One does not earn the nickname “Smuggy” without putting his reputation on the line. Since taking over for Pat Gillick after the 2008 season, Ruben Amaro has been the daredevil GM in Major League Baseball, putting together arguably the best starting rotation of all-time and signing Ryan Howard to one of the largest contracts in baseball history. Although the Phillies haven’t won a World Series under Amaro, they have continued to reach the post-season and even set a franchise record for wins (dating back to 1883) with 102 just this past season.
Amaro’s signature move came in the winter after the 2010 regular season. At the time, the media had been reporting that the bidding war for Cliff Lee‘s services was down to the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers, with Texas considered the slight favorite as Lee’s wife had a bad experience with some Yankees fans. Suddenly, a “mystery team” emerged, a term initially met with skepticism and derision. On December 14, the Phillies announced that they and Lee had agreed on a five-year, $120 million contract. Both Yankees and Rangers fans were left mouth agape as Phillies fans celebrated getting their guy back.
Still, it wasn’t happening. Every time Amaro made an offer, the Lees asked for just a little bit more. The Rangers were offering Lee $138 million for six years. And the Yankees were offering him the choice of either a six-year, $138 million deal or a seven-year, $148 million contract. Amaro simply wouldn’t be able to bridge the gap.
So by the afternoon of December 12th — three weeks after Kristen Lee had pleaded with Amaro not to break her heart again — “The deal was dead,” Amaro says. “We said, ‘That’s it. We’re done. It’s dead. Out. Done.’”
Conceding defeat, [Assistant GM Scott] Proefrock sent [Lee's agent Darek] Braunecker a text. “I feel sick about this,” he wrote. Braunecker’s response: “I feel the same way.” It was that response, so emotional, so devoid of cunning and games, that gave Proefrock the feeling that maybe, just maybe, there was still a shred of hope. They would make one last offer: $120 million. Five years.
Later that night, Amaro’s cell phone rang. “Ruben?” Once again, the voice of Braunecker on the other end. “You got Cliff back.”
Amaro doesn’t utilize Moneyball principles when constructing a roster. In fact, the Phillies are considered one of the few teams left in baseball that aren’t particularly progressive. Instead, Amaro takes his team’s one big advantage — money — and throws it at the best players available. With that approach, he has acquired Lee as well as Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Hunter Pence while keeping the core players around. Under Amaro, the Phillies’ Opening Day payroll rose from $98 million in 2008 to $113 million in ’09, then to $138 million in ’10 and $166 million last year.
Because of the risk involved with big contracts, Sabermetrically-inclined people tend to wince at just about everything Amaro even hints at doing. The Phillies are agreed to a contract with reliever Jonathan Papelbon just days after a four-year, $44 million deal with Ryan Madson fell through. The Papelbon contract, like many of Amaro’s contracts, has been met with distaste, but let’s review all of the multi-year contracts Amaro has handed out since he became GM of the Phillies. Perhaps he is on to something the rest of us are missing.
It would be very easy to take every contract and compare it to a dollars/fWAR metric, but I’d rather just review some descriptive stats to provide a general feeling. I am personally not a fan of using WAR for pitchers (especially relievers) and WAR for position players is reliant on rather unreliable defensive data. So, let’s start from the top.
12/12/2008 Raul Ibanez (free agent) 3 years, $31.5M
Ibanez posted a .342 wOBA, above the league average (between .312-.324). The bulk of his value came in the first half of the 2009 season, when he went into the All-Star break with a 1.015 OPS. The second half saw just a .774 OPS in part due to a groin strain. While still above-average, Ibanez’s 2010 season was his first since 2003. Ibanez completely tanked in 2011, finishing with an OPS barely above .700. In all three years at a non-premium position, Ibanez was a defensive liability and was a detriment on the bases. fWAR values Ibanez at $18 million over the three years. Even without using that, I think it’s safe to say that the Ibanez contract was a flop, especially considering that it isn’t difficult to find offense at that position at a cheaper price.
