The Phillies came to an agreement on a contract with Eric Bruntlett today, which means the team will head into the opening of spring training next week with everyone signed, sealed, delivered and happy.
Well, all except for that one guy.
In signing Bruntlett, the new utility infielder ace (you know, like Tomas Perez except for he went to Stanford and doesn’t strike out as much), only Ryan Howard remains unsigned for 2008. Eligible for arbitration for the first time, Howard will set a record if his case makes it to the hearing room on Feb. 20. The record, of course, will be for his salary for a player with his limited service time. With only two complete seasons under his belt, Howard will make at least $7 million for 2008 even if he loses his hearing. If he wins the case Howard will get a cool $10 million for the upcoming season.
Of course the Phillies and Howard could come to an agreement beforehand, but that seems unlikely at this point.
There are a lot of interesting variables in Howard’s case from all points of view. The main one appears to be the notion that Howard doesn’t seem to wait his turn and put in the service time that seems to the requirement for one to achieve a certain salary status. It also seems to be yet another one of baseball’s anachronisms that litters the game. Players have to pay their dues in baseball even if they are stuffed in the minors for far too long because an aging superstar had blocked the path.
Then there is the fact that the Phillies have never lost an arbitration case, ever. With ex-general manager Ed Wade known as one the all-time great hatchet men when it comes getting the arbitrator to see things his way, the Phillies have been second-to-none when it came to shredding up their own guys. Just the thought of Wade in a hearing room was enough to get players to sign on the line.
But that’s not the case with Howard. The big fella seems poised for a fight that won’t end on Feb. 20 and very well could be an ongoing battle that lasts until Howard is finally eligible for free agency following the 2011 season. In terms of this season, however, it will be very interesting to hear how the Phillies will present their case.
And with the acknowledgement that this will be the unpopular view, the Phillies will be very smart not to give in to Howard’s demands. Why should the team voluntarily overpay a player? Why would they do it knowing they will have a limited amount of cash to spend on free agents every off-season? If locking up Howard on a mega-, multi-year deal means the Phillies won’t be players for a top free agent pitcher in the future – one they will surely have to overpay because of the bandbox of a ballpark they play in – then take the animosity and the ill will. Surely Howard can feed his family on $7 million for 180 days of baseball, right?
Besides, isn’t so very easy to spend other people’s money?
Nevertheless, when Howard is eligible to be a free agent when he is 32, he very well could have one foot out the door or at least be standing at the threshold of his declining years. Would it be smart for the Phillies to overpay a player at that point the way they did with Darren Daulton and Lenny Dykstra all those years ago? General manager Pat Gillick has been around baseball for more years than anyone on the Phillies has been alive (including Jamie Moyer). During that time Gillick surely has seen those big 260-pound plus sluggers who have to play the field wear themselves down before they even hit their 35th birthday. Could it be that the Phillies are loath to sign Howard to a long-term deal because they are worried that they still could be paying him even when he is long gone from playing?
But as it pertains to the here and now, Howard might have a very strong case. As a first-time eligible player heading to arbitration, Howard’s marker will be Miguel Cabrera – a player who went into arbitration for the first time last winter and received $7.4 million. In comparison, Howard dwarfs Cabrera in homers, RBIs, on-base percentage, slugging, walks and strikeouts. Cabrera takes it in batting average.
The Phillies will likely cite Howard’s experience, size and strikeouts as reasons why he should only get $7 million for 2008. After all, Howard set the all-time record for whiffs in a season in 2007 with 199 in a year that he missed most of the month of May. Prior to that, the big slugger struck out 181 times in 2006. No player has ever topped those numbers.
However, when it comes to smacking homers Howard has no peer. Better yet, despite his size and the potential for injuries and wearing down over the course of a long season, Howard has been surprisingly resilient. Actually, in searching for a hole in his statistical record, Howard has been a better slugger during the second half of the season. In fact, Howard’s most productive month in his big league career has been September/October.
Could it be that Howard is too good to be true? If that’s the case maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the Phillies to take a defeat in the arbitration hearing.