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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.

Thank you for reading

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TGT969
7/29
That kind of thinking seems to be completely foreign to Amaro. That's why the
Phils need a new GM a.s.a.p to tear the building down.
tbwhite
7/29
I think you meant to say:

Thinking seems to be completely foreign to Amaro. That's why the Phils need a new GM a.s.a.p to tear the building down.
JohnnyRedbird
7/29
How on earth does that guy still have a job? Worst GM in baseball.
therealn0d
7/29
_oodoo economics
geer08
7/29
"D"?
Schere
7/29
I don't think it's accurate to say that Howard is a zero and getting even a nickel of help paying his contract is a positive outcome. There's a chance - 10%? 20%? - that he posts a positive WAR over the remaining 2.5 years (assuming buyout instead of year 3).

Nothing could make the extension a good one, but that doesn't mean that trading him for a million dollars is a good idea.
jdeich
7/29
PECOTA projects him at +1.8 wins combined for 2015-2017, so maybe trade him for $10M and a sack of baseballs? That said, Howard's projections probably worsen if you re-run them today, vs. preseason.

The more immediate issue is: Why aren't the Phillies platooning him? He has a career .730 OPS against lefties, and that includes his good years. He has negative value as a baserunner and defender. And yet the Phillies bat him #4 nearly every game. He's made 96 starts out of 106 games.

It would cost the Phillies $0 to bench him against lefties and bat him #6 or #7, starting today. Even the Phillies' sad farm system must have someone (Tyler Henson? Cameron Perkins?) who can bat righty and sort of play 1B if Darin Ruf continues to flounder. They're not going to the 2014 playoffs, so why not experiment?
Schere
7/29
1.8 is (was) the median case, right? Maybe not median, I'm not sure the distribution of outcomes. But anyway, there's a significant chance he exceeds that 1.8 and a small chance he exceeds it by a lot. Equally, there's a significant chance he underperforms it (like he is now).
higgsboson
7/29
What if I don't take the nickel just to teach you a lesson?
Schere
7/29
assumes you're going to replay the game. Or that you have non-economic motivations, which is fine.
pizzacutter
7/29
This has been studied in the lab a bunch of times and that's generally the explanation that people give when they turn down a free nickel. It's generally seen as a test of how much people value societal notions of fairness. I could see an argument that within a broader society, teaching the lesson might be more valuable. In a baseball setting, I would take the money.
kalimantan
7/29
Howard as a platoon against RH pitchers is still value for the Phillies, and defensively he's fine, so sucking up his contract for a nickel and playing Ruf full-time really isn't that attractive.
Johnston
7/29
Great article, and the Phillies should totally take your advice, but right here at "If the Phillies are behaving rationally," is where it crashes and burns.
crupar
7/29
This is basically an argument for a soccer-style "loan" system in baseball. Weaker clubs can "loan" out their players to other teams. If baseball had this type of system, Howard would be a perfect candidate for this. He has a very limited skill set, but it is not completely without value. The Phillies will never get enough to cover his complete salary, but it is something.
mdupske
7/30
I believe typically this works the other way around. Stronger teams loan their players to weaker leagues in order to keep them sharp since they aren't playing. Much like Howard was being kept on the farm when the Phillies were toting Thome around.