Tuesday, April 27, 2010

That's A Lotta Cheddar; A Lotta Greenbacks....

  • A lotta money:

It's official.

The maneuvers the Phillies are making aren't just haphazard and bewildering on the field, but financially, they're bordering on long-term lunacy.

Yesterday it was announced that first baseman Ryan Howard agreed to a contract extension worth a guaranteed $125 million from 2012 through 2016. There's a $23 million option for 2017 with a $10 million buyout. With the $19 million he's making this season and the $20 million for next year, Howard will receive at least $163 million from the Phillies for the duration of his deals. He has a limited no-trade clause.

To put this in perspective, the Phillies will be paying the 30-year-old Howard a lot of money until he's 36.

This is not to denigrate Howard in any way, but to be blunt, have the Phillies lost their collective minds?

I've been dubious about GM Ruben Amaro Jr since he signed Jamie Moyer to a 2-year extension in the heady afterglow of the 2008 World Series win; then my jaundiced view became even more pronounced as he rode a second straight pennant into some context-switching justification for the questionable trades and contract extensions he's executed.

Amarao said all the right things----stuff right out of the "executive's book of quotations" that are on a level with the ballplayer cliches laid out like something out Bull Durham----ESPN Story.

"We just felt it was good timing for us..."

(Blah, blah, blah.)

"We felt No. 1, he's one of the elite offensive players in the game..."

(Blah, blah, blah.)

We could have waited another year and a half or so and dealt with it later on..."

(Blah, blah, blah.)

...but the fact of the matter is we decided he is that important to our organization and to our club and to our future."

(Blah, blah, blah.)

"The numbers don't lie. He's also one of the most durable players we have. Ryan's basically ready to play 162 games. I think that means a lot...."

(Blah, blah, blah.)

Given the type of person Howard is, there's little-to-no chance of him turning into Mo Vaughn and expanding to the width of a parade float. Nor are there going to be off-field issues that will make the Phillies rue the day they agreed to this contract.

But that doesn't mean this is a good idea.

In pure practical terms, it's on a level with the ubiquitous ACME products to which Wile E. Coyote is so blindly dedicated in his futile hunt for the Road Runner.

With the Howard contract, the Phillies are locked in with almost every core player from their championship teams aside from Jayson Werth and Jimmy Rollins; and given what they've done in terms of a long-term view, clearly they're going to come to an agreement with Rollins (a free agent after 2011) at some point.

Is this smart?

Let's wind the clocks forward to 2013.

The Phillies roster will consist of the guarantees to:

Ryan Howard, age 32----$20 million

Roy Halladay, age 36----$20 million

Chase Utley, age 34----$15 million

Then there are the departing or possibly departing players from 2012 (Shane Victorino; Placido Polanco; Cole Hamels; Joe Blanton; and Carlos Ruiz); plus Brad Lidge is receiving big money through 2011. As stated earlier, one would assume they're going to sign Rollins.

What's that team going to look like?

I had no intention of mentioning in the given name of the Stone Cold Killer, currently set to make his return to the mound for the Mariners; the same pitcher they traded for prospects in the convoluted trade to get Roy Halladay while gutting the farm system almost completely; the same Stone Cold Killer who in 2011 may very well be plying his trade with his icy ruthlessness 90 miles up the interstate in a Mets uniform.

I'm of course talking about Cliff Lee.

I wasn't going to mention said Stone Cold Killer, Lee, but the Phillies attempts to maintain their excellence while putting forth the myth of keeping some semblance of a farm system intact is an irresolute strategy of indecision and a foundation built for collapse from top-to-bottom and requires mentioning Lee as a major part of that faulty scheme.

Apart from Domonic Brown and Phillippe Aumont (acquired in the Lee trade and now starting in Double A), the farm system has been stripped of most legit prospects. They're hard-pressed to ante up the cash it's going to take to keep Jayson Werth and will be top-heavy to nightmare proportions by 2012-2013 without the young players to replace the departing veterans. It was the home-grown talent that formed the basis to the Phillies National League dominance in the past two years.

