Howard seeking financial security

Originally Published: January 24, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- How many dollars is a 58-homer man worth these days?

Hey, thanks for asking. That's a verrrry hot topic in the baseball business at the moment -- since one of those 58-homer men just happens to be roaming the earth as we speak. And he's (gasp) contract-less.

Ryan Howard
Dilip Vishwanat/US PresswireRyan Howard won the NL MVP Award and led the majors with 58 home runs last season.
The 58-homer man in question is named Ryan Howard, of course. (You were expecting maybe Neifi Perez?) And the size of Howard's next contract, once he finally reels it in, is a big issue for three reasons:

1) Howard is already on the third agent of his brief career, after leaving Larry Reynolds this winter and signing on with Casey Close, from the sports division of the Creative Arts Agency's show-biz powerhouse.

2) His employers, the Phillies, just agreed Sunday to give Howard's face-of-the-franchise co-star, Chase Utley, a seven-year, $85 million, wedding-day extension that will tie him up through 2013.

And (3) it has been more than three whole weeks since a player signed a $100 million contract, here in this crazy, everybody-wins-the-Powerball winter of 2006-07. So aren't we about due for another seismological contract event?

Well, if we are, it would be awfully tough to predict safely that Howard will become the man in the middle of that earth-rattler.

Not because the Phillies don't love and cherish him. They obviously get a kick out of having him around.

Not because they don't want to keep him around for another decade, either. They'd obviously be happy to run him out there for many trot-filled seasons to come.

No, this is all about a simple rule of baseball economics. Which we can sum up in four words:

They don't have to.

"Look, the guy is a hell of a player," said one baseball contract negotiator Tuesday. "And when you've got a player like that, you always want to keep him happy. But there's absolutely no reason for the Phillies to do something stupid -- because they don't have to."

Hmmm. There's that phrase of the day again: They don't have to. You might want to memorize those words, because you could be hearing them a lot the next few weeks.

They don't have to because Howard has spent just one year and 145 days in the major leagues. That means he's still five years away from free agency. And even more relevant, he's still one year away from being eligible for arbitration.

So the word that would best describe his leverage in this situation would be, well, "zilch."

And employers don't generally have much impetus to give any of their zilch-leverage employees 100 million bucks, at least not in our experience.

Amazingly, though, Howard says he understands that.

"I don't make the rules," Howard said Tuesday, at a Phillies' winter-tour media lunch. "I don't make up the system. Obviously, it's up to the teams. They have the discretion of, whenever they want to come in and try to pay somebody ... they can pay whatever they want.

"They have that system. And a lot of teams like to live up to that system. So all you can do is just go out and play. You can't really worry about it. If you go out and play and handle your business, then the rest takes care of itself."

Howard delivers these lines with a smile on his face and no edge to his voice. So if he's agitated about the rules, the system or his zilch-leverage place in that system, he sure hides it well.

But it's wise to remember something here that makes us wonder -- that makes just about everybody wonder for that matter.

The guy has had more agents (three) than seasons in the big leagues (two). So clearly, there is something he wants out of big league life that he hasn't gotten so far.

And years, dollars and security are always good guesses.

"I mean, everybody wants security," said Howard, who made $355,000 on the way to his MVP award last season. "But I'm not going to sit here and beat myself up if it doesn't happen because I know they don't have to do anything. And they know they don't have to do anything. But you still have to go out and perform, regardless. So if you just go out and play, all that stuff takes care of itself."

There is, in fact, some truth to that. But just because Howard recognizes that truth doesn't mean this will be a simple fairy tale of a negotiation, either.

The trouble is, there really has never been a player like Ryan Howard, one who has done what he has done this fast.

A Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP Award and a 58-homer season -- before the guy has racked up even two full years of service time? If you think about it that way, there is no true precedent for a contract like this. None.

