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Trading Ryan Howard Won't Fix the Phillies

For the past year, Ryan Howard's name has often been evoked in trade rumors, or, rather, in rumors that the Phillies are interested in trading him. Conventional wisdom is that a Ryan Howard trade is something the Phillies need to do. However, it is unclear how the Phillies will tangibly benefit from such a trade.

Adam Dunn can't do this
Adam Dunn can't do this
Jonathan Ernst

The topic of trading Ryan Howard comes to the fore of Phillies conversation every couple months. The facts that underlie this conversation are well-known: Ryan Howard is no longer a productive or "valuable" baseball player, at least in terms of on-field performance; Ryan Howard is owed a lot of money over the next 3 years ($60 million, in fact); he is no longer suited to play first base defensively, and, therefore, he would be better off as a designated hitter on an American League team.

All of these things are true, of course. I'm not here to dispute that. What I do intend to dispute is that the Phillies would be significantly better off after trading Ryan Howard. To combat this idea, let's look, one-by-one, at the arguments commonly employed in favor of trading Ryan Howard.

Ryan Howard's contract hamstrings the Phillies. Trading him would create payroll flexibility.

There's no disputing the first half of this argument. Having one player locked in to $25 million each season limits any team with a limited payroll, even a large-market one like the Phillies. If there were a way to make that $25 million disappear from the ledger, it would certainly allow the Phillies to do more things in free agency and in trade.

The problem with this argument is the assumption that trading Ryan Howard will put a significant dent in this financial burden. For example, look at the made up, yet somewhat plausible, trade in yesterday's Buster Olney piece (Insider access required):

The Phillies could call the Orioles, who have flexibility with their DH position and could use Matt Wieters against lefties next season as he comes back from Tommy John surgery. Amaro could float the idea of swapping Howard for Ubaldo Jimenez, who is owed $37.5 million over the next three seasons, while eating Howard’s $10 million buyout.

With this arrangement, the Orioles would effectively owe Howard a total of $12.75 million for the next two seasons -- and given the enormous range of DH options, they could probably insist the Phillies eat even more dollars than that, to turn Howard into a $2 million or $3 million a year player.

To me, that seems like a trade the Orioles might accept for the reasons Olney lists. Here's the thing that has been overlooked about it: the Phillies don't save much money in this trade. They would inherit Ubaldo Jimenez' $38.75 million obligation through 2017. If the Phillies throw the Orioles no additional money in the deal, they would only save about $7 million per season. Olney suggests the deal might require the Phillies throw something like $10-15 million in the deal to make it tolerable, effectively saving them only $2-3 million per season. That's what they're paying Grady Sizemore and Jerome Williams, so that transaction would hardly afford franchise-altering flexibility.

And that's the rub; any Howard trade would require the Phillies to eat such a large percentage of his current contract that it would change very little for the Phillies' bottom line.

Moving Ryan Howard would allow the Phillies to insert youth into the lineup and expedite the rebuilding process.

To make this point, you need to identify who you would insert in Howard's stead. The only clear replacement in the organization is Darin Ruf. Ruf is entering his age 28 season, so he's not exactly a spring chicken. Moreover, in 447 career MLB plate appearances, he's slashed .251/.339/.466, which isn't exactly what a team should be looking for in a permanent first baseman. That slash line, as unimpressive as it is on its own, is fueled by a .325 career BABIP, which isn't exactly sustainable for a player with Ruf's un-speediness. That unsustainability is reflected in his Fangraphs 2015 Steamer projection of .237/.310/.394 (98 wRC+). In short, he's not exactly the type of player you need to create space for. Ruf is not in the same situation as Howard was when an aging Jim Thome was manning first base.


Trading Ryan Howard is far from the panacea fans seem to suspect. He's not a valuable enough commodity that a trade would allow the Phillies to rid themselves of a substantial, and temporarily crippling, financial obligation. Additionally, there is no rush to get him out of the way since there is no player in the organization who demands a look as an everyday Major League first baseman.

One last thing: Ryan Howard probably attracts more fans to the stadium and generates more revenue for the team than any likely replacement would. There are probably still fans who, calling on memories of his past glory, experience some level of excitement when Howard steps to the plate in a high leverage situation. Given the lack of a clear and available short or long term upgrade, that isn't a meaningless attribute. Any additional revenue the Phillies can suck out of Howard's presence means something for a team unlikely to realize any notable on-field accomplishments in the next two or three seasons.

The Phillies are at a place where all they can do for the next two seasons or so is position themselves to contend when their current obligations come off the books. Trading Ryan Howard does very little, if anything, to advance that goal. Fans should be more patient with Howard than he is with low and away, two-strike breaking balls.