The start of spring training is a little more than a month away. The clock is ticking for the Phillies to trade first baseman Ryan Howard, a task that should not be as difficult as it has proven to be.
Yet another potential destination for Howard vanished Saturday when the Rays acquired John Jaso from the A’s. Jaso likely will get significant at-bats as a left-handed DH, the role that best suits Howard at this stage of his career.
As Jon Paul Morosi wrote last month, several American League teams still should be interested in Howard. The Orioles, Blue Jays and Mariners are among those clubs, and even one NL club, the Padres, would make sense.
Howard, according to major-league sources, even revised his nine-team no-trade list at the end of the season to help facilitate a trade, choosing mostly teams that were either set at first base/DH, unlikely to add payroll or focused on other needs.
Considering the good faith that Howard showed in crafting his list, he probably would approve a deal to even to one of his restricted clubs. The Mariners, who began the season needing right-handed hitting, are one such team. The rest of the list, according to ESPN.com, consists of the Tigers, Royals, Angels, Yankees, Rangers, Rays, Orioles and Red Sox.
So, what exactly is the problem?
When I posed that question about Howard to an American League executive Sunday, he shot back, “What does he do well?” I replied, “Hit home runs” – Howard had 23 in 569 at-bats last season. To which the exec replied, “Still had a .380 SLG.”
That figure was six points below the major-league average and by far the lowest of Howard’s career. But here is a list of players whose slugging percentage last season was in the same range:
Hardly embarrassing company, though Howard is more one-dimensional than most of those players. No matter – teams doing their homework would find reasons to believe Howard actually might improve next season.
Though Howard is 35, he finally is going through his normal offseason training regimen after finishing a season healthy for the first time since 2010. What’s more, he reached an out-of-court settlement in November in an ugly legal dispute with his twin brother and lifelong confidant over control of his finances – a matter that hung over him all last season.
Is he an adequate defender? No. Will he strike out a ton? Yes. But the real issue with Howard is that he still is owed $60 million — $25 million this season and $25 million next season, plus a $10 million buyout. And the real question is the amount of cash the Phillies would need to include to make Howard acceptable in a deal.
The A’s gave Butler a three-year, $30 million free-agent contract. The Royals signed Kendrys Morales to a two-year, $17 million deal – and though Morales is four years younger than Howard and more productive over the past three seasons, he batted .218 and slugged .338 in 2014 after holding out until June and appearing in only 98 games.
So, let’s say fair market value for Howard is somewhere in the $7 million to $10 million range annually. That means the Phillies would need to kick in between $40 million and $46 million in any trade – an exorbitant sum. Still, as GM Ruben Amaro Jr. repeated Saturday, “We know that we have to subsidize this. We know the level of prospect or the level of player we get back will be limited. We haven’t been unrealistic on it. We’ve been very open and forthright.”
Amaro drew criticism from rival executives last July for asking too high a price for his players, but that does not seem to be the problem now. The Phillies sent $4 million to the Reds to cover half of outfielder Marlon Byrd’s 2015 salary, enabling them to land a decent prospect, right-hander Ben Lively. Howard likely would bring back less; Amaro has said publicly that the team would be better off without him. But at this point, who cares?
Frankly, it’s a bit ridiculous that certain Phillies players are so radioactive in trade talks. With closer Jonathan Papelbon, the issue seems to be more personality than performance. With Howard, it’s more performance, but take away his contract – as the Phillies essentially are willing to do – and he should not be without appeal.
“If you’re looking for a DH and want some left-handed power – which doesn’t exist out there – and a good quality person who knows how to win and wants to play, this guy is the guy to go get,” Amaro said Saturday.
“The fact that we’ve been so public makes people think we’ll release him. That won’t happen. He’ll play for the Phillies if we don’t trade him. And hopefully he will play his butt off.
“He has things to prove. He’s finally healthy. He’s preparing himself really well . . . (A trade) is best for both parties, but there is a point of diminishing returns. At some point, we’re going to keep him, let him produce. Someone will have a need for him. He may be worth more later in the year or next year.”
He also may be worth less. Then what?
Amaro shouldn’t kid himself. By the start of spring training, he needs to make Ryan Howard disappear.