The Marlins had a somewhat similar player in Miguel Cabrera a couple of years ago -- and renewed his one-year-plus contract at $380,000 because (and you can all sing along) they didn't have to pay him any more than that.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, gave Albert Pujols $600,000 after his rookie-of-the-year season, then paid him a record $900,000 after his even-better second season. But Pujols had two complete years of service time at that point. So he fell into a slightly different category. The most any one-year-plus player has ever been paid (not counting free agents from Japan and Cuba) is only $690,000, by the Cubs, to Kerry Wood in 2000.

So what do the Phillies do -- for this player, in this unique situation?

Not surprisingly, they're not saying -- in part because they don't even know yet what kind of payoff Howard is looking for.

"We really haven't even touched base with [the agent] yet, other than him calling to tell us he represents Ryan," said assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr., who handles most of the negotiating for the Phillies. "That's the only conversation we've ever had [about Howard]. And it was about a five-minute conversation. We agreed that, at some point, we'd have to get together and talk about it. But that hasn't taken place yet."

Contrary to appearances, Amaro said, Utley's contract has no bearing on Howard's situation, mainly because Utley was eligible for arbitration and Howard isn't. But in other ways -- big-picture kind of ways -- the two situations are connectable.

For one thing, the team clearly has identified Utley and Howard as the two centerpieces of the franchise for the foreseeable future.

For another thing, GM Pat Gillick's agenda, up until the Utley deal, had been to try to rid the Phillies of as many suffocating, long-term, huge-dollar contracts as possible.

In fact, Gillick never has been a fan of lengthy contracts, for just about anybody. And best we could determine, in his 25-season career as a GM, he'd never before handed out a contract as long as Utley's. So Utley's deal does tell you something.

What it tells you, in Amaro's words, is that "there are exceptions to the rule." And the exceptions apply to "players who you believe are cornerstones of your ballclub."

"Chase is one of those guys," Amaro said. "And Ryan Howard is one of those guys, too."

Which will mean, well, what, exactly, when negotiating time arrives? It means the Phillies haven't ruled out a multiyear offer. But can they structure an offer that fits what Howard's side is looking for? That's a whole different story.

As Howard and his family agent-shopped the past few weeks, the rumblings in the industry suggested that he was seeking "Soriano money." That's eight years, $136 million, if you don't have your offseason SuperLotto-payout scorecard handy.

But when we ran that concept past agents and some officials from other clubs this week, nobody could figure out a formula that would get Howard to that high a number -- not at this stage of his career, anyway.

"You know the big mistake he made. You can't go and hit 58 during your first or second season. That doesn't pay. Unfortunately for him, until you get to free agency, service time means more than actual on-field results."
-- An executive of one club

"Even if he wanted to average $15 million a year [as opposed to Soriano's $17 million a year]," one NL executive said, "if he's making $1 million this year, what would he have to make at the end [of the deal] -- $28 million?"

Another baseball man said he'd heard Howard was looking for even more than Soriano -- something in the stratosphere of $140-150 million, possibly more. And to get to that neighborhood, the Phillies would have to offer him 10 years -- a length no player has reached since A-Rod.

So is that kind of deal feasible? If you factor in Howard's age (27) and the negotiating histories of both the club and its general manager, it looks like a bigger long shot than Giacomo.

The best guess, then, is that the sides will wind up settling, for the time being, on a one-year deal in the neighborhood of $1 million, then bear down on something longer-term next winter.

The good news for Howard's side is that $1 million would be a record for players in his service class.

The bad news is that it also would be a long way from Soriano-ville. Or even Utley-ville.

So how many dollars is a 58-homer man worth? When we tossed that question at an executive of one club Tuesday, he couldn't help but laugh.

"You know the big mistake he made," the executive said. "You can't go and hit 58 during your first or second season. That doesn't pay. Unfortunately for him, until you get to free agency, service time means more than actual on-field results."

Even, it appears, if that includes 58 actual on-field home run trots.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com