The surest way to destroy a perennial champion in baseball is from the inside. A great franchise can get fooled by their own success into thinking they can do no wrong. They react to success by dishing out cushy contracts to core members (locking them up well beyond the point where they can be expected to remain productive) and react to failure by overspending on outsiders.
The result is a bloated, inflexible roster that handcuffs the team in future seasons, leaving them incapable of quick-fix solutions to intractable problems. All they can do is wait until all those contracts expire and endure the inevitable decline. This is what happened to the Baltimore Orioles in the late 1990s (with Albert Belle, Scott Erickson, Brady Anderson) and the New York Yankees (Bernie Williams, Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina) in the mid-2000s, and it is what is happening to teams like the Chicago Cubs (Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Kosuke Fukudome) and the Houston Astros (Carlos Lee, Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman) right now.
By contrast, the Philadelphia Phillies were in a fairly enviable position. Coming off back-to-back National League pennants, and with the makings of another champion in 2010, they had their core locked up in long-term deals - but mostly smart contracts that would expire at just the right time for the team to retain precious flexibility. This arrangement left the Phillies a defined window for fulfilling their mini-dynasty, but also gave them the flexibility to cut ties with one or more declining veterans at exactly the right time and use the savings to re-load and keep the ship afloat.
That is what makes the Phillies' signing of Ryan Howard to a five-year, US$125 million (Dh459m) contract extension on Monday so puzzling. The deal tethers the Phillies to a lumbering first baseman - at a staggering cost of $25m annually (or a little less than one-fifth of the current payroll) - through his mid-30s, when players almost inevitably suffer significant declines in production. Such deals are how perennial champions turn themselves into bloated underachievers.
For argument's sake, let's give the Phillies the benefit of the doubt. Howard, 30, has been a model superstar, combining consistency and durability (at least 144 games played in each of the previous four seasons) with unmatched power (an average of 50 homers and 143 RBI in those same four seasons). He has shown a willingness to work on weaknesses - losing weight and improving his defence during the past couple of seasons - and he has an impeccable reputation off the field.
Let's also assume the Phillies can project their future revenues accurately and are confident they can afford the Howard deal from start to finish. By the time the contract starts in 2012, they will be out from under Jimmy Rollins, Brad Lidge and Jamie Moyer, etc. There are still plenty of reasons why the move was ill-conceived. For $25m a year (only Alex Rodriguez has a higher AAV, or average annual value) you should expect a flawless player. But Howard is far from flawless. He remains susceptible to left-handed pitching (.207; .298; .356 in 2009, .226; .309; .446 for his career) and breaking balls (witness the Yankees' dismantling of him in the 2009 World Series). And despite his improvements on defence, he is still just average with the glove.
There was little incentive to make the deal now. Howard was already signed through 2011, and the Phillies could have used the next two years to get a better gauge on how Howard aged through his early 30s, how the rest of their roster shaped up, and how the market for first basemen played out. First base is a particularly easy position to fill. Want a superstar? Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Adrian Gonzalez and Lance Berkman all reach free agency after 2011. Want to spend your money at a more premium position (such as shortstop) and sign a stop-gap at first base?
Inevitably, the pundits have singled out Pujols and Fielder as the big winners in the Howard deal as their market prices just went up. But I will add another group of winners, the other four teams in the National League East. None have shown any ability to stop the Phillies' run atop the division. But with the Howard move, the Phillies are showing an ability to do it themselves. * The Washington Post