Ryan Howard's five-year, $125MM extension doesn't kick in until 2012, but it has been exactly one year since the Phillies signed their slugging first baseman long-term. A year ago this time, the reaction to GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was critical. Why, analysts asked, would the Phillies commit nine figures for Howard's age 32-36 seasons when he doesn't play a premium position and figures to be well into his decline phase by 2016, the last guaranteed year of the contract?
The Phillies had their reasons for making the deal; Howard had reached 45 homers for the fourth consecutive season in 2009, further establishing himself as one of the premier power hitters in the game. Yet Rob Neyer, Keith Law, Dave Cameron, Ken Rosenthal and others argued that Howard's power didn't necessarily justify a five-year deal worth $25MM per season.
Since finalizing the contract, Howard has hit .278/.357/.508 with 31 homers, 111 RBI, 24 doubles and 5 triples. The 31-year-old made the All-Star team in 2010 and cracked the top ten in the NL MVP balloting, though he posted a career-low slugging percentage and hit fewer home runs than usual. Though his numbers are good, they aren't what we're used to seeing from Howard and the Phillies may have been counting on more (he has just 2.4 total wins above replacement since the beginning of 2010).
Howard remains an above-average first baseman, a key player for a perennial contender that currently has the best record in the game. But he's older and less productive than Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, the two premier position players who will hit free agency after 2011. If Howard had not signed his extension, he would have hit the open market this offseason as the third-most appealing player at his position.
His career numbers would have generated lots of interest, especially if he continues producing in 2011, and there's no doubt that he would have been in line for an impressive free agent contract. $25MM per year, however, would likely have been out of reach for Howard. We won't know for another five years whether the initial reaction to the deal was fair, but at this point it appears that the analysts were right: Howard and agent Casey Close are looking smart for signing the $125MM contract a year ago.