A Long-Term Deal for Howard?

With the Phillies' winter shopping cart full--or at least as full as it's evidently going to get, barring a surprise or minor pickup--there's just one big piece of winter business left to attend to: how the team intends to deal with slugging first baseman Ryan Howard going forward. As Scott Lauber writes today, the Phillies have held their cards close, but the indication is that the team is amenable to signing Howard long-term... eventually.

Is that time now? To answer the question, I thought it might be helpful to turn to the players deemed most comparable to Howard career-wise through his age-27 season by Baseball-Reference.com. I've linked below to each player's BR page and noted the Similarity Score. (Click here for an explanation of Similarity Scores.) For one thing, they're smarter than I am; for another, this approach helps limit us to the quantifiable without excessive discursions into Howard's conditioning or other side issues. That said, I get back to that question at the end of this piece.

Let's go to the comps.

1): BR has Norm Cash (925) as Howard's best comparison. Cash played for the Tigers in the offense-depressed 1960s, so his raw numbers during his late 20s/early 30s seasons aren't all that close to what Howard has done or we can reasonably expect from him going forward. But his OPS+ figures for his age 28 through 33 seasons might yield some insights: 136, 120, 147, 133, 128, 142

Like Howard to this point, Cash had his very best season at age 26 (.361/487/.662, OPS+ 201). Cash hit 41 HR and drove in 132 that season; he never had more than 93 RBI after that. Cash followed up his awesome power year in 1961 with 39 homers the next year, but never topped 32 again (though he stayed from the mid-20s to low 30s through the early 70s, and playing in Detroit probably further depressed his totals).

So: early peak, followed by long plateau of solid contributions through age 38. Starting when he established himself in 1960, Cash put up OPS+ figures of 126 or better in 13 of 14 seasons, with the 120 in 1964--meaning he was 20 percent better an offensive player than the league average--his worst year in that span. If Howard had Cash's career, it's a near-certainty that he would earn his, um, cash over the next six or so years with the Phillies.

2): Cecil Fielder (909). As with Cash, the comp is probably set by the monster year at age 26, when Fielder hit .277/.377/.592  with 51 homers for (again) the Tigers. His OPS+ that year was 167; the next year he dropped to 133, and thereafter was an above-average offensive contributor but not a star with figures of 117, 124, 113, 111, and 108 for his age 28-32 seasons. Fielder was essentially mediocre in his last two seasons, and retired at age 34. Fielder's weight issues contributed to his early departure from the game, a concern some have with Howard.

3): The similarities become a bit harder to discern starting with the third-best comp, Jason Bay (895). Both sluggers won Rookie of the Year honors at age 25--Bay in 2004, Howard a year later. Like Howard, Bay's age-26 season was his best to date, hitting .306/.402/.559 for the 2005 Pirates and putting up a 150 OPS+; his 2006 campaign at age 27 was strong as well, with a 138 OPS+, but last season he was a mess, finishing with a 93 score and just 21 home runs. Bay's long-term future is questionable owing to some injury concerns.

4): More arguably bad news follows with Jim Gentile (893). Another slugger from the early 1960s, Gentile resembles Howard in that both were stuck in the minors through their mid-20s behind established stars (in Gentile's case, Gil Hodges), but quickly made a major impact once they reached the big leagues.  Gentile had his career year at age 27 (.302/.423/.646, OPS+ 187), put up solid power numbers for the next four years--and then retired from MLB at age 32, for reasons I wasn't able to glean from a Google search. Anyone know what the story was there?

5): Howard's next comp, Mo Vaughn (884), offers a little more reason for encouragement. Baseball fans of a certain age--mine, say--probably see the similarities to Vaughn more readily than any of the earlier names; like Ryan, Vaughn was a fearsome slugger with a flair for the dramatic who drew his walks, was more or less a butcher with the glove at first base, and worried fans with his weight. Vaughn had a fantastic six-year peak from ages 25 to 30, posting OPS+ figures of 139, 146, 144, 150, 152, and 153 over that span. He had three more decent seasons at ages 31, 32, and 34 (Vaughn missed all of 2001) before his overburdened knees retired him from the Mets at age 35 in 2003. It's probably arguable that Vaughn's decline after age 30 had something to do with his change in venue from hitter-friendly Fenway Park to less amenable home yards in Anaheim and Queens.

