Is Ryan Howard best compared to Albert Pujols, or Alex Rodriguez? Don't answer "neither" before you heed these ominous words from ESPN's Jayson Stark, who thinks there's no shot that Howard even considers the seven-year, $100 million deal to which the Cardinals signed Pujols a few years back:
A-Rod is more what this particular family has in mind.
Well, A-Rod -- as you might have noticed -- makes 27 million bucks a year. So even if we assume that the Phillies could buy off some arbitration years at figures below that, it's a good bet that the lowest figure the Howard camp is likely to ask for long-term is $150 million, for seven years -- and very possibly higher.
For a player who has about 2½ years of service time.
There's a better chance the Phillies will start Robin Roberts on Opening Day than there is of them giving Howard 150 million negotiable American dollars -- if not more.
So forget all that happy talk the Phillies are tossing out there about their willingness to talk and negotiate and shower their first baseman with affection. This is one of the most conservative ownership groups in sports. So while talk isn't always cheap, it's cheaper than handing out the richest contract in history for a guy with two-plus years' service time.
Stark spent something like two decades as a beat guy and a columnist for the Inquirer, so if there's one thing in this world he can write about with authority, it's the "conservatism" of the Phillies ownership. And it certainly sounds like he's sourced into the thinking of Howard's camp as well.
So am I serious with the title of this post? Not entirely.
What I'd actually try to do is figure out what it would take to make this headache go away for the next two years: $23 million? That's the $10 million Howard asked the arbitrator for this year, and $13 million more for 2009. In return, the Phillies get his age-28 and -29 seasons, while they've still got the rest of their core--Utley, Rollins, Hamels, Myers--under control and in their primes. By the end of that two-year window, and barring any extensions, they'll be out from under current contract obligations to Pat Burrell, Jamie Moyer, Tom Gordon, Brad Lidge, Adam Eaton, Geoff Jenkins, and Myers.
Whoever the GM is will have a wide range of options at that point. If he wants, he can try to go long with Howard; maybe he'll seem like a good bet going into his age-30 season and willing to take, say, a five-year deal for $100 million. (A lot of assumptions--about the trajectory of payroll increase, the economy as a whole, the willingness of the tightwad ownership to spend, and the competitive state of the team--go into whether or not that number means anything; I offer it only for the sake of conversation.) Or maybe he'll want to trade Howard to whoever is doing worse among Boston or New York, neither of whom has a long-term superstar-type at first base and neither of whom would likely be deterred by any contract demand Howard might make.
The other option would be to try and trade him now, again probably to Boston or the Yankees. But that's an overreaction, unless either of those teams were willing to move, say, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and three other young players or solid prospects. And the Phillies are built to win now; as TGP commenter MattS put it on another site (after I raised the possibility there, actually), trading Howard now is "the kind of move that would turn the current 90-win team into an 85-win team and turn 2012's 75-win team into an 80-win team. I'd rather make moves that turn the current team into a 95-win team and the 2012 team into a 70-win team."
So let's just pay him, keep him happy now, and have done with it.