Howard not worried about arbitration

February 15, 2008 4:00:26 PM PST
Ryan Howard's smile was genuine and his words were sincere. The slugger really has no worries about his contract situation.

Howard and the Philadelphia Phillies are $3 million apart regarding his salary for this season. The 2006 NL MVP asked for $10 million, while the team countered with an offer for $7 million. If the two sides don't reach an agreement by Wednesday, an arbitrator will decide for them.

Some players might hold a grudge or possibly express their displeasure by waiting until the last moment to arrive for spring training. Not Howard. He showed up with pitchers and catchers, five days earlier than position players are due.

"I'm just a happy guy I guess," Howard said. "I'm just trying to be the best player I can, trying to get better in every facet."

Howard's formal news conference scheduled for Friday afternoon was canceled, but he spoke to reporters after spending extra time working on his fielding. He wouldn't discuss his pending arbitration hearing, but didn't seem like he had any animosity toward management.

"It's fun to be down here. I'm anxious to go," Howard said. "We made some good moves this offseason. I'm excited.

"I'm not distracted by anything. I'm not thinking about anything other than trying to get my game right. I've always been laid-back about that stuff. As long as it's between the white lines, that's all I can handle."

The Phillies have been criticized by fans and some media for not giving Howard a long-term deal. But the 28-year-old first baseman can't become a free agent until after the 2011 season, so there's no reason they should commit more than $100 million now.

The team's offer of $7 million ties the most for a player in his first year of arbitration eligibility. If Howard gets the $10 million, it would be the highest figure awarded a player who won his case. Alfonso Soriano sought $12 million from the Washington Nationals in 2006 and got $10 million after losing his case.

General manager Pat Gillick wouldn't comment about the specifics, but was pleased to see Howard already here.

"He's in a very positive frame of mind," Gillick said. "If he wasn't here, it'd be some concern. But he showed up early, he's working hard and he wants to get going."

Howard batted .268 with 47 homers and 136 RBIs last season in what was considered a down year for him. That's because he had 58 homers with 149 RBIs and a .313 average in '06 in one of the best seasons by a second-year player.

But winning the MVP award took a toll on Howard. He spent much of his offseason on the banquet circuit and that affected his workout program. As a result, Howard started slow and was nagged by leg injuries for much of the first two months.

Still, Howard put up big numbers and helped the Phillies win the National League East title for the first time since 1993. He also set the major league record for strikeouts in a season with 199.

This spring, Howard looks leaner - he said he lost 10-15 pounds - after working out regularly in the offseason.

"I'm definitely feeling a lot better than last spring," Howard said. "I worked out a lot more and got into my routine. Last year, I came in behind schedule as far as where I wanted to be and how I wanted to feel."

Howard wants to improve his defense, particularly his throws to second base. He clearly needs to cut down his strikeouts, too. The big man also joked that he'd like to increase his stolen bases.

First, he'll have to persuade manager Charlie Manuel to let him run.

"Charlie said the only green light I have is 3-0," said Howard, who has one career steal. "We have to work something out."

Manuel wisely won't change his stance.

"He may steal two or three bases on the back end of a double steal," Manuel said.

As for the arbitration case, Manuel has been around Howard long enough to know it won't be an issue.

"It's not going to affect him," Manuel said. "He comes to the ballpark ready to play. He stays focused. He's all business."

There's still a chance the Phillies and Howard's agent, Casey Close, can reach an agreement before next week's hearing and avoid a possibly messy situation.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Howard said.

Good chance whatever the outcome is won't be that big a deal for Howard.