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Howard v. Phillies

Slugger goes to bat against club in arbitration

Posted: Wednesday February 20, 2008 12:15PM; Updated: Wednesday February 20, 2008 4:13PM
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Ryan Howard
Ryan Howard is seeking $10 million in arbitration from the Phillies, who are offering $7 million.
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images Sport

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The biggest game of the year so far is happening here Wednesday, just a few miles from Phillies camp. This is where Phillies superstar first baseman Ryan Howard is due to face off Wednesday against his employer in one of the most-watched arbitration cases in recent memory.

If Howard wins for $10 million, he raises the arbitration bar for stars, perhaps forever. If the Phillies win for $7 million, arbitrators would be making it 6-0 for teams over players this arbitration season, dealing a big blow to the players union and salaries for young players who aren't yet eligible for free agency.

If either side wins, Howard could come away with hard feelings. (Of course, there's always a chance, though it doesn't seem very good, that the sides could settle on a compromise before the decision is reached, which is likely to be Thursday.)

The early conventional wisdom was that Howard filed too high at $10 million, which is about 33 percent higher than the record award of $7.4 million won in arbitration by Miguel Cabrera as a first-time arbitration-eligible player last year. The thinking was that while Howard's power numbers are out of this world, Cabrera had more bulk numbers (including 160 more runs produced), slightly more service time and a ring as a rookie.

Beyond the Cabrera comparison, Howard's figure, which would represent an 11-fold increase in pay following a year in which his numbers actually decreased (the Phillies renewed him at $900,000 in 2007, the year before he held the powers of arbitration), is way higher than Justin Morneau, who took an MVP into his first arbitration year and got only $4.5 million, less than half what Howard seeks. Howard also seeks $3.6 million more than Mark Teixeira, $2 million more than Albert Pujols in an older comparable that was part of a long-term deal and $5.65 million more than any pitcher has received (Dontrelle Willis holds the record at $4.35 million).

"No way Howard wins,'' one competing agent told me. "He filed too high.'' That agent suggested that with hindsight, $9 million would have been a more realistic figure and pointed to Cabrera's winning figure, and said Howard will be hurt by his so-so batting average (he hit .268 to go with his 47 home runs and 136 RBIs) and his alltime high strikeout total of 199.

A loss in arbitration today would make it, in effect, a whopping 200 Ks for Howard.

However, Howard has his points, too, including an incredible average of 52.5 homers and 142.5 RBIs over his two full seasons, a better public persona than Cabrera, the fact that the Phillies renewed him last year (which may make him sympathetic) and his considerable role in getting the Phillies past the Mets last season.

He also has what baseball insiders suspiciously call "the possession arrow.'' Teams are now 5-0 against players, and a lot of baseball insiders believe that arbitrators don't want to make the ledger too one-sided, as they are beholden to both sides (and can be fired by either at any time). "Casey Close could be walking into a gimme case on Wednesday,'' one agent told me after Jose Valverde, Felipe Lopez, Mark Loretta, Brian Fuentes and Chien-Ming Wang all have already lost.

Maybe so, but if he wins, it would be a major coup for Howard's agent Casey Close and the union and wouldn't generally be seen as the result of the lopsided ledger and luck of the timing. After all, arbitrators have been willing to run it to 5-zip already.

Perhaps arbitrators are simply following what's going on with veteran and free-agent players. Stars such as Alex Rodriguez, Johan Santana, Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones got paid big time this winter, while many middle-of-the-road players are still searching for work.

In the real world, Howard is worth a ton, while the players who lost before him in arbitration aren't quite as special. He's a great player who was renewed by his team last year. If he wins, I wouldn't knock it.

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