In hindsight, Ryan Howard's contract an expensive mistake for Phillies

Posted: May 23, 2013

CONFESSION IS good for the soul, we are told. Besides, there is no realistic alternative, seeing as how the words written in 2010 will live forever in cyberspace. Every time I write about Ryan Howard, there probably should be this acknowledgment, right up front.

So:

"The debate will begin in baseball circles if it hasn't begun already: does it make sense to commit at least $125 million to Howard in the years 2012-16? Does it make sense to commit that kind of coin to a 30-year-old power hitter, who will be 36 when the guaranteed part of the deal is over? Does it make sense for a big man who hits collossal home runs but who also strikes out a lot?

"The quick answer is: yes."

I wrote those words in the minutes - literally minutes - after the Phillies announced that they were extending Howard's contract; I even spelled "colossal" incorrectly in my haste, and the mistake still lives online. The date was April 26, 2010. (Date, infamy - too much?)

Some people disagreed with that point of view immediately. Now, everybody does. Three years, one blown-out Achilles' tendon and now some mysterious knee problem later, it is a point of faith that the Howard contract is one of the worst in baseball. Given the plummeting in his production, and given that there are 3 years to go after 2013, it is impossible to argue otherwise.

It is really odd when you are in my position - that is to say, somebody who was actually glad to hear that, following an MRI, the Phillies are suddenly worried about the condition of Howard's left knee, and that its deterioration might be related to the Achilles' injury he suffered on the last swing of the 2011 postseason.

Why? Because knees can be fixed in many cases, and because the alternative would mean being forced to acknowledge that there is no injury and that the decline in Howard's skills is happening faster than the fastest avalanche down Everest.

So maybe they can repair the knee, or maybe it will heal, or maybe they can mask the pain and salvage a little something. But that is where we are now, in salvage mode. You can call it bad luck, and some of it was bad luck, but it was still part of the original calculation, a terrible calculation.

More from that day in 2010:

"I cannot predict the future. Howard can't. The Phillies can't. This is all a guess. Skills erode sometimes. Injuries happen sometimes. Happenstance happens sometimes. To pretend to know the future is to tell a lie.

"So you go on what you see now - and what you see now is a fearsome slugger. But you have to look deeper than that."

What I saw then was a player who was in significantly better shape than when his major league career began. I did not see a big guy with a bad body, but a player who had responded to increases in salary by working harder. I was betting on his work ethic and reasonable luck.

When you are committing this kind of money, you know you will be overpaying in the last year or so - to me, it is the cost of doing business if you want to keep a star-level player into his mid-30s. You do it for attendance reasons. You do it for commitment-to-winning reasons that reverberate through your clubhouse. To me, that is not the issue.

The question always was whether you would get two-to-three excellent seasons from Howard, and would the subsequent decline be orderly or over-a-cliff. But now that the precipice is upon us, the truth is that the two best chances of excellence - 2012 and 2013 - are likely gone, because of the Achilles' and now, maybe, the knee. And even if he gets healthier and recovers at least some semblance of his prowess in 2014, well, this isn't likely to be the same Phillies team anymore.

They signed him because 2012 and 2013 were supposed to be the last hurrah for this nucleus.

Some hurrah. More like, huh?

Maybe they can heal him up, and maybe Howard can have a good month or 2, and maybe the Phillies can hang around in what is turning out to be an absurdly flawed National League East; one sentence, three maybes.

But that is where we are now. And after that, the Phillies will be in a position where they either will have to pay a team to take Howard off their hands, or to keep him and to spend beyond their self-imposed limits in order to make up for his declining numbers. That could happen, too, given the Fox vs. Comcast battle over the Phillies' local television rights that many people are anticipating, and that would give the franchise a huge revenue boost.

Still, it is an uneasy feeling to have been so wrong about something. It is a little humbling, to be honest. I cannot imagine what it would feel like if it were my money.

Today on PhillyDailyNews.com : Ryan Howard attempts to downplay any long-term problems with his knee.


On Twitter: @theidlerichBlog: philly.com/DNL

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