Amaro believes Howard is worth the money

"When Ryan Howard plays for us, we win," Phils general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said of his first baseman, doing some stretching at spring training.
"When Ryan Howard plays for us, we win," Phils general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said of his first baseman, doing some stretching at spring training. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: February 17, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - If we told you the Phillies had just signed a free agent who had averaged 34 home runs, 106 RBIs, and a .906 on-base-plus-slugging percentage since his rookie season of 2005, would you be happy about it?

If we promised you he could put up those exact numbers in 2014, would you feel better about this team's chances of contending for a National League playoff spot?

How much would you be willing to pay him?

Twenty-five million dollars? Thirty million?

"I'm sure he'd do rather well [as a free agent]," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "There's not that kind of power out there. Nobody can produce like that. It doesn't exist."

That's the way the Phillies are looking at Ryan Howard as they try to regain their status as an elite team, and it's not as if they have any other choice. Howard's career has turned into an unhealthy mess since the five-year, $125 million contract, which he signed in 2010, kicked in two seasons ago. The Phillies, of course, have come crumbling down with him.

The prevailing opinion at Bright House Field in these early days of spring training is that the Big Piece is in one piece again, his ravaged left leg repaired by surgeons and strengthened by an extensive rehab that started in the middle of last year's lost season.

That's Howard's story, too, and he's sticking to it.

"I've got two legs," the first baseman said after going through another workout with early-arriving position players Saturday morning. "Basically I've been playing on one leg. I'm not one to make excuses. I try to go out there and go as hard as I can even if it's on one leg or one toe. But now that I have two legs, I'm feeling better . . . and my swing is coming back to where I want it to be."

Amaro, of course, has been criticized for being the architect of the once-great team that has suffered a monumental fall. More than a few of the general manager's moves justify the heat that accompanies his executive seat at Citizens Bank Park. Signing Howard is not one of them.

Sure, it was a lot of money for a guy who was more than a year removed from free agency, but the Phillies were looking ahead, and what they saw and calculated was not incorrect.

"Our biggest concern was making sure we tried to keep the player because he was so important to us," Amaro said. "Secondly, you just didn't know what the market was going to do. The market never seems to go backward, so that was a concern."

It didn't go backward this time either. Howard, 34, is guaranteed $85 million over the next three seasons, and that's a lot of money for a guy who has played in only 151 games and hit .244 with 25 home runs and 99 RBIs the last two seasons.

It could be worse. A lot worse. Albert Pujols, who is two months younger than Howard, hit .258 with 17 home runs and 64 RBIs last season for the Los Angeles Angels and played in only 99 games because of a left foot injury. The Angels still owe him $212 million and will not be out from under his contract until 2021, when he will be 41 years old and making $30 million.

Prince Fielder, like Pujols, hit the free-agent market after the 2011 season, the same year Howard would have been seeking a new deal. The Detroit Tigers paid him $214 million over nine years, and he is now with Texas, which owes him $168 million over the next seven years. His numbers dipped significantly in 2013, and he will turn 30 in May.

Is it feasible to think that Howard would have also commanded a nine- or 10-year deal if he had hit the free-agent market in 2011, provided he did not rip apart his left Achilles tendon in his final at-bat that year? If you saw that coming, please e-mail me with the winning Power Ball numbers.

"We'd be pretty happy with [his career averages], no question about it," Amaro said. "He's got four more years on his contract, and you're talking about having one of the more prolific offensive players in the game. Obviously, he's been coming off an injury, but when Ryan Howard plays for us, we win."

That's been true even the last two years, when Howard has played on one leg. The Phillies are 77-63 in the games he started during that stretch and 77-107 when he has not been in the lineup.

"When he's on the field for us, he produces," Amaro said. "I fully expect him to do that, and based on what I see from his health right now, and based on what he's done in the past, I believe he's going to produce."

Amaro also believes a lot of people have forgotten what a force a healthy Howard can be.

"I think they absolutely have, but when you're not on the field that's the nature of the business," the general manager said.

If you're looking for an example of a player around Howard's age who missed significant time in consecutive seasons and bounced back the third year, Amaro is happy to supply that name, too.

"People didn't believe Chase Utley would ever play again," he said. "He played 140-something games last year. Maybe he played 85 or 90 percent of what Chase was in the past, but I'll take 85 to 90 percent of Ryan Howard right now."

And he'll be happy to pay him $25 million.

"In a second, because he will help us win," Amaro said.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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