6): After Vaughn, Howard's comps get a little scary. Number Six is Tony Clark (876), yet another one-time Tigers slugger who had his best seasons in his mid-20s; after hitting 97 homers for Detroit from ages 25-27, Clark began an extended tour of big-league clubs that saw him in five uniforms over five seasons from 2001-2005. He found a home that last year with a surprising .304/.366/.636 (154 OPS+) 30-homer campaign for Arizona which has kept him in the desert ever since. Clark remains a useful slugger, but it would be a bitter disappointment to see Ryan Howard's career follow this trajectory.

7): To a lesser extent, the same could be said for the next comp, former Braves masher Ryan Klesko (863).  Klesko got an earlier big-league start than Howard, establishing himself as a big-league regular at age 23-24. His OPS + of 158 at 24 remains his best full-season mark, but Klesko actually remained a very useful hitter through age 33, with figures of 127, 111, 117, 127, 136, 145, 152, 118 and 129. That level of production is fine for a guy making the current equivalent of, say, $8-10 million per year, but given that Howard will command probably twice that much from age 29 onward, the Phils would need more from him.

8-10): Howard's final three comps by age are Zeke Bonura (863), a multi-sport athlete who played in the late 1930s  and retired at 31; Joe Hauser (863), a Philadelphia A's star of the 1920s who also retired early, and Adam LaRoche (862), the Pirates first baseman whose career numbers look like he's a generic and clearly inferior knockoff of Howard.

So, What's the Deal?
On balance, I think this data suggests that Howard is a solid bet to deliver very good to excellent production over at least the next 4-5 seasons. So how much should the Phillies offer?

Last winter, Baseball Prospectus used its MORP (Marginal Value Over Replacement Player) metric to project that Howard would be worth about $72 million as a free agent between the 2008 and 2011 seasons--the four years of his arbitration ability, as it happens. Of course, Howard isn't a free agent; the Phillies can go year-to-year with him through the arbitration process, under which he probably could expect to sign for or be awarded something like $7 million in 2008, $10 million in 2009, $13 million in 2010 and $16 million in 2011, assuming no collapse of production or radical revision to baseball's salary structure. That's an expected total payout of about $46 million over the four years. These are his age 28-31 seasons, probably comprising his peak.

Given the team's presumed desire to keep one of its best players happy and Howard's presumed desire to lock in some degree of security against the risk of injury or performance collapse, a negotiated compromise between the $46 million or so he could get by going year-to-year for his arb-eligible seasons and the $72 million or so he'd be worth on the open market probably makes sense for both sides. On the other hand, given that the team has the leverage and might want to back-load the payout, I think something like $52 million for the four years makes sense. But the Phillies probably would want to lock up Howard beyond the point where he reaches free agency, though perhaps not too far beyond given the tendency of players with his carriage (think Vaughn and Fielder) not to age particularly well. I think two additional years at $16 million each--probably less than he'd get as a free agent if he continues to mash 45-50 HR a year through age 31, but a lot more than he'd get if his production dropped to Burrell-esque levels of good-but-not-great performance--makes sense.

Were I the Phillies, then, I'd be looking to make a deal for six years, $84 million. The advantages to the team are that the deal secures the cornerstone of their offense through his age-33 season, after which point the actuarial odds probably shift against Howard. As an added bonus, the deal is very comparable to the one Chase Utley signed last winter--one year shorter in duration, $1 million less in total payout, but a much higher average annual value--$14 million per for Howard compared to $12.1 million for Utley. Everyone's happy, more or less.

Heavy, Man
But there's one more consideration. The team might not feel that this kind of structure for a deal would offer sufficient protection against a quick, Vaughn-esque decline accelerated by inadequate conditioning. To protect against that, the Phillies should build in weight clauses for at least the last three years of the deal--start at an agreed-upon ideal weight, then dock Howard a half-million dollars for every five pounds he carries above that weight. To add a low-fat carrot as well as this stick, maybe he could earn an incentive at the same $500k amount for every season he gets through at or below the agreed-upon weight.

I don't claim to be an expert on contracts, and among the things I'm unsure about here are whether $32 million for Howard's first two f/a-eligible years is likely to be enough of an inducement to get him to sign now. Similarly, I could see the weight clause as an irritant to the player, who seems like a prideful guy. (Then again, so's Curt Schilling, and he agreed to it.) But as a framework that represents a true compromise on both sides, this is my take. Have at it!

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