Inside the Phillies: Ryan Howard's $125 million contract making Phillies cautious

Posted: November 16, 2013

ORLANDO, Fla. - The man overseeing one of baseball's largest payrolls used the phrase "best bang for the buck" when discussing his aggressive pursuit of Marlon Byrd, a midlevel outfielder in a market teeming with talent.

There is Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltran and Curtis Granderson. All will command massive sums of money. All are flawed, sure. But all would upgrade the Phillies' current outfield. And all are likely headed elsewhere with nothing but cursory interest from the Phillies before they pounced on Byrd, a 36-year-old one year removed from baseball purgatory.

Why? Ryan Howard.

The Phillies are 39 months removed from signing their beleaguered first baseman to a five-year, $125 million contract, and are now feeling the effects beyond Howard's injury-riddled performance.

Amaro has spent on a big-ticket item in each of the last three seasons - $144 million for Cole Hamels, $50 million for Jonathan Papelbon and $120 million for Cliff Lee. The GM does not sound like a man willing to splurge this winter, although his public face usually differs from real intentions. Chatter at last week's general managers meetings, however, pegged the Phillies as a team pursuing third-tier players.

Until now, Howard was an albatross that constrained the team's on-field performance. Given the way Amaro talks this winter, Howard affects the future, too. The other $20 million men - Hamels and Lee - were productive contributors in 2013. Is the GM leery of more $20 million annual salaries?

"We have a lot of them," Amaro said. "It strikes to your flexibility when you have too many of those. You want to try to stay as flexible as you can be. It's not about spending but about getting the right people and pieces."

It is painfully obvious with each surgery that Howard was an ill-advised investment. The Phillies locked up an aging player at a non-premium position, the position that is most replaceable on the diamond. He is still owed $85 million over the next three years.

Could anyone have predicted 39 months ago that Darin Ruf would emerge as a realistic option at first base? Absolutely not, but that underscores the point. First baseman are easiest to find because defense is less of a priority. Power is most important, especially in this modern run-starved environment.

Ruf's power stroke matured later. That is not unique. Chris Davis toiled in the minors three years ago. Brandon Moss was awarded a six at-bat September tryout by the Phillies in 2011 and has hit 51 homers since. Toronto once waived Edwin Encarnacion, then re-signed him, and he has bashed 78 homers in the last two seasons. Paul Goldschmidt was an eighth-round pick from Texas State University and unheralded prospect.

Phillies first basemen have hit 46 home runs (25 by Howard) since the start of the 2012 season. That ranks 18th in baseball. They have devoted more money to the position than any other team.

"He needs to be better and he knows it," Amaro said of Howard. "We need him to be better for us to have more success. He's healthier. I have faith he will come back and do the things he needs to do. Will he hit 50 home runs? I doubt it. Will he drive in 100? I think he will, if he stays on the field."

The Phillies chased power this winter, in part, because Howard has not delivered it. The Byrd deal was not egregious, just uninspiring. Was there any thought to waiting on Byrd and seeing how the outfield market develops?

"The asking prices are tall as they always are," Amaro said. "We just felt like we had some guys we wanted to target. We don't have unlimited dollars to spend. So we have to make sure we get the best bang for the buck. Hopefully we did that with Marlon and the other players we're pursuing."

The Phillies, of course, are a billion-dollar machine with significant revenues (we will never know how much because they are a private company), a solid attendance base, and an impending TV rights cash cow. They can spend their money as they please. But, for the first time in The Amaro Era, conservatism is being peddled. Look no further than Howard's contract - negotiated by Amaro - for blame.

Contact the Inquirer's Matt Gelb via email at  mgelb@phillynews.com and follow him on Twitter @magelb.

Read his blog at inquirer.com/zone

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