Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Achilles Heel


The night the Phillies' window begins to close, Ryan Howard steps to the plate with two outs in the ninth. It is a mild evening in Philadelphia, but it has gotten colder as the game goes into the later hours. No one has left. The Phillies are down to their last out in the 2011 NLDS. Unless Howard can tie or at the very least prolong the game, they will fall 3-2 to the wild card St. Louis Cardinals.

Howard has had a miserable series. In 20 plate appearances, he has two hits, a sacrifice fly, a walk and six strike outs. Those two hits were a home run in Game 1, an 11-6 shootout win in Philadelphia six days earlier, and a single in Game 2 the next night, which the Cardinals took 5-4.

To his credit, Howard has continued his bizarre, allegedly unrepeatable "skill" of hitting with men in scoring position—with only a home run, a sacrifice fly and a single, he has 6 RBI in the series. This is more than any other single batter on either team. St. Louis's Game 2 hero David Freese will end the series with three singles, two doubles and a home run and only rack up 5 RBI; his teammates Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot finish with a combined 12 hits, 4 for extra bases, and only 4 RBI between them.

If players have narratives, that is Ryan Howard's: he is clutch. His hits matter more than other men's hits. That is the reason the 46,000-some Phillies fans in attendance this night have some hope that their 102-win season is not about to come to an unfulfilling end.

Carpenter's first pitch is a cutter low and inside. Howard doesn't offer. The second pitch is another cutter inside, this one thigh-high. Howard goes after this one and misses. Carpenter's third pitch is a third cut fastball, now on the black. Howard swings and fouls it off.

Now Carpenter goes to his curveball. He throws it outside for a ball. The count goes to 2-2. Howard steps out, Carpenter steps off, and the TBS camera crew goes back to hunting for depressed Philadelphians. It finds two very dejected-looking gentlemen leaning heavily against a railing like Charlie Brown and Linus, inside-out rally caps perched on their heads.

Carpenter's fifth pitch is another curveball over the plate and up. Howard swings with that violent, full-bodied motion of his and connects, but he doesn't get it elevated. The camera cuts to Nick Punto, playing deep in the hole at second base, ranging to his left, fielding the sharp grounder. Howard is nowhere in sight down the first base line. Punto tosses the ball to Albert Pujols at first.

The Phillies lose. The Cardinals storm the field, mobbing Chris Carpenter, who has just thrown the first postseason shutout of his career. In the dugout, St. Louis manager Tony La Russa hugs his coaching staff; his team will travel to Milwaukee to face the NL Central champion Brewers.

Halfway between home and first base, almost forgotten, the Philadelphia first baseman lies on his side with his left leg curled beneath him. He is no longer trying to stand.

As the Cardinals celebrate not 30 feet away, Ryan Howard realizes he can no longer feel his ankle.

Tendons are the tough, thick, sinewy tissues that anchor muscle to bone, allowing the body's muscular system to manipulate its skeleton; most famous among them is the Achilles tendon, named after the mythological Greek general felled by an arrow in his heel during the Battle of Troy. For a professional athlete, it is also the most important tendon in his or her body.

The Achilles runs from the calf muscle down over the ankle and attaches to the heel bone, about six inches in total length, and it is the major stress-point for almost all activities someone one would want to do with his lower body on a baseball field: running, jumping, planting the foot to turn the hips when either swinging a bat or delivering a pitch. If at any point a player wishes to put weight, pressure or stress on the balls of his feet, he will need both Achilles in good working order.

And since it is amongst the toughest of tissues that the body has to offer, it takes the longest to heal when damaged. Howard would say in post-game interviews that he heard a pop in his left ankle as he stepped out of the box; that is the sound of something able to withstand over 1000 pounds of force finally giving way. There are a number of ways to repair the Achilles; not all involve invasive surgery. But they all require one thing—time.

Luckily for Ryan Howard, he has all the time in the world. As he falls to the ground just outside the right batter's box and the Cardinals eliminate his team from the postseason, something else happens: his contract extension kicks in.

The 2011 season has just ended. From 2012 to 2016, Ryan Howard will make $25 million a year.

Other than Howard, the person most devastated by his torn left Achilles is Philadelphia's General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr., the man who signed Howard to that five year, $125 million extension... two years ago.

Let's not mince words: the contract is the worst in baseball. Worse than Alex Rodriguez's (10 years/$275m, 2008-17), worse than Alfonso Soriano's (8 years/$136m, 2007-14), worse than Vernon Wells's (7 years/$126m, 2008-14) and Jayson Werth's (7 years/$126m, 2011-17). Why? Because there is absolutely no reason it should have ever been offered.

The 2009-2010 offseason was Amaro's second as the Phillies' General Manager; they had just lost the World Series in six games to the New York Yankees, but it was their second trip there in as many years. Amaro, who had taken over for Pat Gillick following the team's World Series win in 2008, was expected to nurture a perennial contender into a dynasty.

He had, essentially, two huge issues looming: Cliff Lee and Jayson Werth. Both men would be free agents after the 2010 season concluded, and both men were concerned about where they stood with the Phillies. Werth, a Scott Boras client, was going to at least test the market unless the Phillies wowed him with a deal; Lee was going to be hitting free agency for the first time since becoming one of the league’s elite left-handed starters but was making noises about wanting to stay in Philadelphia.

Amaro would solve the Lee "problem" by trading him to Seattle for prospects, then trading for Toronto ace Roy Halladay. It was not a three-team deal. None of the prospects they got back from Seattle went to Toronto; the Jays wouldn't have wanted them anyway. None of them were any good. Amaro demurred on having both Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay in the same rotation because of Lee's 2010 salary—$9 million. Nevermind that he could have saved that money fairly easily by not signing 34-year old Placido Polanco for 3 years/$13m ($5m in 2010), mediocre-at-best starter Joe Blanton to a 3 year/$24M extension ($1m base salary, $6M signing bonus in 2010) or ex-Baltimore Oriole Danys Baez for 2 years/$5.25m ($2.5m in 2010).

