You remember the offseason that was. It was the offseason in which the Phillies said outright they’d be better off without Ryan Howard. And it was the offseason that concluded with Ryan Howard still on the Phillies. Things could’ve been more awkward than they were, and a conversation did take place between the parties that tried to smooth things over. But, not very long ago, the Phillies had mentally moved on. The problem was that Howard hadn’t gone anywhere.
Then the season started, and Howard was bad. Maybe that wasn’t the biggest surprise. But the season continued, and now Howard’s been good. Isolating just the month of May, Howard’s posted a 156 wRC+, with familiar-looking power. Cole Hamels remarked that Howard looks like the old version of Ryan Howard, by which I mean the younger version of Ryan Howard, and Ruben Amaro has said before that the best thing Howard can do is hit. When Howard hits, then in theory, there are more options. So it’s worth wondering now: with Howard actually looking productive, what can we make of his trade value?
Let’s go over some of the important details first. Howard has a $25-million salary this year, and a $25-million salary next year, followed by a $10-million buyout of an option. Since this year’s already well underway, Howard is due roughly $52 million or so through the end of his contract. He just had his 10/5 rights kick in, which means he has a full no-trade clause, though it’s unclear what that might mean in his case. The Phillies have said they’re willing to eat money in trades, which should be obvious. Howard is 35, and more of a DH than a first baseman. This past winter, you guys valued Howard at $4 million over two years. Teams clearly weren’t falling all over themselves to get Howard before anyone else.
So what’s going on with Howard these days? He’s swinging more than ever before, in particular at the first pitch. He had a full offseason of workouts, training how he wanted to for the first time since his Achilles injury. He’s hitting what’s almost a career-low rate of groundballs, which works in his favor, because he’s clearly still strong, and on the ground he’s terribly shiftable. And Howard is targeting the outer half. From Baseball Savant, Howard’s home runs, from 2008 – 2011:
Meanwhile, his dingers from 2015:
Howard still pulls his grounders. He still strikes out. He’s walking less than ever. But there’s obvious power, still to all fields. How appealing is this rejuvenated one-time superstar?
Two approaches. The first, a more, shall we say, reactionary approach. Howard, this season, has been worth half a win above replacement. The season is almost a third complete. This shouldn’t be a weird-looking number: Howard isn’t much of a defender or baserunner, and his cold April cancels out some of his hot May. Over a full season, he’d be something like a 1.7-WAR player. He’ll be under contract and older next year, so according to the rule of thumb, you dock about a half-win. Put all the necessary numbers together and you get an actual Ryan Howard value of roughly $20 million, between now and the end of next season.
This obviously relies on a bunch of assumptions, and that invites legitimate questioning. And there’s the argument that assets are more valuable in-season than between seasons, although that doesn’t seem to apply as much in cases like Howard’s. Howard isn’t a piece that would be in great demand, like a shutdown starter or closer. Just ballparking it, you get a difference of $30 – 35 million between Howard’s value and cost. Maybe that’s more like $25 – 30 million, since the season’s underway. So, as the theory goes, if the Phillies offered to cover that $25 – 30 million, everyone could expect to break about even. The Phillies wouldn’t get much of anything back. But if the Phillies paid everything, then they could effectively buy a half-decent prospect. A prospect worth something like $25 million. This got mathematical in a hurry, but a $25-million prospect is a prospect from an organizational top-10 list. Generally not the No. 1 or 2, but, real talent.
That would be an estimate of what the Phillies could do, if they found a team buying into Howard’s 2015. But that’s kind of the problem. Everyone knows about Howard’s 2015. Everyone also knows about Howard’s 2014, and 2013. I can’t speak for every front office, but I assume every front office understands that players are more than just their most recent statistics.
You always have to consider the bigger track record. And while each team differs in its evaluations, we can, again, estimate things. How heavily should Howard’s 2015 be weighted? Usefully, we have pre-season player projections, and updated player projections. In Howard’s case, the projections aren’t thrilled.
Before the year started, according to ZiPS and Steamer, Howard was projected for a .313 wOBA, with a perfect 0.0 WAR. But, Howard’s had a solid month. A lot of his power looks like it’s back. Now, according to ZiPS and Steamer, Howard is projected for a .317 wOBA, and a 0.1 WAR.
Which, clearly, is pretty much the same thing. You see an improvement, but it’s slight, a matter of just a few runs over a long stretch. As a replacement-level player, Howard has no meaningful value, even if he’s free. As a just-better-than-replacement-level player, the idea’s the same, and there’s still the matter of Howard presumably declining next summer. Based on the currently-projected version of Ryan Howard, he’s still practically a giveaway, with the Phillies eating everything. The month doesn’t in any real way change the picture.
That approach is a little cold, and pessimistic. The first is a little optimistic. It’s worth noting that Howard could and probably should be platooned. It’s also perhaps worth noting that, while he can be shifted with the bases empty, it’s tougher to shift him with runners on, meaning he hits better with runners on, meaning he’s a little more productive than he seems overall. I don’t think Howard, at this point, is completely valueless. But it is close. So close that the Phillies can’t realistically expect anything if they don’t offer to pay everything. And if they do pay everything, then they could return a projectable player in the lower levels, or maybe an intriguing pitcher with injury questions. Maybe even a guy on the level of Ian Thomas, who the Dodgers picked up Wednesday. Not that the Dodgers would want Howard, but Thomas is fresh in my mind.
Given the slight return, you wonder if it’s even worth it. Maybe the Phillies should just keep Howard and ride him out. He’s not exactly blocking the next big thing, not at the moment, and he’s decently productive and a link to a more successful past. The Phillies don’t need to give Howard away to hit for someone else. That’s on them to evaluate. And in the meanwhile, it would be swell if Howard kept on slugging, because more teams are looking to trade in June than in May, and the more of this that happens, the less the recent past is remembered. At this point, it’s just a mediocre player on a hot streak. Streaks that last two months carry more weight than streaks that last one.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.