The Phillies didn't have the money to keep Lee to team with the devastating and sublime Roy Halladay to form the most frightening 1-2 punch in baseball, but they have the money to throw at Ryan Howard? When he's a year-and-a-half away from free agency? When he's looking like a player it wouldn't be absurd to bench or for whom to pinch hit against left-handed pitchers because he's grown so inept hitting against them?

Howard's never going to be Keith Hernandez defensively; but nor is he Dr. Strangeglove, Dick Stuart. He's quicker than you realize; is a good guy; and clutch bat. This doesn't mask the holes in his game such as strikeouts and embarrassing failure against lefties.

Had the Phillies looked at this with a long-term goal in mind rather than some misplaced idea of doing the "right" thing; had they gauged accurately what the landscape would be as Howard tested the market, they would've realized that he would've accepted the same deal (and possibly far less) when free agency came calling in the winter of 2011-2012.

Which team would: A) have the money to lure Howard away from the Phillies; and B) have the hole at first base or DH to sign Howard?

The Yankees? They have a first baseman by the name of Mark Teixeira (he's pretty good); and aren't going to pay that money for an aging, big name DH.

The Red Sox? They're not signing a one-dimensional player to a contract that lucrative. If they pay that amount of cash to a free agent, it'll be Adrian Gonzalez; and they're not going down that David Ortiz-road for a DH again.

The Orioles? They have the cash, but Andy MacPhail doesn't like spending money that way; it's easier and smarter to carve it up and fill numerous holes than spend it on an aging and limited player.

The Angels? They spend their money on pitching and if they wouldn't go that high to keep Teixeira, they're not giving it to Howard.

The Mariners? They presumably have the money, but GM Jack Zduriencik isn't spending it on Howard.

The Mets? They have a young first baseman, but even if they didn't, they won't import a former Phillie unless his name is Utley or Lee. They're also going to have to worry about keeping Jose Reyes and David Wright.

The Nationals? They made a massive offer for Teixeira, but would Howard want to leave a ballpark tailored to him with a contending team to go to the Nationals? Stephen Strasburg or no Stephen Strasburg.

The Cardinals? Bill DeWitt and John Mozeliak would probably like nothing better than to get five minutes alone in a room with Amaro and Phillies owner David Montgomery because after the Howard deal, you can forget about Albert Pujols giving a hometown discount to the Cardinals as his own free agency beckons. Howard is also from St. Louis, but he's not Pujols; he's not one of the top two hitters in baseball; he's not a Gold Glove-caliber fielder.

The Cubs? With the contracts----Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Zambrano----they currently have on the books? No chance.

The Dodgers? Who knows what their finances and payroll are going to look like after the McCourts complete their divorce? They're not paying Ryan Howard when they're going to have to keep Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Jonathan Broxton and Clayton Kershaw.

Where was Howard going? With the better player in Gonzalez coming up on free agency and basically the same player (4 1/2 years younger) Prince Fielder also going to be available, who was going to dole out that guaranteed cash for Howard?

No one. That's who.

A preemptive signing to head-off free agency is a smart move for certain players, but if the Phillies were going to pay someone on their roster that kind of money to make sure he stayed long term, that player should've been Chase Utley, not Howard.

Utley has a short swing resistant to slumps; plays a Gold Glove-caliber defense at second base----a more difficult to replace position; and has a the lithe build to maintain his excellence over the long term.

Amid all the mistakes Amaro and the Phillies have made in trying to retain their lofty position, this one is going to cost them the most in the pocket and on the field.

What a colossal blunder by the Phillies. Again.

  • Staying in-state and on topic:

Combine a writer who doesn't know what she's talking about and an executive who doesn't know what he's doing and you get the Molly Knight piece in ESPN the Magazine. (I can't find a link online.)

Entitled "Buried Treasure", Pirates GM Neal Huntington tries to justify the Pirates plans to build....whatever it is they're building. I dunno what.

