loss of Jose Contreras.

It took less than 2 months to realize that the Phillies did not have the depth required to emerge from a 162-game regular season as a World Series contender. We first labeled them a .500 team in early May, after a three-game series against the Nationals laid bare the disparity between the clubs. At that point, the only hope was that Utley and Howard would make hasty returns to their usual selves and that the rest of the roster would offer production commensurate with their pay.

Four months later, the only thing that has changed is the names on the back of the jerseys. The monthlong stretch in which they won 21 of 30 games provided a welcome injection of anticipation for the Phillies and their fans. But even as the deficit in the wild-card standings dwindled from 12 to six to three, the odds remained long: Not only because of the shrinking number of games that remained on the schedule, but because of the flaws that continued to lurk. Despite a 25-15 record in their previous 40 games, the Phillies entered Monday averaging just 4.1 runs, seventh-best in the National League during that stretch. Their bullpen still did not have a proven solution to the eighth-inning woes that had seen one slim lead after another end in defeat. And their cleanup hitter, now 11 months removed from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles' tendon, finished Monday night with a .308 on-base percentage and 85 strikeouts in 227 at-bats.

The Phillies will have some money to spend this offseason, the bulk of it likely to be dedicated to the outfield and the bullpen (the market at second and third base offers next to nothing, which Amaro acknowledged with a shake of his head). Their success in 2013 will hinge partly on that offseason spending. More importantly, though, will be the performance of the dollars they have already spent.


Contact David Murphy at dmurphy@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HighCheese. For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read his blog at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

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