Times have changed, finally, in Philadelphia. Approximately two years after most of the rest of us thought it was time to blow things up, and six months after GM Ruben Amaro reportedly told closer Jonathan Papelbon that the team was still attempting to win now, the Philles have eventually seen the light and committed to the future. Jimmy Rollins is gone. Marlon Byrd is gone. Antonio Bastardo is gone. Cole Hamels may yet be gone. Cliff Lee, presuming he can show he’s healthy early in 2015, will almost certainly be gone by July. Papelbon probably follows. It’s possible Chase Utley sticks it out to maintain one last link to the past, but it’s clear the Phillies we knew are gone, and the next year or two (or more) are going to be a difficult transition.
“We’ve talked to Ryan,” Amaro said in an interview with 97.5 The Fanatic’s Mike Missanelli on Friday afternoon. “And I told him that in our situation it would probably bode better for the organization not with him but without him. With that said if he’s with us, then we’ll work around him. We’ll hope he puts up the kind of numbers that we hope he can and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
…then it deserves its own section.
When your general manager says the team is better off without you and that if you’re still in town, then they will “work around [you],” well, it’s clear you’re definitely gone. Or, at least, will be at some point, since he’s not been moved yet. You can live with an aging Utley, because he’s still a solid player with no obvious successor. You can’t keep Howard around because he’s a negative for a National League club and each plate appearance that goes to him takes one away from Maikel Franco or Cody Asche or Darin Ruf. None are going to be the next great Phillies first baseman, but there’s value in simply removing an aging, ineffective Howard from the equation, if only emotionally.
I hardly need to remind you of how difficult it’s going to be for the Phillies to actually make a Howard move, because you know all the reasons why. Instead, let’s play a game. Let’s find Howard a new home. Would any team bother with the roster spot? Is there actually a place where he could be of value? Maybe this will be fun. Unless you’re a Phillies fan, of course. Then it won’t be much fun at all.
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Let’s start with this: They aren’t going to just cut him, as some have suggested. I say that not with any particular inside information other than the fact that Amaro insisted it wouldn’t happen, but also with an eye towards history. Howard has $60 million remaining on the ill-fated five-year, $125 million 2012-2016 extension he signed in April 2010, which breaks down as $25 million this year and next along with a $10 million buyout of a $23 million 2017 club option.
That’s almost certainly not going to happen, because for as badly as the Phillies are sure to make out on any potential Howard trade, the simple optics of trading a franchise icon for nothing are still preferable to cutting him loose. Even if that weren’t the case, it’s unheard of for a player to be released with that much money remaining on the contract; even Dan Uggla had “only” $19 million remaining when the Atlanta Braves parted ways with him last summer. So far as I’ve been able to tell, the biggest sum ever swallowed by a team to release a player came back in 2006, when the Arizona Diamondbacks ate $22 million in the process of dumping Russ Ortiz. The Phillies won’t break that record by a factor of three.
If you really want to get rid of a bad contract, you trade it. We’ve seen that with Carl Crawford, Prince Fielder, Matt Kemp and others. You probably won’t get as lucky as the Toronto Blue Jays did when they talked the Angels into taking Vernon Wells and all of the $86 million he was still owed back in 2010; but you can at least save a few million dollars and pick up a minor league filler or two. So let’s try to find Howard a new home, and we’ll play with the following directional guidelines:
- It has to be an American League team, because Howard is a first baseman in the same way that David Ortiz is a first baseman. That is to say, not at all outside of interleague or emergency situations.
- It has to be a team that doesn’t have a full-time designated hitter — like Ortiz with the Red Sox — because Howard’s total lack of positional flexibility or defensive value would render him merely a pinch-hitter in such a case.
- The best fit might be in a ballpark that enhances power to left field, not right.
It’s that last one that’s really interesting, because Howard was never a typical pull hitter, as he’s always been stronger going the other way:
|Ryan Howard / wRC+|
The problem, of course, is that it used to be “outstanding to the left side and very good to the right. Last year it was “good but still below-peak to left and absolute train wreck to right,” which is a not-at-all subtle indicator of slowing bat speed — as is the fact that he saw a noticeable increase in fastballs in 2014. You might argue that an easy-to-reach right field, like Yankee Stadium, might make that weakness less of an issue, but we’re in straw-grasping mode here. The things that are broken aren’t likely fixable. Might as well try to capitalize on a remaining strength.