Claiming to be taking risks by stockpiling former number one draft picks who've fallen out of favor or failed miserably, Huntington lays out his case. Selfishly and weakly explaining away ineptitude after-the-fact is always endlessly entertaining. The packages the Pirates received in trades of Nate McLouth; Jason Bay; Xavier Nady; Damaso Marte; Nyjer Morgan; Jack Wilson; and Freddy Sanchez all have one thing in common----they're replete with former number one draft picks.

The status of the number one draft pick is treated as if it's an end unto itself; equated to a guarantee of aptitude and potential for success.

To the statement, "he's a former number one pick", I say: Yeah? So?

Collecting former number one draft picks for no reason other than the fact that they're former number one draft picks is just as much a vapid enterprise; a failed plan than using statistics as the end-all be-all of existence. When assessing prospects, one has to have an eye on what it is exactly that makes a successful player; and such a skill only evolves from an experienced eye.

Listed as they are in the article, one can only wonder if anyone with the Pirates analyzed the acquired players aside from their status as a former top pick to bolster the reasoning behind their acquisition in the first place.

Bobby Crosby? Can't hit anymore.

Bryan Morris? 23-years-old and still in high A ball in the minors.

Lastings Milledge? A player I happen to like, but who isn't hitting and is with his third organization at age 25.

Craig Hanson? Horrible mechanics and worse results.

Tim Alderson? From the numbers, he's currently getting hit hard in Double A.

Jeff Clement? He's been shifted from behind the plate to first base, will be 27 in August and isn't hitting either.

The capricious decision to accept players who are somehow validated by their lofty status as high draft picks is ignoring any and all scouting acumen in finding players (if the Pirates have any).

What people need to understand about the draft----regardless of the methods employed by the clubs, be it stat or scouting based----is that in the end, for the average player money is the main reason they're kept around and given chance after chance.

Whereas a player of similar talent who was drafted later is going to be more disposable, the top draft picks are going to get one chance after another even if their performance make clear that they're not going to make it. It's face-saving more than talent recognition and maximization. "Unlocking a player's talent" would be better described as "getting something from the money we spent".

Moneyball tried to insist that Billy Beane and the stat zombies had found a way to "card count" in a casino to get players that were able to play baseball and weren't walking testimony to "tools". It didn't work any better than the teams who rely on scouting and, in many cases, was worse. Teams don't give away number one draft picks unless they're remarkably desperate and stupid (the Mets with Scott Kazmir); or they find a team that's hypnotized by the mystical and ephemeral status of said players as number one draft picks----as the Pirates clearly are.

It's a cannibalistic process perpetarted by an organization that has neither the personnel, the intelligence nor the courage to run their club properly. This collecting of players based on draft status is another example of why the phrase "only the Pirates" is uttered so regularly and with such contempt.

  • Big Z out of the pen:

I savaged the Cubs last week for their decision to move Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen, but money aside and the non-existent hopes the Cubs presumably have to get Zambrano's contract off their books, he pitched in relief last night and looked like a different pitcher.

He threw strikes; threw hard; was so fired up that he was pumping his fist after striking out Wil Nieves to end the eighth inning of a tie game with two runners on base, and retired the Nationals in order in the ninth. The Cubs won the game in the tenth.

Ignoring that he's being paid nearly $18 million this year and has been banished to the bullpen, if he pitches the way he did last night, the decision might actually work.

Paul Lebowitz's 2010 Baseball Guide is available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and Noble.com. It's available for download as an E-book here.

Love me or hate me (there's no in between) I bring the party with me.


She-Fan said...

I guess the signing of Howard will now trigger a discussion of Werth and whether the Phillies will let him go for budgetary reasons. Seems like he'd have market value.

Jeff said...

This makes life for Cardinals fans very, very difficult.

Now I officially hate Ruben Amaro.

Mike ~ the Brooklyn Trolley Blogger said...

Yes Jeff, very very hard indeed.
To the Pittsburg Pirates and all due respect to the letter P....
Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. I'm just saying...

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