DALLAS - Imagine, for a second, that this free-agent market being sorted through at the Hilton Anatole included a third high-profile first baseman.
That's what would have happened if the Phillies had decided to let Ryan Howard play out the three-year deal he signed in early 2009 instead of giving him a five-year contract extension worth $125 million in April 2010.
"There would be three of those guys out there looking for 10 years," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Wednesday as the winter meetings neared a conclusion.
The two players on the open market are Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, and it's possible that only one of them will get exactly what he's looking for.
Pujols is the best hitter in baseball and will be paid accordingly by some team in the near future. The Miami Marlins spent most of Monday and Tuesday trying to lure Pujols away from the St. Louis Cardinals, but all signs Wednesday pointed toward the slugger's returning to the Cardinals.
Thanks to the Marlins' involvement, Pujols is likely to receive a 10-year deal worth about $220 million to remain with the Cardinals, which really is where he belongs. It's safe to say that Pujols will not be the same player at the end of the deal as he is at the beginning of it because he will be 42. Even with performance-enhancing drugs, Barry Bonds wasn't the same player at 42.
"It'll be interesting to see what happens," Amaro said. "If [Pujols] ends up being a 10-year deal or something close to that, it'll be interesting to see what happens with Prince."
There is one school of thought that Fielder will have to settle for a lot less than he was looking for in terms of money and years because teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox do not need a first baseman.
Fielder's other problem is that the only team he has played for, Milwaukee, does not seem interested in bidding for his services because it doesn't think it can afford him. That, of course, hurts Fielder's leverage.
Regardless of what happens with Pujols and Fielder, it appears that Howard's decision to sign before reaching free agency was a good one for him and a questionable one for the team. Howard will average at least $25 million per season over the life of his contract, which probably will be more than either Pujols or Fielder gets.
Had the Phillies slugger been out investigating the free-agent waters right now, he'd be No. 3 in the pecking order based on his declining power numbers the last two seasons and his recovery from surgery to replace a torn Achilles tendon.
Given those circumstances, the Phillies might have been pushing for a deal with Fielder instead of Howard. Fielder, after all, is four years and seven months younger than Howard and is coming off a much better season.
Amaro said he's perfectly happy to have Howard for a five-year deal because he believes he may have had to pay him over 10 years if he had hit the free-agent market.
"I don't want to pay him for 10 years," the general manager said. "I don't think any of those three guys would be wanting less than the other."
Probably not, but what a player wants and what a player gets do not always match up once they reach free agency. That's a reality Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins probably will discover before he signs a new deal, and it seems likely that Howard would have received something less than five years and $125 million had he been testing the free-agent waters at these winter meetings.
But what's done is done, and the Phillies have to live with what they paid Howard. It's not as if they are stuck with a bad player. Howard ranked sixth in baseball and third in the National League in RBIs last season with 116, and that's because he hit .298 with runners in scoring position.
You can complain that Howard strikes out too much and doesn't walk enough. You can complain that he struggles against lefthanded pitching and chases too many breaking balls out of the strike zone. These are legitimate gripes. It's also a justifiable concern that Howard might not be back until at least the beginning of May.
That does not change the fact that he is the biggest power threat the Phillies have and he has put together some of the most incredible seasons in franchise history, including a franchise-record 58 home runs in 2006 and 48 home runs the year the Phillies won the World Series.
The clock starts ticking on Howard's five-year, $125 million deal in 2012, and there is a large population that believes the Phillies overpaid for their slugger. Maybe they could have had Fielder if they had waited. It's doubtful that Pujols would have left St. Louis unless the Phillies were willing to pay an absurd amount of money.
There are a lot of consolation prizes worse than Ryan Howard.