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Bill Conlin: Get the pitch up

It would be unwise for Phillies to take Howard to arbitration

Phils are clinging to service-time leverage with Ryan Howard.
Phils are clinging to service-time leverage with Ryan Howard.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ/Daily News

FOR 2 YEARS NOW, the Rynomiter has blown them all away.

A-Rod . . . Big Papi . . . Pujols . . . Teixeira . . . Cabrera . . . Chipper . . . Bad Vlad . . . Mags . . .

Ryan Howard has outhomered every player in baseball. He has driven home more runs.

In just 88 games of the 2005 season, the Phillies' first baseman did enough to win National League Rookie of the Year honors. In his first full season, 2006, Howard was the National League MVP, writing his own page in the club's power-hitting record book with 58 homers and 149 RBI.

Last year, missing 18 games with a leg injury, Howard "slumped" to 47 homers and 136 RBI, even while establishing a major league record of 199 strikeouts.

In his 325th career game, Howard bounced his 100th career homer into a startled crowd on the Money Pit's Ashburn Alley, an estimated 505 feet from the plate. No hitter in major league history had reached 100 homers in so few games.

So, those are some of the numbers that swirl around the supply side of Howard's incandescent rise from fifth-round draft pick with no more than a puncher's chance at stardom to a large man who turned 28 Nov. 19 with a trophy room overflowing with awards and honors.

There is one set of numbers, however, that fails to match the monetary implications raised by his stature as a power hitter - the numbers on his paycheck.

There is another number that is far more important than homers, RBI, batting average and any baseball stat you can reference. To the owners and general managers of ballclubs cannibalizing each other in a sport that has no salary cap and a free agency that annually creates a large, hungry and mobile pool of mercenaries, service time is holy writ. It is why clubs will keep a promising prospect in the minors during a pennant race - even though calling him up could make a difference. It could also start his service-time clock. And the days of major league service accrued by a late-season callup could hasten his arbitration (insert whinnying horses here) year.

After perhaps the greatest first full power season of any player in history, Ryan Howard last winter butted heads with the service-time ogre guarding a shallow moat around the pastime's only citadel of control over its finances.

As a player with just 1 year and 145 days of service, he was subjected to the common practice of a club lowballing a young star coming off a great year so his salary will be artificially low going into his first arbitration year. If you're following the bouncing dollar sign, Albert Pujols has become the analog player for Ryan Howard. In 2003, the Cardinals signed their spectacular first baseman to a 1-year, $900,000 contract. It was a record for a third-year player.

Last year, when negotiations with Howard failed to secure the multiyear deal he was seeking, he turned down the Phillies' counteroffer. For the second straight year, his contract was renewed, this time at the precise record number Pujols had signed for in 2003.

The Cardinals averted a possibly messy arbitration with Pujols in 2004 by giving their young star a 7-year extension worth $100 million.

And whaddya know? After Howard filed for arbitration last week and numbers were exchanged, the Phillies' offer to Ryan by crack negotiator Ruben Gillbuckle was the identical $7 million the Cardinals paid Pujols in 2004, the first year of his deal.

Howard agent Casey Close countered with a $10 million figure. Will the Phillies go to a hearing next month and say all the negative things about the chief stoker in their potent engine room that are said when this potentially divisive process is presented? Even though the $3 million difference is the biggest spread between all arbitration figures submitted, there are strong indications the Phillies would lose.

The Braves just avoided arbitration with Scott Boras client Mark Teixeira by signing their first baseman to a 1-year deal worth $12.5 million. The Detroit Tigers did likewise by settling with third baseman Miguel Cabrera for $11.3 million.

If the Phillies can argue that Teixiera's 63 homers and 215 RBI the past two seasons trump Howard's 105 homers and 285 RBI, then we need to send whoever prepares their case immediately to the Middle East as a dove of peace.

The back-channel message is that trouble looms, with bruised feelings and Phillies hold-that-line, Whartonian resolve a predictable result. If this turns into a rerun of the Scott Rolen meltdown that resulted in the All-Star third baseman's ascension to baseball heaven, the Phillies should not expect a lot of fan support. Scott's distracting and surly negotiating stance - stonewall says it better - was positioned to force a trade, not secure the long-term contract he professed to seek. He wanted out.

To those who now smugly say, "How'd that Rolen thing work out?" in the wake of his unhappy banishment from St. Louis to the purgatory of Toronto, ask yourself this: If Rolen had been at third base here and posted numbers similar to those he put up for Cardinals teams who made the postseason - one a World Series champion - any chance the Phillies might have climbed out of the quicksand of the 80-something victory rut that still pins them to mediocrity?

Plain and simple . . . It appears Ryan Howard, joined at the dollar sign to Albert Pujols, wants a deal of that length and weight, not to mention more than the $85 million Chase Utley contract.

Service time is the only mantra now for Ruben Gillbuckle . . . To the Phillies, it is holy writ.