Phils stand behind Howard's lucrative deal

Phils stand behind Howard's lucrative deal

PHILADELPHIA -- The reaction locally and nationally since the Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract extension Monday has been fascinating.

Phillies fans and Philadelphia media generally like the extension, because a primary concern had been the team's ability to retain its top talent beyond 2011. Jayson Werth is a free agent after this season. Jimmy Rollins, Raul Ibanez, Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson and others become free agents after '11. They like the idea of locking up Howard, the centerpiece (aka Big Piece, according to Phillies manager Charlie Manuel) of the Phillies' lineup, through '16.

But nationally, reaction generally has been the opposite. ESPN.com's Keith Law said on 97.3 ESPN this week that the contract is "indefensible" and "bad business." Howard, 30, will be 36 when the contract is eligible to expire -- the Phillies have a sixth-year club option that could keep him in red pinstripes through 2017 -- and there is evidence of large, power-hitting first basemen whose skills decline rapidly after their early 30s. Mo Vaughn is the poster boy for this. David Ortiz, Mark McGwire, Cecil Fielder and Richie Sexson also have been mentioned this week.

So MLB.com went back to Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. and asked him for further explanation of the deal. We also picked the brain of former Phillies general manager Pat Gillick, who is Amaro's top advisor.

Why make the deal now? Why so many years? Why so much money?

What about the risks?

"It's the state of the business right now," Gillick said. "You can't say you're comfortable with it. But if you want to be competitive, if you want to keep your club together, you have to pay the market price."

Many would say the Phillies set the market themselves, because they signed Howard before Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Adrian Gonzalez, first basemen who become free agents after 2011, got deals. Howard also would not have become a free agent until after '11, so Philadelphia could have waited.

Top average salaries
The top five salaries, by yearly average, of active players in the Major Leagues. Figures do not include the Phillies' $23 million option on Howard's contract for 2017.
Rank Player Team Length (Years covered) Total Average
1 Alex Rodriguez Yankees 10 years (2008-17) $275M $27.5M
2 Ryan Howard Phillies 5 years (2012-16) $125M $25M
3 Joe Mauer Twins 8 years (2011-18) $184M $23M
4 CC Sabathia Yankees 7 years (2009-15) $161M $23M
5 Mark Teixiera Yankees 8 years (2009-16) $180M $22.5M

"The length is significant. The dollars are very significant," Amaro said. "But if we didn't feel comfortable doing the deal, we wouldn't have done it. It wasn't imperative to do it. We felt if we could get to something reasonable and it made some sense for the organization, we would do it. Nobody had a gun to anybody's head to get something done. There wasn't any urgency."

The feeling with the Phillies is that even if they had waited until Howard hit free agency, he would not have signed for anything less than he received.

"Even though he would be 32, most of the contracts length-wise -- you've got [Joe] Mauer, you've got [Mark] Teixeira -- I don't think when you get to the end of this contract in 2011 that his contract is going to be any less than five years," Gillick said. "You know what I mean? If you negotiated at the end of 2011, if you want to keep him, it still was going to be a five-year deal. So I look at this as giving him five years after the 2011 season as opposed to giving him anything more than that. That's the way it's going. These guys are getting six, seven years. [CC] Sabathia, Mauer, Teixeira, [Alex] Rodriguez. These guys are all getting long-term contracts."

Amaro said the Phillies, who have insurance on Howard's contract should he become injured, cannot truly replace the first baseman should something happen to him, just like they could not truly replace Chase Utley or Roy Halladay.

Philadelphia has committed the money. It has to hope he stays healthy and produces.

"It doesn't matter who the player is," Gillick said. "Anytime you sign somebody to a long-term contract, there's a risk involved. It doesn't matter who it might be, be it Howard or any other player. There's always risk involved. Unfortunately, most of the risk belongs to the club. It doesn't belong to the player. It belongs to the club.

"I think the thing is, you've got to get a player with the right attitude, the right makeup, the right work ethic, and I think [Howard] is that. I think he's a guy who over the last two or three years has tried to improve himself defensively. He's improved himself from his body standpoint. You look at his record. He's played over 150 games a year. There are a lot of positive things there, but there's always a chance when you sign somebody long term, you just can't completely forecast into the future what's going to happen. But I think he's going to do everything he possibly can to earn this contract. I think it makes sense."

Amaro reiterated that the Phillies tried to structure the contract so they can maintain a winning team. In other words, Amaro does not think Philadelphia's 25-man roster in a few years will be Howard, Utley, Halladay and a bunch of cheaper replacements and prospects.

"That was the whole point," Amaro said. "We're not going to sign Ryan Howard because we want to sign Ryan Howard. We're signing Ryan Howard because we think we have a chance to do something special here for a long time. It's kind of a long-term commitment to hopefully being a championship-caliber team throughout the life of the contract."

Interestingly, the Phillies have said in recent months that they are operating in the red, which makes fans wonder how the club will be able to pay Howard, Halladay, Utley and others and still replace players who leave with similar talent.

"I don't know if we can always do everything we want to do," Amaro said. "I don't think any team can do whatever it wants to do, but I still think we have the flexibility to keep a contending club every year. Have we developed any new revenue streams or something like that? No. We rely on the people coming to the ballpark and enjoying our club. We've had unbelievable support in that regard. We cannot budget that we're going to have 3.5 million fans in the stands every year. We can't do that. But at the same time, our goal is, if the fans come and we have a contending club, we will be spending our money on our Major League payroll and in our baseball [operations]. We've proven that, and I think we'll continue to do that. As long as we have steady revenue streams to be able to do that, we'll continue to try to do that."

It is mentioned to Amaro that the reaction to Howard's contract has been quite different locally than nationally.

Much of the criticism has come from "the stat heads," he said.

"I don't comment on the people who praise us or the people who criticize us," Amaro said. "I can't operate like that. I have to operate under what we think is right for our organization."

Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.