It's not impossible to trade Ryan Howard, no matter how much his contract is (rightfully) criticized by the baseball-loving world. That's good news for the Phillies, who, if rival executives who spoke with Buster Olney are to be believed, are going to spend their winter trying to keep Howard from ever playing a game for Philadelphia again. Please remember that, not all that long ago, the Angels traded for Vernon Wells and his contract and gave the Blue Jays Mike Napoli in return. An unlikely or difficult trade isn't the same thing as impossible.
Sure, the Blue Jays then traded Napoli for a reliever, but that only strengthens the point that even a team without direction or the ability to value players correctly can make a Vernon Wells disappear. Hell, Wells got traded again afterward to the Yankees when he was even worse at baseball in a deal that somehow managed to benefit both sides. Howard doesn't have the same if-you-squint value that Wells did (the first time around, anyway), but he has a similarly enormous contract. Luckily, no one in Philly's front office is expecting a Napoli-esque return on these damaged goods.
When Howard signed his five-year, $125 million extension with the Phillies in 2010, two years before Ruben Amaro needed to even have that discussion with his already-declining, old-player skills first baseman, it was fair to say it was the worst deal in baseball. It's not looking any better now, as all this time later there are still two years left on it, and Howard is probably a replacement level player at best: he's been worth between -1 and +1 wins each year since he signed his deal, and while some of that was because of injury-shortened seasons, these days, it's just because he provides almost nothing as a starting first baseman. He's owed $25 million in both 2015 and 2016, and will receive a $10 million buyout for his $23 million club option for 2017. The future team of Ryan Howard would like to say thanks for that, Rube.
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That production and that contract significantly limit where Howard could wind up, as you're unlikely to see a National League team volunteer to either pay or play Howard. An AL club might have a space for him, as they could make Howard set his glove on fire and stick him in the designated hitter spot. While he's not a good hitter anymore, Howard is only an outright terrible hitter for first base: the offensive expectations at DH are far lower than at first. In 2014, first basemen batted .255/.331/.426 -- designated hitters were 21 points of OPS lower as a unit, at .247/.317/.419. That was the second-highest offensive output of any position by OPS, and it was as far behind first base as it was ahead of the sixth-ranked position, third base. American League designated hitters were a little better, as they were 13 points behind your average first baseman, but the point still stands. Howard wouldn't be a good DH, necessarily, but his chances of being around average there are superior to those of him even being plain old bad instead of avert-your-eyes awful at first: Even if he managed to rebound offensively, his glove is still a negative and would bring down his value. That's not a concern at DH.
Howard still gets a hold of one on occasion. (Photo credit: Mitchell Leff)
The left-handed Howard still hits right-handers a little. Since 2012, Howard has hit .248/.325/.418 against righties, and just .200/.272/.397 against his fellow southpaws. He had something of a reverse split in 2014, but that's an even smaller sample, and chances are good Howard didn't all of a sudden figure out lefties at age 34 while forgetting how to succeed against the easier opponents. To back that up a bit, his batting average on balls in play against lefties in 2014 was .318, while against right-handers it was only .279 -- he also struck out 37 percent of the time against lefties while basically maintaining his career punch-out rate against righties (26 percent vs. 25 percent career), so that was probably a blip.
So, you've got someone who has to DH, and can possibly be around an average one, but only if you keep him away from left-handers. That's not such a bad thing, since a productive platoon can be cobbled together by simply adding one of the various lefty mashers in existence to the mix. However, Howard is still owed $25 million for each of the next two seasons he plays that role -- combine that with the right-handed Jonny Gomesian character who will make up the other end of the platoon, and you're talking about a $30 million designated hitter.
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That's where the Phillies are going to have to pull out the checkbook and reluctantly ask, "How much?" This isn't Cole Hamels, who the Phillies could deal in order to add loads of highly touted youth to their farm system. This is Ryan Howard, who the Phillies and their fans are tired of seeing fall farther and farther down the hole he's been digging for five years now. They're going to have to pay a significant chunk of his salary to make him go away. They might have to eat a terrible contract in return, as Olney suggested in his idea for an Orioles-Phillies swap that sees Ubaldo Jimenez's three years and $37.5 million remaining head to Philly. They might have to agree to pay $10 million in each of the next two seasons, and then pay for the $10 million buyout in 2017 so that this is just a two-year, $30 million deal for whoever takes it on. Whatever it is, if they want first base open and some measure of money freed, they should probably pay it.
Olney's instinct with the Orioles as a destination is a good one. If the Orioles can't re-sign Nelson Cruz, Howard's bat would be a good fit for Camden Yards. He doesn't have the bat speed and therefore the power he used to, but Camden Yards is one of the top stadiums for left-handed homers in the majors. It would produce some superficial numbers for Howard, but superficial homers count the same on the scoreboard in the moment they're hit. If Buck Showalter could just keep Howard away from lefties, and the front office manages to rid itself of Jimenez to make room for more talented and youthful arms, then it's not such a bad situation after all. If the Phillies don't want to play ball with that kind of move, well, they deserve the next two years of Howard attempting to field grounders.
Get Howard in the American League. Focus on getting him to a park where he'll get a much-needed assist, and the idea of a comeback of sorts becomes believable. Identify a situation where he won't have to face lefties much or at all, and figure out just how much of Howard's deal needs to be eaten to get him into that situation. Howard was once a great hitter, but those days are behind him. He can recapture just a little of that with the right context on his side, though, and that's where the Phillies will find their trade partner to pull off a so-called impossible trade.