The Tenth Inning – Week 3

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The Tenth Inning – Week 3 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>

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By Mike Ivcic

Originally, this week’s column was going to focus on the five starting pitchers who had been the biggest surprises of the year, both for better and for worse. Midway through, however, news of the Phillies’ signing Ryan Howard to a five year, $125 million contract came across the screen, forcing a change of columns on my part. Since I had already finished the “good” part of the column, that is included after the Howard comments. The “bad” portion will come next week as part of a collection that will include starters, relievers, and position players who all need to improve their play to make their teams better. And now, on to this week’s edition of “The Tenth Inning.”

Earlier today, the Phillies announced that they had signed first baseman Ryan Howard to a 5-year contract extension for $125 million guaranteed. The deal calls for $20 million in 2011 and 2012, along with $25 million in 2013, 2014, and 2015, for a total of $115 million. The deal also includes and $23 million option for 2016 and a $10 million buyout, thus the additional $10 million. Got the math? Good, because now it’s time to explain why the Phillies will come to regret that signing.

First off, the player himself. Howard is currently 30 years old, and will turn 31 after the end of the 2010 season. That means this contract will take him right through the end of his prime, putting the option year right after his 35th birthday, a milestone at which point sluggers like Howard generally begin to decline. The length of the contract makes perfect sense, and as he’s led the NL in RBI’s in three of the last four years, it would seem like a very smart signing – on the surface.

But that only takes into account Howard, and not the other 39 Phillies on the major league roster. In actuality, this signing is a clear statement to four individuals that they should begin looking for their ticket out of town – Brad Lidge, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, and Cole Hamels – mostly because the Howard contract kills any salary flexibility for GM Ruben Amaro. He’s already spending $138 million this year, and that’s without paying $6 million to Roy Halladay that the Blue Jays are picking up. Below are the commitments – already – for the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies

Ryan Howard = $20m
Roy Halladay = $20m
Chase Utley = $15m
Raul Ibanez = $11.5m
Brad Lidge = $11.5m
Cole Hamels = $9.5m
Joe Blanton = $8.5m
Shane Victorino = $7.5m
Placido Polanco = $5.25m
Ryan Madson = $4.5m
Danys Baez = $2.75m
Carlos Ruiz = $2.75m
Ross Gload = $1.6m
Brian Schneider = $1.5m
Total = $121.85m

Not included on that list are Jimmy Rollins who has an $8.5 million option, along with Greg Dobbs, Werth, Chad Durbin, and J.C. Romero, all four of whom are outright free agents. Even if the Phillies pick up Rollins’ option (which would be smart) it would still put them at just under $130 million for 2011, which would not include any salary bumps for arbitration-eligible players like Kyle Kendrick, J.A. Happ, and the like. It’s doubtful that even another World Series run would allow the payroll to increase much for 2011 in the current financial state, meaning they’re looking at around $140-$150 million for 2011, leaving only $10-$15 million to find a right fielder and reliable lefty in the bullpen. Doable, yes, but it leaves no room for error.

After the 2011 season, however, the following players will become free agents – Hamels, Rollins (assuming the ’11 option is picked up), Ibanez, Madson, Lidge, Baez, Schneider, and Gload. The last two are expendable, but that now leaves the top three righties in the bullpen, the starting shortstop and leftfielder, AND the number two starter ALL as unrestricted free agents (though Lidge has a $12.5m option that will likely be declined). Ibanez will walk (or retire) and the Phillies won’t care, but this is where the decision comes in. Depending on the right field situation in 2011, they might have to worry about that in this situation too, but choices will need to be made. My guess is they let Lidge walk and try to throw his money and Ibanez’s money together to sign Hamels, but I think he signs elsewhere regardless. Madson will likely come back, but the bullpen is now down two arms and they could likely be in need of one or two corner outfielders, while Halladay, Howard, and Utley will continue to command $55 million combined and all three will be 33 or older. Even if Hamels resigns, it pretty much prevents the Phils from signing another big bat to replace Ibanez, and we still haven’t even touched who’s playing shortstop, who’s on the bench, and who’s in the bullpen if that happens. Plus, it’s still incumbent on Happ and Kendrick to fill the back of the rotation behind Blanton, and after last offseason any call-ups or trade depth has been significantly diminished.

