First off, let me admit upfront that I'm stealing this topic from one of my esteemed colleagues at BSG. But it's something worth thinking about, as Mike Radano and others have noted: how should the Phillies handle Ryan Howard as he heads into his first year of arbitration eligibilty?
With Chase Utley in a similar situation a year ago, the team signed the all-star second baseman to a seven-year, $85 million contract backloaded to account for three years of arbitration eligibility and four of free agency. While this contract made sense for Utley--a complete hitter who had worked hard enough to become a plus defender, with no injury history and a body type likely to age well--a similar deal for Howard would entail a lot of risk. The big man is a devastating offensive force, but he's got weaknesses in his game and doesn't offer much defensively (whatever Jared from Subway says). He's also not that likely to age well: Baseball-Reference.com has third-closest comparison as Cecil Fielder, who was done at age 34, and other comps (Zeke Bonura, Dick Stuart) were also done in their early to mid-30s.
On the other hand, the Phillies control Howard for a few seasons yet--and, let's face it, his weaknesses pale in comparison to his production. So, even if he's not in line for a deal like Utley's, the parties should look to strike some kind of agreement that provides the player security and the team cost certainty.
I think you start by trying to determine what Howard would be worth if he were a free agent. My guess is that if he were to appear as a free agent today, he'd command something like a six-year deal for $110 million, or a bit more than $18 million per year: recall that Carlos Lee, a somewhat similar hitter who has a good bit less power, got six years, $100 million from the Astros last winter. Even if you deem Lee's contract silly--and I do--it's an absolute certainty that Howard will earn more than that.
Of course, the Phils don't have to pay Howard as a free agent. His leverage as an arbitration-eligible player is probably such that in the next three arb years he'll be able to command something like 30 percent, 45 percent and 70 percent of his open-market value; if Howard is worth something like $18 million a year, that's $5.4m, $8.1m, and $12.6m, for a total of about $26 million. Add two years at $19 million each--figuring for inflation by then--and the offer the Phillies could make that Howard might accept is five years, $64 million.
This sounds about right to me. You get his age 28-32 years, very likely at a price that's lower than his true market value--Baseball Prospectus last spring projected Howard to be worth close to $68 million from 2008-2011--and lock in your third infield superstar alongside Utley and Rollins.
What do you think the Phils should do with Howard?
How should the Phillies approach Ryan Howard's contract status?
This poll is closed
Go year to year, signing him for something like $6 million in 2008
Try to sign Howard through his arbitration eligibility--something like three years, $27 million
Long-term deal along the lines of five years, $64 million
Same or similar deal to Utley's: seven years, $85 million