- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It isn't every year that the Most Valuable Player in the National League gets his contract renewed.
But it happened Friday, when the Phillies and Ryan Howard's agent, Casey Close, were unable to agree on either a one-year or multi-year deal. So the team announced it was simply "renewing" Howard's contract for $900,000 this year.
It's believed the Phillies offered Howard a one-year proposal that would have guaranteed him slightly more than the renewal amount, plus incentives that could have increased the value substantially if Howard had a year anything like last year (.304, 58 homers, 149 RBIs, one All-Star appearance and that MVP Award).
So the fact Howard and Close chose to take the renewal figure -- which included no incentives -- tells you all you need to know about what they feel the defending home run champ is really worth.
Phillies assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. described the renewal figure as "a fair and just number." And, in some ways it is.
It is more than any American-born player, with between one and two years' experience, has ever been paid. (Kerry Wood's $690,000 was the previous record.)
And it matches the most money ever paid to a player who wasn't eligible for salary arbitration. (Albert Pujols also earned $900,000, in his case after two full seasons.)
But from the beginning of these negotiations last month, both sides have clearly had very different ideas about what a player like Howard is worth -- because, in truth, there has never been another player like Howard.
No one has ever collected a Rookie of the Year Award, an MVP Award and a 58-homer season before he'd even racked up two full years of service time. So with no true precedent to guide them, the two sides found themselves, in the words of one source, "in uncharted waters."
Asked if he felt the Phillies' offer was fair in his mind, Howard replied, "Obviously, in my mind, it didn't matter. So it is what it is. The decision is made. They gave me what they gave me. They felt it was fair. And that's what they felt. ... I know stuff like this happens. Unfortunately, we couldn't come to terms. So you just take it and kind of roll with it."
As easy-going and unassuming as Howard is, though, it's hard not to notice that he is already working on his third agent, and he now has had his contract renewed two years in a row. So he's obviously an even tougher out at the bargaining table than he is at the plate.
Amaro did his best to describe this development as "just part of the process ... no harm, no foul." But one of these years, when the Phillies turn all their attention to signing Howard to a multi-year megabuck deal, they could have their hands full.
If it's true that, as rumored, Howard was looking for Alfonso Soriano-type money in any long-term contract after a year and 145 days in the big leagues, then he might well be looking for A-Rod money by the time the Phillies are ready to make a deal.
"The bottom line is this," Amaro said. "We like to pay players what they're worth. ... We want to keep our guys in red pinstripes -- especially guys of this caliber. So at some point, when it's appropriate, we'll have discussions about that."
That point is likely to arrive a year from now, when Howard is eligible for arbitration, and the Phillies can use Pujols' long-term contract (seven years, $100 million, after his third season) as a guidepost. For now, though, the Phillies will have to answer questions about why they took the stance they did on a player Amaro repeatedly described as "special."
On one hand, they were much more generous than the Marlins were when they renewed Miguel Cabrera, for just $380,000 as a "one-plus" player two years ago. On the other hand, the Phillies opted not to go beyond the Pujols precedent in dollars or to include incentives in the renewal terms. And they will undoubtedly take heat from their customers for that.
"Obviously," Howard said, "everybody knows I'm not arbitration-eligible, so the team holds all the cards. So basically, you're at the point where, if it's time to negotiate and you get something done, so be it. And if not, so be it."
Nevertheless, the Phillies clearly were nervous about making contractual history. But sooner or later, if Howard keeps on mashing, they won't have much choice. And unlike this time, when the big negotiating derby arrives, they won't have all the leverage.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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