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Ryan Howard signs enormous deal, apologizes to Cardinals fans

Well, I guess we won't be able to trade Albert Pujols for him after all—Ryan Howard and the Phillies have agreed to a five year, $125 million contract that will begin in 2012, after he makes $20 million from his old deal in 2011. He'll get $20 million more in 2012 and 2013, $25 million in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and $23 million (or a $10 million buyout) in 2017, when he'll be 37. 

Howard is an excellent player, one of the best first basemen in baseball, but as a first baseman who's spent just one season, 2005, among the top five offensive players in baseball this contract, which pays him significantly more than Mark Teixeira from 34-36, is something of a reach. Howard, since 2006, is somewhere on the huge, slugging first baseman continuum between Richie Sexson and Jim Thome, his Phillies predecessor, or Carlos Delgado; he's always one of the best hitters at his position, but he's closest, offensively, to Adam Dunn, who because of his inability to stand on first base and catch all the baseballs is doomed to spend an eternity on two year, $20 million contracts. 

He's lost a lot of weight in 2010, but the worries about his longevity were never only about his figure; he's a one-dimensional slugger like Mark McGwire wasn't, walking a little less than his usual 40 homer counterparts, and as they approach 30 even the best players of that type become a little worrisome, struggling with health and effectiveness. It's not as though there's a Bermuda Age Triangle out there—Thome's best season was in 2002, when he was 31, and as a player with Hall of Fame-level gifts (or even just the one) it's wrong-headed, if not disingenuous, to suggest so early that Ryan Howard has almost certainly put his best years behind him.

But to be surprised by this contract is to say nothing about his prospects in the future—the Phillies are simply paying a lot of money for the Ryan Howard they have right now. 

And as Cardinals fans, he said, gulping theatrically, we'll have to get used to that. Gulp. 

That makes two players with which to triangulate Albert Pujols's eventual megadeal—Joe Mauer, who makes a nicely symmetrical $23 million from ages 28 to 35 (30 to 85, perhaps, in catcher years), and Ryan Howard, who, taking his current deal into account, is making almost the same money from 30 to 37. Mauer is younger than Pujols and similarly brilliant; Howard plays the same position as Pujols and has an MVP award because he drives Chase Utley in a lot. But whatever the metrics' opinions of these players, both belong among the very best players in baseball according to baseball fans, both local and national. 

That's the difference between Teixeira (or, for some reason, Chase Utley) and Pujols or Howard or Ichiro—when the GM is sitting across the figurative bargaining table (is there a literal bargaining table?) from the face of the franchise, the one player whose absence would convince casual fans that the team doesn't care about winning, there's an added value and an added urgency to contract negotiations. Trading Johan Santana was too bad for the Twins and their fans, but signing Joe Mauer was a referendum. The Phillies are the most successful team in the National League as the decade begins, but losing Ryan Howard would disconnect the newly cutthroat Phillies—trading for Cliff Lee and then Roy Halladay—from the ones that finally shook them from their early-aughts malaise. 

I can't look at the Phillies' books—though I guess I haven't asked—but that's my best guess; Joe Mauer, Ryan Howard, and Albert Pujols are worth more to their home teams than they are to any other club that might be able to afford them. Joe Mauer's energized a fanbase that's already enjoying a new stadium, and ensuring that Albert Pujols ends his career in St. Louis would prevent the Best Fanbase in Baseball from tearing their own new stadium apart, retro-styled brick by retro-styled brick, and burying it beneath Ballpark Village. 

It already seemed likely that Pujols would get more than Mauer (and less than A-Rod) when the time came, but comparisons between them were always nebulous; Mauer is younger, but he's also a catcher. What's worrying about the Ryan Howard deal is that, unless we all manage, collectively, to turn back thirty years of baseball analysis between now and 2012, Pujols is so clearly better.