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Phillies trade rumors - Revisiting Howard's extension, Bruce almost became a Phillie
by Scott Butler 4/26/17

Jimmy Rollins Phillies

MLB Trade Rumors is a site which describes themselves as "a clearinghouse for relevant, legitimate baseball rumors." Each week at Phils Baseball, we grab their latest Phillies rumors and put them all together in one weekly post.

Here are the latest Phillies rumors:

April 25

Transactions Retrospection: The Ryan Howard Extension

On April 26, 2010, Ryan Howard was a star. For four consecutive seasons, the Phillies first baseman had landed in the top five of the National League MVP voting and swatted over forty home runs. With the Phils in the midst of a five-year run of dominance, the sides linked up on a five-year, $125MM extension.

It’s easy to mock that contract now, with the Phillies still paying down the final portion of it — a whopping $10MM buyout of a $23MM option for the 2017 season. Perhaps the organization believed at the time of the signing that the $13MM decision would be an easy one, but surely since-departed GM Ruben Amaro Jr. did not expect it would be so obvious to say goodbye to (rather than retain) the slugger.

With Howard now looking to make his way back to the majors on a minor-league deal with the Braves, his huge contract is no longer weighing down the Phillies. Instead, it serves mostly as a cautionary tale.

It’s easy to go overboard in criticizing the Howard contract, because we know what became of it. Though he continued to hit at an above-average rate in 2010 and 2011, while playing out the remainder of his arbitration-eligible seasons (which had been bought out under a prior extension), the actual years covered by the five-year deal were a disaster. From 2012 through 2016, Howard averaged 19 home runs annually while slashing a miserable .226/.292/.427.

But that outcome surely wasn’t the expected one at the time of the signing. Howard hadn’t yet suffered a devastating Achilles injury. His K/BB numbers hadn’t eroded to the point that they would. (In fact, he had posted 15% or better walk rates in two full MLB seasons — 2006 and 2007 — and had to that point never ended a full year with less than a 10.7% walk rate.) The swing-and-miss was always there, but Howard hadn’t yet seen his chase rate jump suddenly (it topped 30% in 2010 and kept going up from there).

That is to say: the Phillies weren’t wrong in assessing that Howard was a heck of a player. He was! And he gave them 64 dingers and a .265/.350/.497 batting line over the next two seasons, helping the organization to two more postseason berths. That sort of reduced-but- still-useful production might’ve continued had Howard not blown out his Achilles in making the last out of the club’s stunning 2011 NLDS exit.

Of course, while the Howard extension perhaps turned sour quicker than might’ve been anticipated, that doesn’t mean it was well-conceived. Even at his best, Howard was an extremely limited player; at the time of the deal, he was already thirty years old. And the real sin was committed in making the deal so far in advance of Howard’s free agency, at the end of his peak, and in expectation of a longer run of organizational success than could be sustained. This wasn’t exactly unforeseeable, either. As MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes wrote at the time: “The length makes this an unnecessary risk, and at $25MM a year the Phillies didn’t get a discount for taking the gamble and locking him up two years before free agency.”

The Phillies did not come up with a favorable bounce on their ill-advised dice roll. That’s clear. And the deal ended up costing the organization quite a bit of money that could have been reallocated — perhaps, to other players who might’ve helped extend the contention window. (Or, perhaps to other players who might’ve been signed to unwise contracts that would have deepened the eventual financial hole.) But here, too, it’s best to avoid dramatizing the impact. When the Phillies began dismantling their once-great core, Howard’s contract meant that he’d stay on — eventually becoming the lone remaining relic. But it’d be a bit of a stretch to say that the deal impacted the team’s recent decisionmaking, or changed the timeline for a hoped-for return to contention. The delayed rebuilding launch surely wasn’t driven by this one contract.

For the Phillies, the Howard contract proved to be something like the cost expended on a fancy diamond ring in a relationship that ultimately falls apart. When put in perspective, it’s hardly the thing that stings the most. And eventually, you can look back on it all with fondness despite the hard times. By the end, Howard was even able to be seen once more as a proud part of a golden era for the franchise. The Phillies organization will no doubt remember him just that way for decades to come … with the front office also constantly reminding itself of the lesson paid for in his contract.

April 24

Nola Heads To 10-Day DL; Pivetta Could Replace Him In Rotation

The Phillies announced today that righty Aaron Nola has been placed on the 10-day DL due to a strained lower back. “After receiving treatment over the last few days, the symptoms improved, but he still felt some tightness during his side session yesterday,” GM Matt Klentak said in a press release. “Our hope and expectation is that this will not be a lengthy DL placement and that Aaron will miss only one or two starts.” Nola joins right-hander Buchholz on the disabled list, thus creating a temporary avenue for another of the Phillies’ upper-level arms to get a look in the Majors. Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer and MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki both suggest that right-hander Nick Pivetta (originally acquired in exchange for Jonathan Papelbon) could be the preferred option to start in Nola’s place (Twitter links).

