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Trading Ryan Howard

The Ryan Howard story is well known at this point: prodigious power, not getting any younger at age 25, clearly too good for the minor leagues, and blocked by franchise centerpiece Jim Thome and his mega-contract.  Howard's future is now, but probably not here: The near-universal opinion is that the Phillies will trade him, either for a piece GM Ed Wade believes could help the team contend in 2005--pitchers Ted Lilly of Toronto and Pittsburgh's Kip Wells have been among the rumored names--or, if the team falls from contention, a package of prospects.

Much as some Phils phans might instead wish for a miracle trade of Thome, it's not going to happen. Even without considering that he remains the team's signature player--something the PR-conscious Phillies surely will take into account--it doesn't make much sense from a baseball standpoint. Thome's value right now is as low as it could possibly be; in all likelihood, with his balky back and that albatross of a contract, the Phillies couldn't give him away without paying a big chunk of his salary. Keep in mind also that with a winter of rest and rehab, he's still a good bet to put up solid numbers in 2006, and a Thome trade just makes no sense.

Fifty years ago, the Phils might well have let Howard rot in the minors until the incumbent moved on; today, with so much more media attention on the minor leagues and a restive fan base looking for possible saviors, they can't. And just from a roster management standpoint, they shouldn't: any reasonable trade will yield more value for the team than would keeping Howard on the bench or in Triple-A. So it's almost inconceivable that he'll start 2006 with the organization.

The problem is that regardless of whether the Phils are buyers or sellers this July, Howard isn't the easiest commodity to move. First of all, it's questionable whether a contending team would risk entrusting ample playing time to a rookie who strikes out once in every four plate appearances. And given the relative ease of finding cheap first-base options worth a flyer --Chris Shelton?--it's uncertain that a rebuilding club would want to part with the prospects the Phillies might demand in return for a player with Howard's potential.

Howard's an odd duck, as he could be both a short-term asset for a contender looking to win now and a potential cornerstone for a club thinking about 2007 or beyond. In limited time last September and this year, he's shown that he's not overmatched at the big league level--an .808 OPS with 9 doubles and 5 home runs in 103 at-bats-- and that his tremendous minor-league power numbers will translate to the big leagues. Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection system forecast Howard to put up a .259/.341/.508 line in 2005; this was before he rained unholy death on International League pitchers for the first three months this season, slugging 16 home runs in 210 at-bats with an OPS of nearly 1.200. Given that, and his solid major-league numbers for this season even after a 1-for-18 start following his May callup, he's ready to play, and contribute, right now.

But as Howard gets further into his big-league career, will he grow into anything more than a strikeout-prone bomber?  If he masters the strike zone at the highest level, maybe he grows up to be David Ortiz; if not, perhaps one day he'll be trading stories of boring glory days with J.R. Phillips about the baseballs they sent flying into the rural Pennsylvania night, once upon a time.

Given these circumstances, what team might match up best in a deal for Howard? Let's start with the contenders. If the Phillies are really set on trading Howard now for maximum value, this is probably the group to target: the only other trade candidate at first base with potentially equal impact is Kansas City's Mike Sweeney. But Sweeney is six-and-a-half years older, carries a 2005 price tag about 30 times that of Howard (and upwards of $20 million beyond this season), is a chronic injury risk, and--by dint of having spent his career with the hapless Royals--has about as much pennant race experience as Howard, for GMs who are into that sort of thing.

Contenders with some need at first base might include Boston (current starters: Kevin Millar and John Olerud), Anaheim (Darin Erstad), Atlanta (Adam LaRoche, Julio Franco), the Mets (Brian Daubach), and San Diego (Mark Sweeney). It's dubious that the Phils would trade with division rivals, so that limits the market immediately by omitting Atlanta and the Mets. Anaheim is fine using Erstad at first base; he doesn't slug enough for the position, but the team management loves him and they have other in-house options (Casey Kotchman) anyway.

Both the Red Sox and Padres have young players who should be of interest to the Phillies. Boston catcher Kelly Shoppach could be the centerpiece of a trade package, and the Sox have decent depth on the mound and, in the lower levels of their system, in the outfield. San Diego's patience is at an end with third baseman Sean Burroughs, who has yet to develop but is still just 24, and the Padres' organization is deep in power-hitting infielders and fireballing young pitchers. Putting aside for now the question of whether we really want Ed Wade swimming with sharks like Theo Epstein or Kevin Towers, there might be a "there" there.

How about non-contenders?  Rebuilding clubs without a long-term contractual obligation or obvious heir apparent at first base include: Detroit, Kansas City, Houston, and San Francisco. Perhaps there is the potential for a deal with each of these clubs, but then the question becomes: Why would the Phillies do this now as opposed to November, when the market might look more favorable?

If the Phils are going to move Howard now, the best deal out there might be to package him with one of the Phils' short relievers in a trade with the Red Sox. Boston closer Keith Foulke has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness this year, and I'm very skeptical that Curt Schilling, a perfectionist who greatly relies upon preparation and visualization, is well suited physically or psychologically for the short relief role he's evidently about to take. Howard plus Billy Wagner or Ugueth Urbina could give Boston a tremendous short-term boost, lifting them above Chicago and Anaheim as the AL pennant favorite, and Howard's relative youth and low expense would make a fine addition to Boston's powerful but aging lineup in 2006 and beyond.  Shoppach is regarded as a strong defender with solid power and on-base skills, not unlike Boston incumbent Jason Varitek--and, like Howard, he has nowhere to go with Varitek inked through 2008. Getting him and a nearly-ready starting pitcher like lefty Abe Alvarez or hard-throwing Anibal Sanchez, plus perhaps a third prospect, would represent decent value for Howard and Urbina.

But there's another option that the team is evidently considering: they could keep Howard around after Thome returns from the Disabled List. He'd immediately become the most dangerous bat on the Phillies bench, and could spell the veteran by starting once or twice a week. Limited playing time might not be the best thing for Howard, who could struggle without regular work--and in doing so, possibly depress his trade value--but at least would provide the Phillies with a hedge against Thome making a third trip to the DL this season.

And in the long term, this might work out. If Howard is playing a role of some significance with the big team, he's a lot less likely to be traded this summer. If he helps lead the team into postseason play, he'll probably never have to pay for a drink in Philadelphia again. And if the Phillies don't make the playoffs, there's a decent chance that someone other than Ed Wade will be sitting in the GM's office next winter, trying to figure out how to solve the Ryan Howard problem.