A $125 Million No-Brainer?

Signing Ryan Howard to the biggest contract in Phillies history makes perfect sense. There's just one catch.

While the signing of Ryan Howard to a six-year extension of his current contract appears overly large, in today’s financial climate for professional athlete superstars, it’s simply good business.

Howard, the Phils slugging first baseman, became the richest Phllies’ athlete ever yesterday by signing a contract that could bring him $138 million. Here’s the breakdown: Howard was already scheduled to make $20 million next season. For the years 2012 and 2013, he’ll make another $20 million per each. His salary goes up to $25 million for the next three seasons, and then comes down slightly in the year 2017 to $23 million. The Phillies have the option of paying him that salary that season, or cutting him at a cost of $10 million. In the year 2017, Howard will be 37 years old, which is just about the time when power hitters not on the juice start losing battery power. [SIGNUP]

Why, you ask, did the Phils have to commit that kind of coin with more than a year and a half left on Howard’s current contract? Especially when they have a five-tool outfielder named Jayson Werth in his free agent season.

Why? Because Ryan Howard is the type of slugger who would command even more than that if the Phils allowed him to even get close to free agency. Consider this: had the Phils not acted now, Howard’s agent, Casey Close, could have counted on his client having another big home run season while telling the Phillies that the first baseman would rather play out the final year of his contract and test the free agent waters. The Phils would then have been in a position of almost rooting against Howard having a big year, just to keep his market value down. And without Howard having a big year, how could the Phillies possibly contend for a championship. And consider this: you think the Yankees or Boston Red Sox might have started the bidding for Howard at about $30 million per season?

Nah, this is just good business. Think what you will about Howard’s proclivity for striking out, this is a man who has put up historic power numbers in baseball in his last four years. No one even comes close. Not Bonds. Not Mays. Not Aaron. Not A-Rod or Griffey. Not even Babe Ruth. And I don’t get these people who focus on Howard’s strikeouts. A strikeout is an out. Outs are made in many forms in baseball. If the strikeouts were hampering Ryan Howard’s production, then yeah, it would be a legitimate beef. But Howard’s lifetime on base percentage is .375, which is second in the Phils starting lineup only to Chase Utley’s .381. All this while averaging 49 home runs and 143 RBIs in his last four seasons.

So what about Werth? Well that’s where you got me. The way the Phillies talk now, it’s unlikely that they will commit the type of dollars that Werth can currently get after this season. He’ll be the best free agent player on the market, which means he’s likely to command about $15 mil a season in a five-year deal, if not more. But the Phils knew this before they signed Howard. Their payroll next season already has about $130 million guaranteed money on players. Can they add Werth at $15 million more while accounting for all their raises and arbitration eligibles and fill-out-the-roster type of players? Doubtful. Unless they do this: bite the bullet on Werth, crank up the payroll for at least one season to go further than Phils management has ever gone, then whittle Raul Ibanez of the roster when his contract is up and play rising star Dominic Brown in left field instead of right.

What’s that you say? They weren’t willing to do that with Cliff Lee? Oh.

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