April 23

Howie Kendrick Out 2-3 Weeks With Oblique Strain

Phillies left fielder Howie Kendrick’s previously reported abdominal strain is actually an oblique strain, one that’s likely to keep him out until “sometime in the early to mid part of May,” GM Matt Klentak informed Ryan Lawrence of PhillyVoice. With Kendrick unavailable for a while, Klentak acquired infielder/outfielder Ty Kelly from the Blue Jays on Saturday. It turns out the Klentak-led Phillies had Kelly on their radar in the past. “Kelly is a guy who was on waivers twice in the last few months, and both times that he was passing through waivers we were intrigued by him and would have liked to have placed a claim but our roster was in a position where he couldn’t do it,” Klentak said. “But now with the ability to transfer (Clay) Buchholz to the (60-day DL) and free up a spot, we were able to acquire him.” Aaron Altherr, not Kelly, will see the majority of time in left while Kendrick’s out, Lawrence notes.

April 22

Phillies Acquire Ty Kelly From Blue Jays

The Phillies have announced that they’ve acquired IF/OF Ty Kelly from the Blue Jays for cash considerations. To clear space on their 40-man roster, they’ve placed Clay Buchholz (who will miss the next four to six months after having flexor tendon surgery) on the 60-day DL.

The Jays designated Kelly for assignment yesterday when they added Mat Latos to their roster. Kelly had only been in the Blue Jays organization for two weeks, with the Jays claiming him from the Mets earlier this month.

Kelly is 28 and has just 72 big-league plate appearances to his name, but it’s not hard to see why he continues to draw interest on the waiver wire — he has nearly as many minor-league walks as strikeouts and a career .381 minor-league OBP, and he played every position but pitcher and catcher for the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate last year. (He spends most of his time at second and third and in left, however.) The Phillies’ immediate plans for him aren’t yet clear, though it’s worth noting that left fielder Howie Kendrick’s recent abdominal strain might have been a factor in their pursuit of Kelly.

April 20

Phillies Came Closest To Landing Jay Bruce Over The Winter

Though by all accounts he has done nothing but go about his business as a professional, outfielder Jay Bruce has had an eventful tenure with the Mets since arriving last summer via trade. While the club picked up his option last fall, it reportedly dangled him in trade talks once Yoenis Cespedes returned in free agency.

Among the teams that inquired about Bruce, it was the rebuilding Phillies who came closest to acquiring him over the recent offseason, Marc Carig of Newsday reports. It’s not known what got in the way of a deal, though perhaps New York wanted some kind of prospect return or Philadelphia wasn’t willing to take on his entire $13MM salary.

The pursuit of Bruce, who’ll be a free agent at year’s end, certainly fits within the Phillies’ recent operating philosophy of adding short-term veteran pieces to boost the club in the near term (and provide possible trade chips) without clogging up future balance sheets. The Phils ended up adding two such outfielders, Howie Kendrick and Michael Saunders. Presumably, the club wouldn’t have signed the latter, who was not added until mid-January, had it managed to acquire Bruce.

Other organizations that at least expressed interest, Carig notes, were the Giants and Orioles. But clearly neither of those clubs was willing to push the envelope to add Bruce, who struggled to a .219/.294/.391 slash line over his 187 plate appearances with the Mets in 2016. In the end, the Mets held onto the slugger.

As it turns out, the lack of sufficient interest may have worked to the Mets’ advantage. Though the presence of Bruce on the roster along with Curtis Granderson and Michael Conforto has continued to create something of a logjam, the 30-year-old Bruce is more than making up for that with a highly productive start to the year. Through 62 plate appearances, he’s hitting a robust .309/.387/.673 with six long balls.

It’ll be interesting to see how things play out over the course of the season. Bruce is a notoriously streaky hitter, though the Mets will be glad to ride things out for the time being. Conforto is clamoring for more playing time with a great start in limited action. And Granderson is scuffling quite a bit early, though of the three he’s the choice to line up in center field (where he could begin to cede time to Juan Lagares). Tough choices could be required if other roster needs arise, or if the team determines that Conforto needs to play more regularly, though it remains plausible to imagine all three players sticking with the Mets for the full season. And if Bruce is able to maintain anything like his current production, it’ll be interesting to see whether the organization considers a qualifying offer after the season.

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