Polanco, Blanton and Baez would all be at least serviceable for 2010; after that, they'd fall off cliffs. Lee, of course, would start the year with 73 strikeouts before walking his first batter, get traded to the Texas Rangers and lead them to the World Series.

That's a whole other story, though. Amaro dealt with the Lee issue in the most bizarre way conceivable, but didn't necessarily end up worse off than when he started. Werth, however, wanted money, meaning the Phillies were probably planning to let him walk even in the 2009-10 offseason, opening up a hole in right field. They'd have to sign a stopgap for a year or two, but the Phillies had a couple nice outfield prospects moving up in Domonic Brown and Ben Francisco, and at least one of them could probably man that spot pretty well from 2012 on. With a cost-controlled right fielder, that would leave them payroll flexibility when Ryan Howard's current deal, lasting through the end of the 2011 season, expired.

So what does Amaro do? He turns around and offers Howard $25 million dollars per year that April.

Here is a list of all the players in history who have been paid $25 million a year or more to play baseball:
Roger Clemens.
Alex Rodriguez.
That's it. Both those contracts were given out by the Yankees. The Clemens deal was a one-year deal in 2007. A-Rod's was that 10-year monster listed before, and he's one of the greatest hitters to play the game. There is a definite possibility he will break the all-time home run record in a Yankee uniform. He should be a first ballot Hall of Famer.

As nice a player as Ryan Howard is, he is not Alex Rodriguez. He is a slugging first baseman who is distressingly unable to hit left-handed pitching. At the time, his struggles against lefties have gotten worse over the past two years. And in April 2010, Ryan Howard is 29 years old. This deal will start when he is 31, and carry him to age 37.

That is why this contract is the worst of all time. Not the money, which is bad, or the years, which are worse, or the player they're getting, who is good for what he is but not getting any better—it's the worst because it was offered and signed a full two years before it had to be. It's the worst because it ties up massive amounts of Philadelphia's payroll in a deal for an unknown quantity. The extension wasn't given to 29 year old Ryan Howard, okayish first baseman who hits for a lot of power, strikes out a ton but absolutely destroys right-handed pitching; it was given to 31 year old Ryan Howard, who could be anyone. Anything can happen in two years. He might start to lose his power skill. He might stop being quite so good against right-handers.

Or he might tear his Achilles tendon on the very last out of Phillies baseball before the deal kicks in.

There's nothing the Phillies can do about the deal now. Even the Devil honors a signed contract.

It's very likely, however, that they can recoup at least part of the initial loss. It is standard practice for MLB clubs to take out policies on their mega-deals; these policies are custom-fit to the teams in question by whatever organization is underwriting the policy. The deductible and period of coverage scales based on what the team is willing to pay; so far, there's been no real inquiry into what happens financially for the Phillies if Ryan Howard is unable to return until after the 2012 season or even into the 2013 season, but it is unimaginable that the deal is not insured against loss of service due to injury.

According to a 2008 online piece run by the Sports Business Journal, the sports insurance marketplace changed drastically in 2001, for two reasons. The first was 9/11, which resulted in huge payouts made by insurance companies and a corresponding desire on their part to limit their future liability wherever feasible; the second was Albert Belle.

The Baltimore Orioles signed Albert Belle as a free agent in 1998 to a five-year contract worth $65 million. He would retire two years later due to degenerative osteoarthritis in his hip, of which neither he nor Baltimore were aware when they signed the deal. Under the terms of the policy that the Orioles took out on his contract, they were entitled to a claim equal to 70% of the remaining money on the deal in the event that Belle suffered permanent disability.

From 2002 to 2005, the Orioles kept Belle on their 40-man roster, activating him and then restoring him to the 60-day disabled list every few months. Of Belle's remaining $39 million salary, the policy paid for $27.3 million.

There is nothing an insurance company likes to do less than to be forced to actually honor a claim. In fact, their entire business model revolves around rendering the service they claim to provide as little as possible. Gone, now, are the days when a company will do something as short-sighted as Baltimore's underwriters did; it is unlikely Philadelphia would be able to get that sort of payout on Howard over the life of his deal.

It is also unlikely that Philadelphia will be able to get much of anything on an insurance claim until Ryan Howard's rehabilitation is complete. It's hard to argue that permanent disability or a career-ending injury has occurred when the player in question is still trying to come back from it.

$25 million a year, for five years, of sunk payroll cost would destroy the franchise. Even $25 million of sunk cost just for next year could cripple the team's ability to re-sign Jimmy Rollins and figure out what to do with Roy Oswalt and Hunter Pence. At the very least, Amaro can no longer afford any more of the Raul IbaƱez contracts he seems to love so very much. Really, he couldn't afford them in the first place.

Instead of a dynasty, by 2015 the Phillies could be what the Chicago Cubs are now: bloated with contracts they can't trade, veterans they can't move, and no help on the way from the minor leagues.

But all is not lost. The exact details of Philadelphia's policy on Howard are unknown; any terms are possible, so long as the Phillies are willing to pay the premium. It wouldn't be the first time Ruben Amaro, Jr., did something unspeakably wasteful and unreasonable and was then vindicated by someone else's stupidity.

Cheer up, Phillies fans. Perhaps Amaro bought insurance from Ed Wade.

Jonathan Bernhardt is a freelance writer born in Baltimore, Maryland who lives and works in New York City. His very first concrete memory of the Baltimore Orioles is Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series. He hopes they either get good or move to the American League Central before his liver fails. You can follow him on Twitter.