Besides, when looking at his fly ball spray charts for the past two years…
… he’s not hitting a ton of flies to right, anyway. Since Howard hasn’t really functioned as a typical lefty hitter, looking at the usual park factors isn’t that helpful here because we’re not interested in what he can do to right, and reliable and publicly available metrics that break down performance by left/center/right are limited. However, as one small data point, this ESPN article from less than a year ago claims left field in Toronto and in Houston had the highest HR/FB% of any park location other than Yankee Stadium’s short porch.
Enough introduction; let’s get to the fun. Where could the Phillies send Howard?
Not a fit
Jon Singleton didn’t impress in his first trip around the bigs, but he’s also only entering his age-23 season, and while there are valid reasons for the Astros to import short-term veterans, it’s not like Howard is going to have value at the deadline. With Chris Carter at DH, there’s not room here for another whiff-happy hitter who hopes to run into homers.
Eric Hosmer is entrenched at first base, and Kendrys Morales has replaced Billy Butler at DH. You could probably make the argument that getting a nearly free Howard would have been more efficient than $17 million worth of Morales — and there were reports the Royals had interest — but with age and an easily-explainable reason for a lousy 2014 on his side, Morales is still the better bet.
New York Yankees
A popular rumored destination for Howard, the acquisition of Garrett Jones takes away the role Howard would have filled, and with Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran, there are plenty of past-prime veterans here who need DH time.
In some ways, Howard seems like the most Seattle player, though the arrival of Nelson Cruz likely sucks up most of the remaining DH time. Safeco isn’t a bad place for lefty pull hitters, but Howard isn’t that.
The Rangers technically need a DH, since Mitch Moreland is hardly irreplaceable, and Fielder has much to prove, starting with his health, but… no. Fielder and Howard on the same team, in 2015, may violate interstate commerce laws.
Every National League team
Just in case that wasn’t already clear.
When I started this, I promise I didn’t expect to end up with three AL East teams, yet here we are.
The Phillies reportedly attempted to include Howard in a package that would have sent Byrd to Baltimore before they dealt the outfielder to Cincinnati. Maybe that’s the only way this is going to get done: as an anchor attached to something more attractive. Regardless, the Orioles have made it into January without signing a free agent and have watched Cruz and Nick Markakis depart.
Reportedly, Delmon Young will soon have his return made official, and that eats up DH time, though it’s really going to be what Baltimore does with its outfield that impacts Howard. The more bodies the team has in the outfield, the more likely it is that Steve Pearce plays first or DH rather than a corner. Of course, there’s also hope Chris Davis returns to form.
James Loney is the first baseman. The DH is… Logan Forsythe? David DeJesus? With Joyce and Wil Myers gone, and Ben Zobrist seeming more likely by the day to follow, the Rays might still want to find an addition on offense. The usual budget issues wouldn’t apply here because the Phillies would have to subsidize nearly all of Howard’s salary, and the Rays have long taken chances on seemingly flawed players.
Loney and DeJesus are both lefty, though, which makes a fit somewhat awkward.
Justin Smoak is younger and can play defense, though it’s worth noting that he was considerably worse (77 wRC+) in 2014 than was Howard (93). As noted above, Rogers Centre may be a good fit for Howard’s skills; if you squint, you could see the Phillies attempting to package Utley and Howard together, since second base is a massive issue for the Jays. Edwin Encarnacion doesn’t need a platoon partner, and Smoak’s splits don’t fit well with Howard’s, though again, Smoak has proven almost nothing at the big-league level.
This one at least feels plausible, if hardly likely.
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In a crowd-sourced exercise here in November, you estimated Howard’s worth at two years and $4 million, which is essentially free. That’s basically what the Phillies will need to do to send Howard on his way. It will only get harder if he’s still on the team through May, when his limited no-trade becomes a full 10/5 no-trade. That said, it’s easy to imagine Howard waiving that clause if he sees it might be his only path towards playing time and/or winning.
It’s also easy for a team to prefer gambling on a distressed asset with a higher chance of success, like Andre Ethier, Carlos Quentin or B.J. Upton. While each of their respective teams would have to eat money to move them, it’s not likely that they’re going to eat as much as the Phillies will on Howard, making them at least slightly more expensive. It’s not going to be easy to find Howard a new home, but it should be possible. It has to be, anyway. He can’t ever play in Philadelphia again.