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July 29, 2014

Baseball Therapy

Trading Ryan Howard For Nothing and Winning

by Russell A. Carleton

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Last week, I saw what I thought was an Onion headline. After all, The Onion has gotten so good at what they do, I now assume that anything in my Facebook feed is satirical. The story said that the Phillies were “working hard” to trade Ryan Howard. I don’t often use “LOL” when I type, because I don’t often laugh out loud.

LOL. Or, as we used to say when I was a kid, ROTFLOL.

Thanks to the massive contract extension he signed a few years ago, Howard is now owed somewhere near $70 million dollars over the next three and a half years. He is being paid $25 million this year (figure that roughly $8 million of that is still to be paid), plus salaries of $25 million in 2015 and 2016, followed by a $10 million dollar buyout in 2017 or a team option for $23 million. (Anyone? Anyone?) Howard is 34, a designated first baseman, has well-documented troubles hitting lefties, and, while he still has a little bit of power left, provides little to no other value. He is functioning below replacement level this year, primarily due to being a first baseman with an OPS south of .700. In other words he’s Lyle Overbay with an endorsement deal from Subway. Where exactly is the line for that package?

Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro Jr. denied that there were any Howard trade talks, but then denial is not just a river in Egypt. A few years ago, there was a trade idea floated between the Phillies and Cardinals involving Ryan Howard. The idea was that the Phillies would send Howard and some spare change for Albert Pujols, back when “Albert Pujols” was a code-word for “the best hitter in the game.” (Amaro denied that one too.) My, how the mighty have fallen. The idea of a Howard trade (present tense) made a lot more sense when it was paired with the rumor that the Phillies were exploring a trade in lieu of possibly releasing Howard at the end of the year (Amaro denied that too), and that Darin Ruf had been playing first base while Howard sat on the bench.

And then it occurred to me: Trading Ryan Howard might actually be a really smart move for the Phillies, even under the circumstances that would be required to actually trade Ryan Howard. I’m going to assume the Phillies would have to eat (fresh!) a huge chunk of Howard’s salary obligation and that in return they might be fortunate to get some non-prospect organizational guy who has no shot at the majors, but maybe grew up cheering for the Phillies and always wanted to say that he played in the Phillies organization (and as an added bonus, he could tell his grandkids that he was traded for a former MVP). I’d argue that the Phillies not only could win that trade, but that they almost certainly will.

Let’s look at the facts on the ground. The Phillies, as has been pointed out by countless others, are in need of a rebuild. They were ranked 25th in the Baseball Prospectus preseason farm system rankings, and by the time the help that is on the way gets to Philadelphia, the current core of Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Jonathan Papelbon will all be either eligible for social security or out of a contract. Trading some of those pieces away might bring back young blood. The Phillies need to take a sober look at themselves and ask whether Ryan Howard is going to be part of the next Phillies World Series team. Since that would have to be in the next two and a half years, I’m going to go with “no.” At this point, Howard is just taking up space on the roster. The Phillies can continue to carry him, they can release him, or they can trade him.

One thing is for sure, though ... and this is the critical point in all of it. The Phillies are going to be paying out 60-something million dollars to Ryan Howard no matter what. Those millions are never coming back. The extension was a horrible mistake, but it’s a mistake that is now in the past. The milk has been spilled. There is no solution available that involves un-spilling the milk, short of Howard turning back into the five-win player he was a few years ago. (Un-spilling the milk is probably more likely.) The only rational thing for the Phillies to do is to make the best of a bad situation.

Fortunately, they do have one option available that is less bad than the others. Conisder: If Ryan Howard were a free agent, available to temp for any team in baseball, what sort of deal might he get? Let's use the previously mentioned Lyle Overbay as a reference point: Overbay got $1.5 million on a one-year deal from the Brewers. It’s conceivable that Howard would draw interest, maybe as a placeholder for some team developing a first base prospect. Maybe he could be a DH option in the American League. Maybe someone just wants a left-handed pinch-hitter with some pop for the stretch run. The Phillies could, if they wanted to, simply pretend that Howard is a free agent and ask for bids. The maximum term that a team could sign Howard for would be until the end of 2016. If a team had an idea that they would sign free agent Ryan Howard to a 1 1/2–year deal worth $5 million total, then the Phillies would simply trade Howard for a placeholder, and cover all but $5 million of his salary. Howard has not yet logged 10 years of MLB service time, so he doesn’t have 10-and-5 rights. The team acquiring Howard could simply release him after the year and a half (or could keep him for his age-36 season in 2016, essentially free, if they wanted him).

If the Phillies are behaving rationally, they would take the offer that saves them the most money. How could giving away a former MVP for a few million dollars be a win for the Phillies? Because the Phillies get a few million dollars out of it!

The first article I ever wrote here at BP was on something called the Ultimatum Game (in relation to the Blue Jays as they prepared to trade Roy Halladay!). The basics go like this: Suppose that we are in a room and someone offers to give me ten dollars, but there’s a catch. I have to make you an offer to split the money. I can offer to split it however I want. I can offer an even split ($5 each) or I can say “You get a nickel and I get $9.95!” Now, you can choose to take my offer or you can refuse it, and we both get nothing. If I offered you a nickel, what should you do? If you are behaving rationally, you should take it. The reason is that your other option is nothing and five cents is more than nothing.

The Phillies are in this sort of situation. There will be plenty of people who decry the idea of either releasing Howard or trading him for minimal salary relief because it would be writing off $60 million. But remember, that money is gone no matter what. The Phillies can either accept that they will recoup a small amount of it (and free up some playing time to look at Darin Ruf, I guess ... it’s a lost season, why not?) or can try to use their intact pride to sign someone else rather than the salary relief they got. Pro tip: the money will go further.

Yes, the fans would react negatively to a trade like this. In fact, the biggest issue around the Phillies starting a full rebuild is that ownership fears that attendance would drop, though as Bill Baer has pointed out, the Phillies have—with Ryan Howard—already had the biggest drop in attendance from 2013 levels in MLB, losing more than 8,000 fans per game and nearly doubling the losses of the next worst team. Yes, there probably are some fans who still show up expecting the magic of 2008 again, but eventually, they’re going to figure it out. Keeping the band together might keep attendance artificially high in the short run, but the Phillies’ uppance shall come and the ability to cash in on the remaining value that the old guard has will soon depart too. I suppose one could make a case that the Phillies should demand more salary relief than they would lose in ticket sales from waving the white flag, but it seems more likely the dark times are coming soon anyway. It’s just a matter of when.

Ownership and management would get skewered on Philadelphia sports talk radio for the trade. But that anger would be misplaced. The mistake was the extension. A trade like this would actually be a positive step. The problem is that when the extension was signed, fans could pretend that everything was going to be okay. Now, they’ll have to admit that it won’t be, and that’s what they’ll truly be mad at. When I was a therapist, I dealt with a lot of people who had misplaced anger. The key is helping people understand what they’re really mad at. Dear reader, if you are a Phillies fan and such a trade actually happens, I urge you to help your fellow fan.

So, yes. The Phillies can trade Ryan Howard, get nearly nothing in return, and still come out winners in the deal.

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

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