You cannot decide which of these contracts is a more abject disaster without knowing the numbers. (All data for this article was taken from www.baseball-reference.com.)
Ryan Howard's contract with the Philadelphia Phillies runs through 2016. He will make $20 million in 2013, then $25M per year for the 2014-2016 seasons. At that point, he will have made $95M for those four seasons, and the Phillies will then have the choice of paying him $23M more for 2017 or (more likely it seems) buying that year out for another $10M. So Howard is guaranteed $105M through 2016.
Alex Rodriguez's contract with the New York Yankees runs through 2017. His salaries for the next five seasons: $28M, $25M, $21M, $20M, $20M. He will also receive a $1M bonus in 2013 and a $3M bonus in 2014. By the end of the 2017 season, Rodriguez will have made $118M for those five seasons and the contract will be over.
There is a kicker: Rodriguez will receive $6M for each of the following home runs he hits, if he ever does: #660 (ties Willie Mays), #714 (ties Babe Ruth), #755 (ties Hank Aaron) and #s 762 and 763 (ties and breaks Barry Bonds's record).
Rodriguez has 643 home runs now, so the Mays mark is definitely within reach. Ruth's total is also in play, even if his skills continue to erode. Rodriguez has five-and-a-half seasons from now to hit 71 more home runs. That's less than 14 per year. That's doable.
As such, Rodriguez is likely into the Yankees for $130M by the time his deal expires.
Armed with the figures, you can now assess each of these contracts in context.
Rodriguez will be 42 years old in October of 2017. He has not played 140 games in a season since 2007. Last year right knee and left thumb injuries contributed to limit him to 99 games. He has played 88 of the Yankees' 91 games so far this year, but that has not kept his numbers from continuing a gradual and seemingly unstoppable slide:
2007: 54 HR, 156 RBI, .314 BA, 1.067 OPS (his last Most Valuable Player campaign)
2008: 35 HR, 103 RBI, .302 BA, .965 OPS
2009: 30 HR, 100 RBI, .286 BA, .933 OPS
2010: 30 HR, 125 RBI, .270 BA, .847 OPS
2011: 16 HR, 62 RBI, .276 BA, .823 OPS
Rodriguez's OPS has thus decreased for four straight years. To date in 2012 it is .788.
Perhaps more troubling for the Yankees is that, as Rodriguez has become older and more injury-prone, his ability to credibly play third base has just about disappeared. "So what," you might say, "they'll just DH him."
That would work, except the Yankees also have Mark Teixeira under contract through 2016 at $22.5M per season, and you have to believe he will be ready for some days off sooner than later as he approaches his mid-30s.
For that matter, Derek Jeter cannot play shortstop forever. A way to keep The Captain around would be to stash him at DH. Tough to do with Rodriguez and Teixeira in the way.
Howard will be 36 years old in October of 2016. Until this season, following a freak Achilles tendon injury on the last play of the 2011 National League Division Series, Howard had played no fewer than 143 games since becoming the Phillies' full-time starter at first base in 2006 with seasons of 159, 160 and 162 games to his credit. Howard's numbers have also slipped some:
2007: 47 HR, 136 RBI, .268 BA, .976 OPS
2008: 48 HR, 146 RBI, .251 BA, .881 OPS
2009: 45 HR, 141 RBI, .279 BA, .931 OPS
2010: 31 HR, 108 RBI, .276 BA, .859 OPS
2011: 33 HR, 116 RBI, .253 BA, .835 OPS
The eye-opener for Phillies fans is the significant drop-offs in batting average and OPS in 2011 before the current five-year contract extension even began.
Howard also suffers from the plague that most one-dimensional sluggers carry: For his career, he has more strikeouts (1,214) than hits of any type (1,047). Watching Howard every day means seeing a lot of futile waves over sliders from left-handed relief specialists.
And where the Yankees at least have the option of hiding Rodriguez at DH sometimes, no one who has watched Howard play the field believes he can do anything in the National League but play first base—a pretty mediocre first base at that.
So which of these contracts is worse?
It has to be A-Rod's.
Much of the value of Rodriguez's contract, and much of its length, was tied to the thought that he would some day break Bonds's record, returning the title of "all-time home run king" to the Bronx. When he was still hitting 30 bombs a year, Yankee fans (and executives, no doubt) were talking about 800 career home runs as Rodriguez's ceiling.
As seen above, though, Rodriguez's home run pace is much more suggestive of a player whose probable endpoint is more like 750 home runs.
Unbelievably great...but if he finishes third behind Aaron and Bonds—I order them that way intentionally—it is just not the return on investment the Yankees got into this for. And the Yankees will almost certainly struggle to find places in the field where he can play without hurting the team...or himself.
Comparatively, while Howard's contract may ultimately prove unwise, he has the following factors in his favor at least when discussing him against Rodriguez: He is younger and nobody has tied his contract value to catching Barry Bonds.
Would the Phillies like to see Howard hit 500 home runs in their uniform? Of course. But he only has 287 home runs now. Do you see four 50+ home run seasons in Howard's future? If so, you are the only one. Ironically then, Howard benefits from what must necessarily now be tempered expectations.
At this point, if Howard just resumes his more recent paces of 30/100/.255/.850 for a few more years, the Phillies will have to be pretty satisfied. If that happens, Howard's contract still will not be considered a great deal for anyone but Howard.
But at least it won't be the dud firework that A-Rod's will almost certainly turn out to be.