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2012 Player Preview: Ryan Howard

Imagine you're Wilson Valdez. You're a decent fielder, can pitch in a clutch, but are absolutely horrendous at the plate, and will never amount to anything more than backup middle-infielder. You regularly have an OPS+ that brings back memories of disco, Nixon's impeachment, and endless lines at gas stations. In 2011, you were paid accordingly and made $560,000. Your contract was up at the end of last season, so you started negotiations for a new contract. In the process, your employer's representative, Ruben Amaro Jr., offers you a 4 year contract worth $40 million. Let's say you're intimately familiar with WAR, VORP, OPS+, and wOBA and know that the offer is way beyond what you're worth to your employer. Do you take the offer?

For everyone who answers that question "no," please consult your local classifieds for the next meeting of "Prevaricators Anonymous." For everyone else, the next question is "who's to blame for that overpriced contract, you or your employer?" Even if you were a hard-ass negotiator during the salary talks, it's still the employer who offered the asinine contract. There's just no reasonable way to blame an employee for the employer offering a ridiculous contract. Why? Because no employer has to offer a ridiculous contract. Every employer is free to just not offer it. But when the employer does, no sane employee would refuse. The $10 million per year for four year Wilson Valdez contract would be Amaro's fault, not Valdez's. Amaro would be the stupid one; Valdez would be the lucky bastard doing nothing more than what any human being would do.

Every Phillies fan should keep this hypothetical in mind this year as we watch Ryan Howard in the first year of his absurd five-year $125 million contract. By almost every measure, the contract was ludicrous. Barring a miraculous return to his 2006 form, he will be drastically overpaid this year. But any fault and vitriol you want to direct over the contract needs to be aimed at Ruben Amaro Jr., not Ryan Howard. Howard just did what any honest person in the world would have done -- he took his employer's outrageously generous offer.

With that out of the way, let's look at what Ryan Howard might give the Phillies in 2012. We know he's going to start the year on the disabled list, coming off the Achilles heel injury that ended his and the Phillies' 2011 post-season. After also ending the Phillies' 2010 post-season, Howard is going to have to perform once he returns. If he struggles to get back to form when he gets back on the field (projected to be anywhere from early May to end of June, though by the reports from spring training, the earlier is looking more likely), the fans are not going to be charitable and will quickly move to stage 6 in the "seven stages of sports star appreciation."

But if he does return to form, what will we get? Howard will be 32 this year and is coming off his third year of an OPS+ between 124 and 127 out of his last four (the outlier is 2009 when he posted a 141 OPS+). Again, in the world in which he does return to form, Howard is going to hit home runs, drive in runs, strike out a lot, walk much less than we would like him to, struggle against lefties, see a lot of pitches out of the strike zone, and heat up as the year goes on. We've been watching the guy his entire career - is it really going to be a surprise at this point? There might be some fluctuations in his BABIP, and his defense might continue to improve, but he's not suddenly going to become Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.

If he doesn't return to form, the results could be ugly. The Achilles injury could rob him of power and further affect his ability to reach breaking pitches away as well as field his position. His increased age and seemingly-increased waistline (see photo 124 here) could start their slow but guaranteed influence on his performance. His mental approach to the game could be affected by two straight years of ending the Phillies' post-season and the resulting fan anathema that comes with the ignominy.

But, for my money, I'm going with Mr. Consistency (minus his much better 2009). And if that performance bothers you, by all means, go ahead and blame Howard for it (though don't act surprised). But, whatever you do, don't blame him for performing at the level he does at the pay he receives. For that, blame the GM.