From 2006 to 2009, Ryan Howard hit 198 home runs and batted in 572 runs for the Philadelphia Phillies, the most in baseball over that time. He was the fastest player in MLB history to reach the 100 home run milestone in 2007, and became the fastest to reach 200 HRs two years later. He ended 2009 worth 3.8 wins above replacement value and was expected to be worth 4.4 WAR the following season by sabermetrics maven Dan Szymborski ZiPS projection system.
So in April 2010 the Phillies agreed to pay Howard like one of the game’s greats, awarding him a five-year, $125 million extension to begin in 2012 and last through his 36th birthday this season.
The deal was panned considering Howard’s age, and that he struck out a lot, ran slowly and was far from the best first baseman in the league. Then it went from bad to worse. The Phillies’ 2011 season ended when their $125 million dollar man ruptured his Achilles tendon on the last play of the team’s loss in Game 5 of the National League Division Series.
From his injury-delayed 2012 season through 2015, Howard only had 71 homers and 271 RBIs. His WAR dropped to a -1.4 last season and his ZiPS projection for 2016 is -0.8, the only negative rating among all starting first basemen. The Phillies are paying $25 million this year to a below replacement-level rated player, making Howard not just the most overvalued player at first base but in all of baseball.
To find the most overvalued we compared ZiPS 2016 player performance projections (WAR for all players plus fielding for position players) to their 2016 salaries as reported by Cot’s Baseball Contracts. We then chose the eight position players, starting pitcher, and closer who provide the worst bang for their buck.
Former Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is to blame for paying a 30-year old Howard market rate two years before he was on the market. When the contract was signed, Amaro indicated Howard had the upper hand in negotiations by saying he “kind of set the market for himself.” That kind of lack of judgment sums up why the Phillies fired the GM last September. Two other players among our ten most overvalued were also signed by the Phillies under Amaro’s watch – the team’s 37-year old catcher Carlos Ruiz who is in the last of a three-year $36 million contract (signed after he served a suspension for using a banned substance), and the Washington National’s closer Jonathan Papelbon a former Phil’s malcontent who was dealt to the team at the trade deadline last summer and is now in the final year of a 5-year contract worth $61 million.
But baseball’s collective bargaining agreement bears some blame for a structure that promotes making deals that are too big, too long, or both in Howard’s case. The absence of a salary cap is a fraction of the reason. More importantly the CBA favors veteran players, ensuring those with seniority get bigger checks than those in the first three years of their career who typically make the league minimum. That is part and parcel of being in the union – reward tenure based on past performance.
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