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Are Ryan Howard, Phillies on Arbitration Collision Course?

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     Miguel Cabrera     Albert Pujols    Matt Holliday

                                Ryan Howard

In recent days, we’ve read about Detroit, who acquired via trade 5th year 3rd baseman Miguel Cabrera avoided arbitration proceedings by agreeing to a one year, $11.3 million deal with Cabrera.  We also heard about the  Colorado Rockies, who similarly avoided an arbitration hearing by signing talented leftfielder Matt Holliday to a two year, $23 million deal thus tying him to the Rockies for the next two years until he reaches free agency.

But as the above players and clubs sought to avoid the recriminations of arbitration confrontations, the Phillies and their powerful 1st baseman  Ryan Howard, with the quickest 129 homeruns in major league history, seem headed inexorably for a nasty arbitration collision which could taint their future relationship.  The battle scars of a looming arbitration confrontation could harm the chances of a team that looks poised, after their 2007 charge to the NL East crown, to reach the next levels of post-season in 2008 and beyond.

The gap between Howard and the Phils is $3 million, by far the largest gap of any of the arbitration figures.  In the exchange of arbitration figures between team and player, the Phils offered $7 million and Howard placed his number at $10 million.

In a recent unscientific online poll of Phillies fans, 46.7% of those who answered the poll question; “Who is right, the Phillies or Ryan Howard?” answered that Howard is worth $10 million and another 23.5% placed Howard’s worth in excess of $10 million — that’s 70.2% who vote that Ryan Howard is entitled to $10 million or more in pay for 2008.  29.8% of those polled indicated that the Phillies’ offer of $7 million is appropriate.

Inquirer staff writer Todd Zolecki wrote recently;

The Phillies’ offer matches the largest amount a team has offered a player who is arbitration eligible for the first time. The St. Louis Cardinals offered Albert Pujols a record $7 million in 2004.

Pujols avoided arbitration when he signed a seven-year, $100 million contract extension.

Howard could be seeking a similar extension, but he cannot become a free agent until after the 2011 season, so the Phillies feel no immediate pressure to get a multiyear extension done. Howard, 28, hit .268 with 47 home runs and 136 RBIs last season. He was the National League’s rookie of the year in 2005 and its MVP in 2006.

If the case is heard, the arbitrator will pick one of the two figures. There is no middle ground, unless the Phillies and Howard agree to one before the hearing.

So how can Howard potentially make less this season than somebody such as Phillies pitcher Adam Eaton, who went 10-10 with a 6.29 ERA last year? Eaton pitched so poorly for the Phillies that he failed to make the team’s postseason roster, but he will make $7.635 million this year.

It’s simple: service time.

In baseball, service time means everything.

Major-league service time determines when a player can become eligible for salary arbitration and ultimately a free agent, which is where the big money is made. Players cannot become free agents until they acquire six years of service time. They generally cannot become eligible for salary arbitration until they acquire three years of service time.

Howard actually has two years, 145 days of service time, but he qualified for arbitration as a “Super Two” player. Super Two players rank in the top 17 percent in the class of players who have more than two but fewer than three years of service time.

The reason Holliday’s average annual salary is more than what Howard is seeking is again based on service time. Holliday has four years of service time. Players with less than three years, like Howard, have little say in what they get paid, no matter how good they are. Howard made $355,000 in 2006 and $900,000 in 2007.

The $900,000 that Howard received last season was a record for a player with one-plus seasons of major-league service time. It also equaled the record-setting total for a player not eligible for salary arbitration. Pujols received $900,000 from the St. Louis Cardinals in 2003, when he had two-plus years of service time.

Howard thought he deserved more.

The Phillies talked with Howard’s agent, Casey Close, about one-year and multiyear deals last year, but never came close to an agreement. So the Phillies basically put two one-year offers on the table: the $900,000 deal for a renewal and a higher figure for an agreement. Howard thought the higher figure wasn’t enough and rejected it. columnist Bill Conlin considers it unwise for the Phillies to enter an arbitration contest with Howard.  He writes;

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.

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.

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.

And so the clock ticks down through the remainder of January to the February arbitration hearings.  The Phillies have to weigh sticking to their money-guns against possible ill-will, tainted future relations with their main power-source and possible harm to the team.  Hopefully, prudence and realism as well as team responsibility and the will to win will mark a win-win deal with Ryan Howard.

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