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I'll admit, when it comes to first base, I'm big on the basics as opposed to the options. First base is about power, and scoring runs the way that always works: at the plate. And on that score, Howard's delivered, to the point at which I liked last year's arbitration-avoiding extension through 2011 well enough as a good move by Ruben Amaro, Jr. My initial reaction was that I liked this extension a lot less, but work with me through this, and let's see if we wind up in the same place.
In Howard's defense, he's got a lot of consistency going for him. Many of the changes in the shape of his production have involved the drop in the number of intentional walks he's been issued, and as those have changed, his overall walk rate's declined into the merely sound range, fewer than one in 10 PA, decent, but far from exceptional. If there's an interesting feature to his hitting, it's that, for a guy who strikes out as much as he does, when he does make contact his ability to avoid popping up is handy; it's especially handy in a hitter's park like Philly, but it's proven handy everywhere. In a player whose power numbers are sort of extreme, it's interesting to see that his all-or-nothing approach has its additional benefits. It's also worth noting his strikeout rate has come down over time. He's not striking out 30 percent of the time these days, which is another small trend that suggests aptitude.
To talk about aptitude, we can distract ourselves and talk about other stuff that Howard's capable of doing. Take first-base defense; it's nice, and nobody likes having to run a latter-day Dick Stuart out there, but really, it's a tie-breaking consideration, not a primary concern. Baserunning? You may as well be talking about cupholder placement in a subcompact: without power under the hood, you're getting hung up on a detail as opposed to the key element of first-base functionality. So yammering about such considerations of themselves is sort of silly, save where they indicate something that, in Howard's case, you can credit him with: a demonstrated aptitude for improvement, and what that suggests as far as his ability to retain value. Just as concerns about how players age are critical in evaluating the deal, at their core is the concern with change over time. In the broad strokes, we all know that Howard is going to get worse over time, but that's because there'll come a far-off day when Howard can no longer play. We can also take it for granted that it won't be a linear progression, as minor things like getting worked up over his defense or his baserunning reflect.
To go back to batting, the larger criticisms of his work have long involved his home park and his "problems" with lefties. However, he's not merely a park fiction: his career road ISO is .301, and at home it's .305. And it's a well-worn bit of obviousness that he doesn't need to be sat down against lefties, having hit
.261/.348/.529 .225/.308/.442 against them on his career. Sure, maybe there's a virtue in playing matchups later on with a quality lefty reliever, but that's hardly remarkable, and it isn't like you want to go after him with Renyel Pinto.
So for all that, you can understand where comparisons to Fred McGriff come from, at least for some commentators. For me, the massive differences in dimension, plus McGriff's better patience and ability to make contact and fielding, balanced against Howard's advantages in power, make them considerably less comparable. Jim Thome also doesn't really work; Thome's always been a significantly more patient hitter over the course of career, so torch-passing contact high aside, it's a loose comp at best. However, because we're talking about people who are seen as clean during and after a time that was less so, and because they hit left-handed and hit for power and play first base, you can understand where the associations come from.
I guess I'd take it a bit further back, and say that I'm a bit more fond of a comparison to Willie Stargell, another big man, not to mention one who aged well as a hitter. Once Stargell got out from under the shadow of the high-mound era that sucked a ton of value out of the usual late-20s peak, he was someone who was cranking out TAv marks in the .300s all the way through the "We Are Family" club that won it all in 1979. Pops Stargell was 39 that season, and if it was the last one in which his body could handle anything close to everyday play, it was a great past-30 run.
With that in mind, I'd note that the Phillies just signed Howard through his age-36 season, and control him through his age-37 campaign. So that sounds pretty good, right? So is the hangup the money? Well, there is an awful lot of it, but admittedly I'm less excited about the volume of particular rivulets as cash trickles down from billionaires to millionaires. Howard's worth a lot, so he'll cost a lot, just as his three-year extension last spring cost a good chunk of change.
But will it cost them more than "just" $125 million or $138 million for five or six seasons? Whether the draft picks notionally forgone survive the next CBA or not, their abstract value is not equal to all ballclubs on any level save the abstract. Certainly, you might say that their value means less for the Phillies in light of recent June results, considering that their draft record with top picks in recent seasons has been what we might politely refer to as checkered. Whether Kyle Drabek or Travis d'Arnaud succeed as best first- or first-round-supplemental selections by the Phillies since Cole Hamels in 2002, that'll be in Toronto. That said, the Phillies seem to take the lottery-ticket approach, favoring athleticism and upside risk, and not shelling out big bonuses of late. That approach is going to involve a lot of misses, and as examples like Domonic Brown (20th round, 2006), you don't need to get too worked up over how often you play lotto; you're already in that pool. All of which is a long way around to saying I don't the Phillies cost themselves all that much in concrete terms as far as draft-day opportunity costs.
Which leaves me where? The fripperies about the picks or Howard's leather-working skills don't add up to much as far as nag-worthy nagging concerns. If you take them as indicators, they point towards doing a deal. He's durable, and the Phillies deserve and receive considerable credit for their ability in keeping their players in full operating order. There's no underlying nagging concern about his ability to hit, hit in this league, hit in this park, or hit pitchers of every persuasion—give him a shot at Pat Venditte, I dare you.
But for all that, zillions of electrons later, the question really is whether you want to pay this kind of money for his age-32 through age-36 seasons, and that's where I have my doubts. PECOTA's savagery with players as they head into their 30s is founded on the general, obvious truth that players heading into their 30s are usually headed downslope. As much as some might note that the many minor indicators that are positive, and that Howard's proven to be adaptive, that's all true. It's also easy to then defer to an argument from authority to say that the Phillies are smart and competent and equipped with inside knowledge, because that's all swell and defensible.
Trumping all of that is that it's still $25 million per year for a first baseman, and that's for someone who isn't Albert Pujols or Adrian Gonzalez, the two leading free agents at first base after 2011, a pair Howard would handily rank behind if the Phillies had merely fulfilled their existing obligation. Per PECOTA, he's someone who might not even be Pops Stargell and cranking out True Averages in the .300s. Instead, Howard might resemble his own long-range forecasts, nose around in the .280s and .290s and thus be a thoroughly average hitter for a first baseman, and be the sort of nice complementary power source who has a nice career. For $25 million per season, to a player who may not be a top 10 player at his position by the time the contract becomes an active concern, off in 2012? That's not what anyone should consider a success.
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