Know When To Fold ‘Em: Ryan Howard’s Contract Is A Sunk Cost

You wouldn’t know it from the level of conversation you’ll find on Facebook or at Comcast SportsNet’s website, but the Phillies have gotten smarter the past couple of years. It’s in looking for immediate results that you can get fooled into thinking the opposite – and yes, I realize that’s similar to the argument that Sam Hinkie’s supporters are making (one which I remain skeptical about, although not as much as a few months ago.)

For the most part, the Phillies have stopped throwing good money after bad trying futilely to extend a window that we now realize closed between the 2011 and 2012 seasons. The personnel moves they’ve made in the past couple of years have excited few people – but that low-budget signing of Roberto Hernandez stabilized the back of the Phillies’ rotation for much of 2014 and then he was flipped to the Dodgers for two legitimate, serviceable prospects. I honestly don’t know that Billy Beane could have done it much better in that specific instance.

Now, in recent months, the Phillies have used the trades of Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo to replenish the once dangerously thin starting pitching ranks in their upper levels of the minor leagues. Signing Chad Billingsley to a low-guarantee contract was a smart bet on upside. Aaron Harang could be the next Roberto Hernandez, almost literally. And I suspect we’ll see a lot more of Odubel Herrera in Clearwater and then in regular seasons lineups than many are expecting.

Lastly, while the team has telegraphed its willingness to part with Cole Hamels and its flat-out desire to divest Jonathan Papelbon and Ryan Howard, it has not rushed into an ill-advised trade for Hamels. Moving him in the kind of deal that sent Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen packing more than a decade ago would be disastrous – and there’s no need for that currently, as Hamels, publicly at least, is not pushing to leave, even though he’d surely love to pitch for a contender in the near term.

Having Hamels on the opening-day roster is no disaster, far from it. But trading him now for a package of Bud Smiths, Mike Timlins or Omar Daals would be. The Phillies front office should continue waiting out the field – until (and only if) it can get more for Hamels than he might be worth. He’s 31, healthy, a good citizen and teammate, coming off an excellent year and cost-controlled at a reasonable salary (for his level) for the next four years. That should land 2-3 strong prospects plus – or the Phillies should keep him.

I’ve said in other forums (paraphrasing Buddy Ryan) that I’d trade Papelbon for a six-pack and it doesn’t even have to be cold. I won’t belabor that subject further, but I get the feeling the Phillies and Papelbon may get their mutually desired divorce before spring training is over.

The Trade Market Has Spoken

Here’s who’s not headed to another team, at least not by trade – Ryan Howard. I think it’s abundantly clear by now that the Phillies tried to give him away this winter, and found no takers. On the one hand, you had experts on the MLB Network arguing that if you could get Howard for two years at the cost of $10 million salary total (with the Phillies picking up the remainder, including the 2017 buyout) and a marginal prospect, there are teams like Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Kansas City that could use the offense. Others pointed out that given the going rate for the likes of Kendrys Morales on the open market, Howard isn’t even worth that.

The market has spoken and the latter group was right. No matter how logical the argument by Ken Rosenthal and co., nobody bit. The Phillies are stuck with Howard – and Ruben Amaro was absolutely right when he said the Phillies would be better off without him in the coming seasons.

That’s not a commentary – by the Phillies or me – on Howard as a person. He’s every bit the solid citizen and organization guy that Cole Hamels is. I take no pleasure in arguing that the Phillies should cut their losses and release Howard, but I think that’s the logical path for them to take.

If you’re willing to swallow a $50 million loss for minimal return to get rid of a contract, is it worth considering writing off a $60 million loss for essentially no return? I’d say yes, but I’d also argue that there is a return for releasing Howard – the at-bats it would free up for Darin Ruf, Cody Asche, Mikael Franco and whoever else emerges to earn playing time in the Phillies’ first base, third base and left field matrix.

Don’t let the irony of Darin Ruf’s situation pass you by – he’s sitting in a very similar position to that of Ryan Howard himself a decade ago. Then, Howard was a positionally limited slugger who had nothing left to accomplish at the minor league level, but was considered old for a prospect and blocked by a veteran with a big contract. Ruf’s situation is so similar – he probably doesn’t offer the upside of the young Ryan Howard, but his ability to play the outfield corners in addition to first offers the potential to be a useful utility player if he proves not worthy of a starting spot.

I’m not arguing Ruf is going to remotely approach the production Howard gave the Phillies from 2005 to 2009 (and I’d argue that his 2006 season was the finest offensive season in Phillies history, with all due credit to Chuck Klein, Dick Allen, Mike Schmidt 1980-81 and Lenny Dykstra 1993). But Ruf does have an .805 OPS over 447 major league plate appearances since his debut in 2012. That’s production capability worth taking a look at over a full season – finally – and he works best at first base, with some occasional time in left field.

For now, a lineup with Ruf at first and Asche at third, with Franco starting the season in Lehigh Valley for some offensive seasoning and to delay the start of his free agency eligibility, makes the most sense, but that won’t happen if Howard is on the roster come opening day. Ryne Sandberg tried to make Howard a $25 million platoon player last season – and apparently the otherwise-smarter front office dissuaded him from that plan. Howard’s not going to be a $25 million pinch-hitter in 2015, even though he’s an overall negative at this point if he plays regularly.

The Phillies need to move on, fully accept the Howard extension for the ruinous blunder it was, and cut those ties just as it has said goodbye to Jimmy Rollins and other parts of a fondly remembered past that now is simply history, not the present reality.

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