The Big Misconception

Yesterday, the Detroit Tigers signed former Brewer first baseman Prince Fielder to a 9 year, $214 million dollar contract. The deal came as a shocker, considering it seemed Fielder was having trouble getting the big offer he was seeking, and the Tigers insisted that they would not replace Victor Martinez with a big name free agent after he tore his ACL last week. The news also sparked this widespread sentiment in the Philadelphia region: “See, Ryan Howard’s contract isn’t so bad after all, is it?” Ummmm…what?!? Actually yes, yes it is still terrible, and in fact looks WORSE now that the market for top flight first basemen has settled over the last two seasons.

Before I wrote on this matter, I was waiting to hear the final details on the Fielder contract; I wanted to know if the deal included opt-out clauses for either side at any point so that it would be unlikely to run an entire nine years. In the meantime, my viewpoint was expressed excellently in both analytical terms (by Crashburn Alley) and in plain common sense (by Daily News writer David Murphy). I considered scrapping the column altogether since it was clear that the point had been made to a large audience. Then I scrolled the comments of WIP’s page on Facebook and was floored at the amount of people expressing the opinion that the Fielder deal proved the Howard contract was a bargain. So I guess we’ll have to beat this into people’s skulls further.

First, I’m throwing out the fact that Howard is injured, and pretending he’s not an injury risk heading into this season. Next, I’ll preface things by saying that I don’t believe ANY of the three contracts handed out to Howard, Fielder, and Albert Pujols are GOOD contracts. They are all troubling for different reasons, whether it be Pujols’ advancing age, or Fielder’s weight concerns. The REAL bargain here is the Red Sox signing of Adrian Gonzalez last year for 7 years and $154 million.

Most people are stuck on the fact that the Phillies are only paying Ryan Howard $125 million for just five years, compared to the nine and ten year mega-deals that Fielder and Pujols received. Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball and one of the best to ever play so the enormity of his deal reflects that, despite his likely inability to maintain that production for the duration of his contract. No one compares to Pujols, so I’m throwing his deal out of the conversation. This is really about Fielder and Howard, two subpar defensive players that are paid for their bats. However, fans are either conveniently ignoring, or are blissfully ignorant, WHICH years the players are being compensated.

Prince Fielder is 5 years younger than Ryan Howard. Since I don’t have his contract details, I’ll estimate he will make roughly $119 million dollars over the next five years compared to Howard’s $125 million. So the Tigers are getting a superior player in his prime for LESS than the Phillies are paying an inferior player already on the decline over the next five years. (Fielder IS a better hitter than Howard; this is not debatable. Go to baseball-reference.com and check if you take issue with this. I don’t have the space to argue it here. The fact that Howard was declining, even pre injury, is in those numbers as well). So the next five years, to me, don’t even merit logical debate. The issue then is the extra four years on the Fielder contract. However, those are the same four years for which Howard will receive an average of $25 million per year due to the age discrepancy!! So while both contracts are likely too much money for what will then be declining production, the Tigers are still paying LESS money for those years for LESS time!

On top of the fact that Howard will make more money over a longer period during the same point of their careers, Howard was never a free agent. In other words, the Phillies overpaid exorbitantly for a guy who wasn’t even on the free market. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of economics should understand that being available on the free market drives up market price through competitive bidding. But the Phillies, in possession of Howard’s rights for two more years, paid a premium price despite bidding against NO ONE. Over an 8 year period, Ryan Howard will have made almost $180 million dollars, despite never seeing free agency. That’s just $35 million less than a superior hitter who was a free agent, before factoring in natural market inflation.

I understand why Phillies fans are having trouble with this line of reasoning. Even Ruben Amaro expressed yesterday that he’s happy with Howard’s contract now after seeing the Pujols and Fielder deals, suggesting that he’s glad he didn’t have to hand out an 8 or 9 year deal instead of the 5 years he gave Howard. Um Rube, you didn’t HAVE to hand out an 8 or 9 year deal to a player who is clearly on the decline – the Cardinals and Brewers didn’t, and the players they let go are BOTH better than Howard. Not to mention the fact that you likely could’ve had Fielder for similar money – healthy. I know I said I was putting the injury side, but it serves the point that when you sign an older player to a big commitment, you should be compensated for taking on that risk. The Phillies instead took the risk AND paid the premium.

Look, I like Ryan Howard. Like many fans, I remember his big moments, the MVP season, and the World Series trophy he helped bring to Philadelphia. Unlike many fans, I defend him often despite the strikeouts and season-ending outs. I understand the desire to keep fan favorites, especially those that have brought us so much success. But paying for past production instead of current or future production is a quick recipe for disaster, even for a wealthy team like the Phillies. Love him or hate him, his contract is brutal, and the extension was ill-timed and unnecessary. That fact has been only made MORE clear, not less, by the other deals signed on the market.

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