Arbitration payout puts Howard in uncharted salary territory

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- What does it mean when a guy wins 10 million negotiable American dollars through the miracle of salary arbitration?

In Ryan Howard's case, says his buddy Jimmy Rollins, it means he can afford that Aston Martin DB9 James Bond-mobile he's had his eye on.

Suggested list price, in case you're wondering: $168,000.

"Shoot," Rollins laughed, "that's two days salary for him now."

We should probably point out, as Chase Utley did, that "Ryan Howard can't fit in a sports car. He needs a truck." But we should also point out that this column is not appearing in Motor Trend, so we regret to announce that's about it for our discussion of Ryan Howard's future modes of automotive transportation.

Instead, we're here to tell you what Howard's precedent-setting arbitration award Thursday really means -- in the baseball universe.

Why Howard won

The Phillies -- and the folks at MLB who "advise" clubs on salary-arbitration filings -- thought they were going to nail this case because no player with two-plus years' service time had ever made anywhere close to $10 million.

Matter of fact, Howard was asking for more than twice the $4.5-million salary the previous record-holder, Justin Morneau, had earned in this service class.

So by comparison to Morneau, the Phillies' offer of $7 million actually might have seemed generous. Not by coincidence, that offer happened to be exactly as much as Albert Pujols collected in his first year of arbitration eligibility in 2004.

The problem was, the arbitrators didn't buy the comparisons to either Morneau or Pujols. Turned out, the guy they were looking at was Miguel Cabrera.

Apparently, the panel tossed Pujols out of the argument because his salary wasn't determined by the arbitration process. It was the first year of his long-term, seven-year, $100-million contract.

And the arbitrators ostensibly decided Morneau wasn't a comparable enough player because Howard has outproduced not just Morneau, but just about everyone else in the sport since he arrived in the big leagues.

Ryan Howard


First Base
Philadelphia Phillies


So that left Cabrera. And it appears the panel couldn't justify giving Howard less than the $7.4 million Cabrera cashed when he won his arbitration case against the Marlins last year.

"I really think that if the Phillies had filed above Cabrera's number, that would have made a major difference," said one baseball man familiar with the case. "At least at that number, even if he'd lost, the arbitrators could have said it's the largest award ever."

But in the end, this case didn't turn out to be about service time -- the factor that determines most arbitration awards. It was about the fact that Ryan Howard is a historic player. A really historic player. There's only player in history who compares to this man. And it isn't Pujols, Cabrera or anyone else of this generation.

It's a gentleman named George H. Ruth. You may know him as "Babe."

Ruth gave up that pitching gig of his and became a hitter at about the same age as Howard -- and pounded a few home runs himself. But for some reason, these arbitrators never could locate the Babe's first-year arbitration filing. So they did the best they could with the numbers in front of them.

How does this ruling affect the rest of the sport?

Listen closely. Hear that sound off in the distance?

It's a cash register ringing.

For Prince Fielder. For Ryan Braun. For Ryan Zimmerman. For Hanley Ramirez. For all the young star-studded boppers out there who are following Howard down the arbitration highway.

Why? Because, in the words of one agent, Howard's award just "blew up the entire system."

"This award could affect the market by 10s of millions of dollars," the agent said. "That's $3 million more a year for Prince Fielder, times all his arbitration years. That's $3 million more a year for Hanley Ramirez, times all his arbitration years. Add up all those dollars for all those players, and it becomes an exponential thing that could have a huge impact."

What this means is that any future discussion of a long-term deal becomes very difficult for the Phillies. … There's nobody who has made this large a salary at this stage. So there's no map.

--A baseball source

So that's why you see teams like the Rockies rushing to tie up players like Troy Tulowitzki as soon as possible, before their arbitration years even kick in. The Rockies looked over the horizon, didn't like what they saw and signed their guy before any arbitration panels came into their lives.

The Phillies, on the other hand, balked at giving Howard a ground-breaking contract after his rookie-of-the-year season in 2005 or his MVP season in 2006 -- because Howard's side wanted a historic contract even then.

Instead, the club opted to play arbitration roulette. And now they are filing that decision under "W" -- for "Well, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time."

Where does Howard go from here?

Minutes after the Phillies got the grim news of this decision Thursday, assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was asked if the club would now turn its attention back to signing Howard to a long-term deal.

"It's too fresh in our minds right now to even start dealing with that kind of stuff," Amaro replied. "This is not the time for us to start discussing the future of Ryan Howard."

That might suggest that this decision was too painful or this case was too arduous for the Phillies to plow back into those talks yet. But that, we would guess, isn't the real reason.

The real reason is that Ryan Howard just got way too expensive.

"What this means," said one baseball man, "is that any future discussion of a long-term deal becomes very difficult for the Phillies, because now there's no map. If they'd lost, then there's a road map that leads them to a multi-year deal, because then the numbers fall in line with what players have made before. Now there's nobody who has made this large a salary at this stage. So there's no map."

And the Phillies are one of those teams that need those maps -- a team that follows those maps religiously, in fact.

Oh, they spend plenty of money now. And they sure haven't asked the likes of Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu or Chase Utley to work for eight bucks an hour in recent years.

But to find the last historic contract they gave out, how many years would you have to go back? To Pete Rose? To Mike Schmidt? To Steve Carlton? Heck, that was nearly three decades ago.

"Here's the other problem," said the same baseball man. "They just got out from under a bunch of long contracts -- to guys like Burrell and Abreu and [Mike] Lieberthal. They did sign Utley. But I just don't see them going right back and locking up more guys, when they couldn't wait to get out from under the last batch. And even if they did, Howard's numbers would be larger than any of those guys."

No doubt. But how large? That's the question. And it's a question nobody can answer at the moment, because all the previous conversations about a long-term contract came before Howard became a $10-million man.

But we continue to hear that, in order to buy Howard out of his free-agent years (which don't arrive until after the 2011 season), the Phillies are being told they would have to pay him "A-Rod money." So if the price tag settles in at somewhere around $200 million, we'd bet he won't be collecting that Powerball payout in Philadelphia.

And then what?

Does that mean the Phillies look to trade him in two years, or maybe three?

Does it mean they keep him around through 2011 (when he'll turn 32) and see what happens?

Does it mean they might be looking up in a couple of years at an aging nucleus and a thin farm system and contemplating whether it's time to use a Ryan Howard deal as the centerpiece of their next rebuilding plan?

Any of that's possible. Any of it.

"If we're winning, that plays a big factor," said Rollins. "If we're not, anything can happen. … So it's up to the guys on this team to make sure we put ourselves in position to finish our careers here. And the way to do that is to win."

Here's the trouble with that seemingly reasonable assessment, though: The Phillies need to win soon, all right. But not because it would allow them to keep Ryan Howard.

They need to win because their core players are all in their prime now -- so in a few years, their window to win with this group will be closing fast, if not closed completely.

So winning now? Good idea. But winning with an eye toward hanging on to Ryan Howard? Sorry, it's not that simple.

Because, as their latest contract battle proves, the key to making Ryan Howard a lifelong Phillie isn't winning. It's dollar bills. Lots and lots and lots of them.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.