In short, the Phillies have clearly indicated that their window of opportunity is now, and have elected to mortgage anything past the next two years in an effort to claim another World Series title or two. I would counter, however, that despite the numbers, Howard would be easier to replace that either Rollins or Hamels. Lefties who have the stuff that Hamels does are huge commodities in the game, and Rollins is the unquestioned leader of the ballclub. Both of those players bring not just high skills, but certain intangibles to the team that can’t be duplicated by just anyone. Howard has often been compared to Adam Dunn – not exactly a flattering comparison. A better defensive first baseman who could hit over .300, hit 20-25 homers and drive in 100 runs would easily make up for the loss of Howard, come at a cost of $10-$15 million less per year, and ensure Philly kept their financial flexibility beyond 2011.

So the Phillies have just committed $125 million to a career .279 hitter who is currently averaging 1.2 strikeouts per game and will reach 1000 career K’s this year. To be fair, I’ve never considered Howard a true “cornerstone” players, but signing this contract means he’ll sure have to be one for the Phillies. Even so, Amaro and Co. appear to have channeled their inner-Al Davis. The motto for the next two seasons in Philly should be, “Just Win.” Because if they don’t, 2012 will bring with it the harsh reality of just how tough it is to not only get to the top – but stay there.

Now the original column…

Five “Good” Surprises
Brad Penny, Saint Louis Cardinals
4 GS, 3-0, 28.2 IP, 0.94 ERA, 3 BB, 15 K, 0.98 WHIP
Forget Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter – the most important man in the Cardinals rotation this year in Penny. His success takes some pressure off of those top two, and pushes Kyle Lohse into a more comfortable role as a number 4 starter. The playoffs are all about pitching, and Saint Louis figured they would get there somehow based on Pujols and Holliday alone. But even a solid season from Penny could push this team past the Phillies in the NL. With a great season (like the April he just had), then it’s a no-brainer making the Cards the NL frontrunner.

Livan Hernandez, Washington Nationals
3 GS, 2-1, 24 IP, 0.89 ERA, 7 BB, 9 K, 0.83 WHIP
Left for dead after being released by the Mets in August of last year, Hernandez has looked like the pitcher that won the World Series MVP in 1997 as opposed to the one who had an ERA near 6 runs a game in 2009. With John Patterson again on the DL and likely to miss the entire season, the Nats needed someone to step up and lead not just a rotation, but a team full of young, inexperienced players. If he can help fellow starters Craig Stammen and Scott Olsen become solid middle-of-the-rotation pitchers in the major leagues, then Washington may find themselves out of the basement a but more quickly than previously anticipated.

Mike Pelfrey, New York Mets
5G (4GS), 4-0, 1 SV, 26 IP, 0.69 ERA, 13 BB, 19 K, 1.19 WHIP
It was drummed up during the offseason just how much the Mets needed someone to step up as the number 2 starter behind Johan Santana. Well, they found their answer in Pelfrey. Sure, the walks are a bit high, but he’s pitched out of every game during the 24 straight scoreless innings he’s thrown after Sunday night. The offense is still lacking, but with a good 1-2 starting combo now – and a good move not putting those two back-to-back in the rotation – the Mets might actually be able to stay close in the NL East and NL Wild Card races.

Carlos Silva, Chicago Cubs
3 GS, 2-0, 19 IP, 0.95 ERA, 2 BB, 12 K, 0.63 WHIP
Silva has always been viewed as a solid guy to fill out the middle or back-end of a rotation, ever since his days helping the Twins win multiple division titles behind the likes of Johan Santana and Brad Radke. Now, with the supposed “ace” of his staff in the bullpen (check the list below for him) and the offense showing up only sporadically, Silva has taken on a much greater role in the Cubs rotation. With only 2 walks in 19 innings, he’s on pace for the fewest walks in his career, something that will sure help as he prepares to pitch half a season at homer-happy Wrigley Field.

Andy Pettitte, New York Yankees
4 GS, 3-0, 28 IP, 1.29 ERA, 9 BB, 22 K, 1.07 WHIP
He might not be in the same group as the others – especially after winning five World Series titles and pitching in three other Fall Classics. But with talk of retirement in the offseason, for Pettitte to come back and put up that kind of April is extremely impressive. Never known as a big-time strikeout pitcher, Pettitte has nonetheless proved that he can still rack them up. He may not get the headlines of Burnett and Sabathia, but with 28 innings through four starts, he’s helping to keep the pressure off of a suspect bullpen and one again steamroll toward another season of 20 wins and 200+ innings, which – at least for me – would seem to make him, with all of his postseason success included, a very good bet for Cooperstown.

Trivia Question
Last week’s answer: Brandon Phillips and Hanley Ramirez are the only two players who have posted four straight seasons of 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases.

This week’s question: Now that Ubaldo Jiminez has thrown the Colorado Rockies’ first-ever no-hitter, who are the only three teams that have yet to have a pitcher throw a no-hitter?

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