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Piece Out Moment No. 9: I Shot the Albatross

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My glistering eye has taken aim on the haters, Ryan.

Proletarian Hero
Proletarian Hero
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

If you can remember me at all, you can probably remember the fierce debates over the Ryan Howard contract. After all, the last time I was seriously active on this (tremendous, underappreciated, better off without this piker) blog was maybe 2013-2014, and the Howard contract wars were still raging. "25 million dollars for a negative WAR? 25 million dollars until 2016 for an approximation of what would happen if you gave any given AAA first baseman 162 games of playing time? What the heck Ruben?!"

In the end, "what the heck Ruben?!" would be the final word on the matter, as the 125 million dollar extension for Howard in 2010 (that didn't even kick in til 2012) would famously dog former GM Ruben Amaro to the point that even his final, excellent trades of Cole Hamels and Jimmy Rollins would be forgotten under the shadow of misappropriated free agent funds. When Amaro was fired, we were already getting into the feeling of "only a year or two til no more Howard" and with the added catalyst of Matt Klentak's rebuilding plans, I feel like we all kind of forgot about the Great Contract Debate. And what a shame that is.

See, what's been kind of lost after the initial kerfuffle -€” I vividly recall 97.5 agent provocateur Mike Missanelli shouting at Keith Law about Howard being, and this as I recall is a direct quote, "the preeminent slugger of our generation" -€” and the subsequent disappointment, anger, and finally ennui is that Howard's contract is honestly not the biggest mistake in baseball. Really, not by a long shot. Here are some bad contracts via Cot's Contracts that might make you feel a little better about Howard: Albert Pujols (240 MM from 2012-2021, 9.4 fWAR so far); Prince Fielder (214 MM from 2012-2020, 6.8 fWAR, retired); Joe Mauer (184 MM from 2011-2018, 14 WAR, best on this list but now a first baseman); Carl Crawford (142 MM, 2011-2017, 5.3 fWAR); and Josh Hamilton (125 MM, 2013-2017, 3.4 fWAR). Aside from maybe Mauer, that's a rough list.

And it's not like Howard is a peach -€” he's arguably the worst here, as over the life of his 125 MM extension, he's put together -2.2 fWAR (yes negative two point two). But you think about 125 million, and you look at the fact that Howard got the contract as part of a World Series boost (a thing that can make a fortune for your Aubrey Huffs and such), and you look at the fact that his contract didn't turn into an ugly flaming nightmare for the clubhouse like the Crawford and Hamilton contracts, and suddenly, well, it doesn't look as bad. In fact, if you want to know if I'd prefer this Howard deal or the resulting Albert Pujols deal from the Angels, I'd take the Howard deal 10 out of 10 times, even though Albert is still productive. Why? Because 240 MM is a game changing total contract number, while 125 MM isn't.

And isn't that an odd thing! Because the Average Annual Value (AAV) of the two contracts are very similar. But inflation will do funny things over time, and if we want to credit Amaro with anything on this contract, it's that he picked a very opportune time to screw up and sign a guy to a huge deal -€” the expansion of TV deals and owner panic over World Series peaked after 2010, and the kind of deal Howard is finally finishing -€” unthinkably huge as it was in 2010 -€” really is kind of ho hum these days. Will Pujols' deal ever look ho hum? Sure, probably, but I don't think inflation is going to rise as quickly to save Arte Moreno as it did the Phillies ownership group.

You also pay in years when you do these contracts. Having an anchor at First base for 5 years is hard, and it may have ruined the 2012 season, which is a huge cost to pay for a mistake. On the other hand, having an anchor at First or DH for 10 years is a horse of a different color; as we've seen, it's hard to bench a 25 MM dollar man, and if Albert Pujols is respectable in 2021, I'll eat my hat. The Phillies sacrificed one year to their bad decision; the Angles might sacrifice four or five. Sorry Mike Trout.

In the end, though, we keep talking about these contracts as if they're operating in some vacuum, when of course they aren't. A person is attached to every single one of these contracts, and the Ryan Howard deal is no different. I had a chance to interview Howard in 2013 for TGP, and he was one of the nicest, warmest, most generous dudes you could imagine. Just a down to earth guy who seemed more than happy to answer my silly questions; I really remembered why it was so fun to root for him. Did that affability make Amaro give him the extension? Maybe. It probably helped Charlie Manuel stay in his corner, and it probably has kept him okay with his teammates. But what must it be like for a person to be a hero in 2008, and then, five years later, be a complete and total pariah, all for something he earned through good performance? When his only mistake was taking the money offered him?

And beyond this, MLB teams are deeply, deeply profitable. We imagine there's some sort of global crime to the Ryan Howard contract when, of course, the Phillies' ownership could have certainly absorbed it. Consider gate costs, attendance, the success and boom crop from 2007-2013, and ask yourself whether or not Ryan Howard's contract was truly an "anchor." The Phillies are not the Tampa Bay Rays: they can absorb sunk cost in bad contracts. They chose not to, and I suppose there is a sort of defense in that the rest of the team was falling apart, but let's not pin 2013-??? on Ryan Howard. Ryan Howard took a deal any of us would in a hot minute, and signed up for being the scapegoat for a bunch of much wealthier men to explain why fans should keep coming to games anyway.

All of these guys basically are that scapegoat. Even Mauer, a local boy come home to play with his home team, is often derided by his own fanbase for being overpaid. People will cynically apologize for contract length and size by saying that the market dictates what teams pay for players. But at the end of the day, rational actors make deals they hope they will profit on over time, and the only thing we can concretely say about Ryan Howard's or any "albatross" contract is that it did not end up profiting the parent club that offered it. And there's no world in which we should feel that we need to sympathize with billionaires, even if it means sympathizing with millionaires.

So, I want to take this moment to finally, not for the first but perhaps for the last time, say: kudos, Ryan Howard! You made hay while the sun shined, and it hurt no one except maybe, maybe, the pockets of a group of owners who are already richer than god. In the process, you've given us a World Series, the phrase "get me to the plate boys," some really angry pitchers, and the quintessential Ruthian home run call at the beginning of every at bat. Thanks, Piece -€” I hope you get a chance to enjoy what you earned, comrade.