The Philadelphia Phillies are in the early stages of a long-overdue rebuild.
The club has already shipped off long-time face of the franchise Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers, parted ways with A.J. Burnett, and moved Marlon Byrd to the division-rival Reds, paying a chunk of his 2015 salary to make it happen; but there are plenty of additional moves to be made.
The club still has some valuable trading chips in Cole Hamels, Ben Revere, and Dominic Brown.
Due to age, injury, attitude, and/or price tag, there are four valuable, yet difficult to move, pieces in Chase Utley, Cliff Lee, Jonathan Papelbon, and Carlos Ruiz.
And then there’s Ryan Howard.
Howard is a whole different issue for Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., but he is also – arguably – the most important piece of the rebuilding process.
That’s the take of Inquirer Columnist, Bob Brookover over at Philly.com:
Now, he’s the Big Piece because the Phillies cannot totally move forward until they put Howard’s Philadelphia career in the past. They can live with Utley at second base for a while because there is no top prospect to replace him.
Howard, on the other hand, would be standing in the way of Maikel Franco if he is standing on first base on opening day against the Boston Red Sox. Franco, 22, keeps sending signals that he is ready to play in the big leagues. He did so during his final two months at triple-A Lehigh Valley last season by hitting .324 with 11 home runs, 47 RBIs, and a .924 OPS. He has continued to make a statement in winter ball by batting .272 with an .805 OPS, eight doubles, seven home runs, and 29 RBIs in his first 38 games with Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican Republic.
For the moment, it is the Phillies’ huge problem, because the Big Piece they need to move remains on the roster. Unless that changes, the rebuilding process will be stalled.
So there you have it. In short, Ryan Howard needs to go.
It’s already reached the point where the club has outright admitted they’d be better off without him on the roster. While it’s great that the club can see that, you’ve got to wonder, does he have any trade value?
Let’s a take a peek at what we’re working with here…
Despite being a former MVP and putting up video game power numbers for the first seven years of his career, Howard is no longer all that valuable at the plate. He’s posted a cumulative .720 OPS with 48 home runs and 194 RBI over the last three seasons. His legs appear to be shot and it’s impacted all aspects of his offensive game, most notably his once prolific power stroke.
He could, however, see a slight boost in his offensive productivity if he was moved to a platoon role. Throughout his career he has posted a .955 OPS against right-handers compared to a meager .733 OPS against southpaws. Admittedly, marketing him as half-a-hitter to increase his trade value is probably a bad look for the Phillies.
In addition to being really bad at his job, there’s also the issue of his salary.
As you may recall, Philadelphia infamously gave Howard a five-year, $125 million contract extension prior to the 2010 season.
Howard was already 30-years-old and under contract through the 2011 season at the time of the signing. The new deal didn’t go into effect until the 2012 season and implied that the Phillies seemingly expected no regression from their first baseman as he moved into his mid-30s.
Howard is still owed a whooping $25 million in each of the next two seasons and has a $10 million buyout for 2017. That’s $60 million total to cover the next two seasons and to make him go away before enduring another season of whatever is left of Howard in 2017.
It goes without saying that Philadelphia would need to eat a substantial portion of that money – some have guessed as much as $50-55 million – before they’d ever get anyone to bite. While that may be a steep cost just to make a player go away, the Phillies need to remember that the $60 million is already gone, one way or another.
If the club releases Howard – as they were rumored to be considering once upon a time – that money is gone. If they let him stick around and play out the next two years of the deal, that money is gone. If they trade him, they’re going to eat the bulk of it and, once again, that money is gone.
If Philadelphia shows a willingness to accept that fact, the odds of moving Howard increase ever so slightly, but there are other hurdles to overcome.
Once you get past the comically bloated salary and the severe offensive regression and limitations, there’s yet another strike against Howard – his defense, or lack thereof.
Even in his prime Howard wasn’t much of a fielder at first base, and he’s only regressed with age. At this point, he is best served in the American League where we can spend the bulk of his time at designated hitter.
Obviously, this further limits his trade market.
A quick look around the American League shows only a trio of teams who aren’t committed to a regular designated hitter for next season.
Baltimore Orioles – The departure of Nelson Cruz leaves an obvious hole in the lineup and at the DH slot. It’s also safe to assume that the team would like to add some power to make up for the loss of Cruz and, to a lesser extent, Nick Markakis. Camden Yards routinely ranks as one of the best hitter’s parks in the game, so Howard could still muscle 20+ home runs if utilized correctly. A platoon with Steve Pearce or Delmon Young could provide solid results for the Orioles.
Tampa Bay Rays – The Rays aren’t going to pay a premium for a DH, especially not while they’re in the midst of a quasi-rebuild themselves and they sure as heck aren’t going to pay for one that produces like 2015 Ryan Howard is expected to. That having been said, adding Howard for next-to-nothing seems like an upgrade over David Dejesus – who is also currently slated as the starting left fielder in addition to DH – or any of the other options currently on the roster.
Texas Rangers – Texas currently has Mitch Moreland slotted at designated hitter and logic dictates that the club will rotate veterans Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder, and Shin-Soo Choo into the role throughout the season to keep them fresh and rested. Much like Baltimore, and Howard’s current home park, Texas is generally favorable to the long ball. If Howard is given a steady diet of nothing but righties and sits for one of the veterans against Southpaws, he could provide a lot of value for the Rangers.
…and that’s pretty much it.
You could make a mild case for the Minnesota Twins as an option, but that would require them to put Howard into a platoon with Kennys Vargas. I believe it’s safe to say that there’s no way the Twins want to stunt Vargas’ development as a switch hitter this early in his career by sticking him in a platoon.
The Cleveland Indians could be considered a dark horse for Howard in the right situation. Cleveland has reportedly been working to move Nick Swisher this off-season and their desire to do so has increased since they acquired Brandon Moss from the Athletics in December. If the club is able to move Swisher, that opens up their designated hitter role and Howard could be a fit, but it’s a long shot.
Toronto might be a fit if Justin Smoak proves incapable of handling regular playing time – as has been the case for the bulk of his big league career – although it would require Howard to regularly play defense, because the other option, slugger Edwin Encarnacion is even worse with the glove than Howard. If the Blue Jays do come into play for Howard, it wouldn’t be until after they’ve given Smoak a chance to keep the job.
If you were feeling a little nutty, you could suggest the Yankees trade for him and run out a $50+ million dollar DH platoon of Alex Rodriguez and Howard. If nothing else, it’d be amusing and give sports writers some fodder for a few days.
Ultimately, as you’ve probably already figured out, Ryan Howard has zero trade value.
If not for some weak roster construction around the league, he’d have literally no value to anyone in Major League Baseball. As it stands, the Rangers, Rays, or Orioles could be dance partners for the Phillies, but only if Howard comes at no cost.
If they can’t work out a trade before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, the club is better off releasing him and avoiding the inevitable distraction that will come from having him in camp and with the club throughout the year.
No matter which way it goes, the $60 million is a sunk cost. The sooner the Phillies realize that, the sooner they can move on from Howard and begin their rebuild in earnest.