Arbitrarily speaking

Ryan HowardThe Phillies and Ryan Howard are beginning yet another contract dance as the slugger is poised to enter the arbitration process for the first time. Of course the big question is whether or not the Phillies and Howard will avoid the arbitration hearing and iron out a multi-year contract. Though he isn’t eligible to become a free agent until after the 2011 season, Howard is expected to fetch at least $7 million in salary in 2008 if a long-term deal isn’t brokered.

That’s where it gets fun because it’s not as if the Phillies don’t want to have Ryan Howard play for them for a long time. Why wouldn’t they? In his first two full seasons in the Majors, Howard smashed 105 homers, including 47 last year when he missed a most of the month of May. In 2006 he smashed the club single-season home run record on his way to winning the MVP Award. Kids wear Phillies shirts with his No. 6 on the back and everything seems to come to a halt at the ballpark whenever Howard comes to the plate.

Simply, Howard is one of the biggest reasons why folks pay money to go out to the ballpark.

When one considers that the Phillies signed Chase Utley to a multi-year deal worth $85 million in his year of arbitration eligibility, it would make sense that Howard would get a big offer, too.

Right?

Well…

There’s a big difference between players like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. For instance, if he can stay away from accidents like running into his centerfielder, getting in the way of inside pitches before they break his hand and avoid overtraining at Athletes’ Performance with Mark Verstegen, Utley should be able to play well into his late 30s and early 40s. With five years already under his belt before he turned 29, Utley looks to be putting together a long career. A seven-year contract could be a bargain for the Phillies.

On the other hand, guys like Howard don’t last as long. Already 28, Howard is seemingly in the prime years for a big, slugging type of player. The truth is the big fellas just don’t last that long – especially if they have to play in the field. Baseball history is littered with guys like Howard who were washed up before their 35th birthday. Greg Luzinski was washed up at 33; Boog Powell at 34; Mo Vaughn at 34; John Kruk at 33; Kent Hrbek at 34… the list goes on and on. The one big guy who has lasted a long time is Frank Thomas and that comes in part because he’s played just 36 games in the field since 2001, and missed nearly 2½ seasons because of injuries.

Need more? Baseball Prospectus suggested that Howard could be peaking in its 2007 yearbook:

Historically, players like Howard, big-bodied guys with limited defensive skills such as Mo Vaughn and Boog Powell, tended to have high but brief peak periods. Their legs just couldn’t carry that much mass for very long, and around 30 their defense plummeted, their playing time dropped due to nagging injuries, and their singles dried up and disappeared. The Phillies should have a three-year window in which they can expect this kind of production from Howard, but should not plan beyond that.

Based on how the contract-negotiations are going – word is Howard and the Phillies are $3 million apart – the Phillies are not doing anything more than they have to.

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