A crossroads is no place to get sentimental, and the Phillies have the mother of all of them looming on the horizon. Forget about whether they can claw their way back into contention. What happens on the field over the next couple of months will have little impact on the dire situation that will greet them come November, when they will no longer have three of their most productive hitters in the order under contract. Second base, third base and catcher: good luck filling them. The stark truth is that the three players the Phillies currently feature at those positions will likely be their best available options for next season. Unless you consider Omar Infante, Kelly Johnson or Mark Ellis to be viable replacements at second base (or unless you think the Phillies can and should outbid the Yankees to sign 31-year-old Robinson Cano). Unless you consider Kevin Youkilis or Wilson Betemit to be viable replacements at third base (hey, there's always Brandon Inge, Juan Uribe or first baseman Mark Reynolds). Sure, you could concoct a scenario in which it would make sense for the Phillies to make a play for 30-year-old catcher Brian McCann. But keep in mind that every team could use an experienced catcher with an .826 career OPS who averages more than 20 home runs per season. It could get pricey, and when you factor in a potential salary of $8 million for Kyle Kendrick in his final year of arbitration and another $4 million for Antonio Bastardo and Ben Revere, the Phillies already have about $115 million in likely salary obligations for the 2014 season. For nine players.
All of that suggests that is time to talk about one of those players.
Trading Ryan Howard will not be an easy task, but it should be No. 1 on the Phillies list of priorities if they hope to have a fighting chance at contending in 2014 and beyond. That's not to say that they are a better team without him, or that they should unceremoniously jettison a player who was one of the driving forces behind Philadelphia's baseball renaissance. It's just reality. The Phillies might not be able to find a team willing to strike a sensible deal for the slugger, but they need to spend the next 3 months trying. General managers do curious things all the time, and taking on half of the roughly $93 million that will remain on Howard's contract at the trade deadline would pale in comparison to some of the curious things that we have witnessed over the last few years. Two years ago, the Angels decided not only to take on about $81 million worth of Vernon Wells, but to send Toronto a darnn good catcher/designated hitter/first baseman in Mike Napoli in return. A year-and-a-half earlier, the White Sox claimed more than $61 million worth of Alex Rios off of waivers. Last season, the Dodgers helped the Red Sox cleanse themselves of the monstrous contracts of Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett.
As of the July 31 trade deadline, Howard will have roughly $93 million left on his contract at the trade deadline, including a prorated salary of $8.3 million for the rest of 2013, a salary of $25 million in 2014, 2015 and 2016 and a $10 million buyout of an option after the 2016 season. The Phillies are unlikely to find a team willing to take on that kind of money for a 33-year-old player who posted a .253/.346/.488 batting line with 33 home runs the season before his Achilles injury and who has a .270/.308/.492 line with six home runs this season. That kind of production might be worth $29 million over two seasons, which is what the Nationals agreed to pay Adam LaRoche this offseason. Perhaps Ruben Amaro Jr. could talk a team flush with cash and desperate for power into taking on half of the $93 million, although Howard's no-trade clause would complicate the proposition. Heck, given the Wells and Rios deals, we can't rule out a team taking on more than that. All it takes is one GM.
Still, this isn't about money. The Phillies are going to be paying Howard regardless, and with a free agent market that features potential replacements like Mike Morse, Corey Hart, Mark Reynolds and a gaggle of bounce-back candidates, the Phillies could pay Howard the bulk of his salary to play for another team and use the remaining dollars to sign a capable replacement. This is about the talent the Phillies need at the premium positions that they are going to need to fill, and if trading Howard and eating a significant chunk of dollars can land them a potential second baseman or third baseman or shortstop of the future, they would be wise to move heaven and earth to make it happen.
Eating bad contracts in return for prospects is one of the few ways that big market teams like the Phillies can flex their financial muscle in the new economic reality of Major League Baseball.
The free agent market is limited, and the draft and international markets now feature caps on spending. The midseason trade market offers a backdoor for teams to invest in young talent -- by paying players to play for other teams.
Think about it. The Phillies approach Team X and say, "How much would you be willing to pay Ryan Howard through 2016?" Let's say Team X values Howard at $12 million for 2014 (Adam LaRoche), $10 million for 2015 and $8 million for 2016, along with $4 million for the rest of this season. That would mean the Phillies would have to eat about $60 million of the money left on Howard's deal. If they get a player with good upside at a position of need, it might make sense for them to pay for Howard to play for another team.
The conclusion here is that there is no other way for the Phillies to build a contender around Howard, unless you consider the current version of the team as a contender. However you feel about it, there are very few options to prevent it from getting worse next season. They need to fill second base, third base, catcher and two starting pitching spots, and that's before you even consider an outfield that has been among the least productive in baseball this season.
Because of his contract, Howard is not among the Phillies' most valuable trade chips. Dealing Jonathan Papelbon and Cliff Lee and perhaps even Chase Utley at the trade deadline could net them three or four blue chip prospects, provided they are willing to pay portions of their contracts. There is no question paying the money would be worth it. Last year, the Cubs signed Cuban prospect Jorge Soler to a major league contract with $30 million, so that gives you some idea of just how much a blue-chipper is worth on the open market. Eating half of Papelbon's salary would be a no-brainer. But the Phillies can afford to wait on marketing Lee and Papelbon and Utley until they have a better sense of their postseason fate. The suitors will be there.
They do not have that leeway with Howard. Any potential trade would require the Phillies to part with one of the best players in their history, as well as to admit that they erred in giving him that monster extension 2 years ahead of time in 2010. But given their personnel situation in 2014 and beyond, they no longer have the luxury of taking such factors into consideration.