12/15/2008 Jamie Moyer (re-signed) 2 years, $13M
Between 2009-10, at the ages of 46 and 47, Moyer pitched to a 4.90 ERA. At the time, the Phillies did not have a super-rotation, so Moyer factored into the middle of a starting rotation that figured to include Cole Hamels, Brett Myers, and Joe Blanton. That said, given Moyer’s age and uninspiring peripherals, the money could have been better spent on a more reliable option for the back of the starting rotation. The deal wasn’t a flop like the Ibanez contract, but the Phillies certainly didn’t get positive value out of it.
1/18/2009 Cole Hamels (extension) 3 years, $20.5M
One does not need to closely examine the statistics to conclude that this was a good deal. At the time, Hamels was coming off of a great season, posting a 3.09 ERA during the regular season and winning World Series MVP honors as well. The sky was the limit for the 25-year-old, who had several years of potentially-costly arbitration ahead of him. It was absolutely the right move for the Phillies to buy out all but one of his remaining arbitration years.
However, Hamels quickly earned the ire of the Phillies fan base when his 2009 season went into the toilet. Hamels finished a topsy-turvy regular season with a 4.32 ERA. Unlike the previous post-season, the Phillies could rely on someone else, namely Cliff Lee. Hamels’ struggles continued in the post-season, resulting in him wishing for the season to end after his start in Game Three of the World Series against the New York Yankees. Needless to say, Hamels put his nose to the grindstone and came back a new man in 2010. He refined his curve and added a cutter, helping him dramatically increase the rate at which hitters swung and missed. Over the three years of the deal, Hamels’ ERA is 3.36, right in line with defense-independent metrics. Along with Lee and Clayton Kershaw, Hamels emerged as one of the top-three left-handed starters in baseball. Yes, this deal was absolutely a good call from Amaro.
2/8/2009 Ryan Howard (extension) 3 years, $54M
Doesn’t this contract look like a pittance compared to his more recent contract? At the time this was signed, Howard had yet another season with 45+ home runs and 130+ RBI. The traditional metrics made the guy look like a god, even though his performance had been on a three-year decline and teams had already figured out his weakness (left-handed relievers throwing sliders low and away). However, the Phillies did not have any other options at first base and Howard figured to be a big part of any successful Phillies teams in the future. With an average annual value of $18 million, the deal paid Howard very handsomely, but the three-year duration gave the Phillies ample room to maneuver in the event that Howard declined precipitously.
Over the three years of the deal, Howard posted a .372 wOBA, well above the league average, but it was only the 11th-highest mark among first basemen. Although Howard’s 2009 season was quite good, the following two years were mediocre relative to other players at his position, and he did not bring any other tools to the table such as defense or base running. fWAR values Howard at $33 million between 2009-11, roughly 60 percent what he was to be paid. Although Howard certainly didn’t live up to the contract performance-wise, I think Amaro was justified in offering it given the short length and the team’s position at the time. Let’s call it a push.
12/1/2009 Brian Schneider (free agent) 2 years/ $2.75M
Amaro signed Schneider to play back-up to Carlos Ruiz, getting roughly 25 percent of the playing time behind the dish. Schneider was decent in 2010, posting a .324 wOBA, but disappeared in 2011, finishing at .227. However, he wasn’t signed for his offense; he was simply supposed to handle his pitchers and play non-terrible defense, which it seems like he did. Furthermore, he quickly earned the trust of 2011 Rookie of the Year candidate Vance Worley, catching in a majority of the right-hander’s starts. Whatever Schneider lacked in stats, he made up for in “other stuff”. Nothing wrong with this deal.
12/3/2009 Placido Polanco (free agent) 3 years, $18M
While many were focusing on free agent third basemen like Adrian Beltre and Chone Figgins, Amaro shrewdly focused on second baseman Placido Polanco. Polanco had earned a reputation as a defensive wizard while with the Detroit Tigers, spending every single inning at second base. Amaro, however, felt that Polanco could be an asset at third base for the Phillies while his bat control could be an asset in the #2 spot in the lineup.
Amaro was correct about Polanco’s glove, and that alone may be enough to pay for the contract. However, Polanco did have the worst offensive season of his career in 2011, finishing with a .304 wOBA. He did not live up to the “bat control” hype as Polanco set a career-low in batting average (.277) and strikeout rate (eight percent). The Polanco signing coincided with the Phillies’ shift from an offensively-focused team to a pitching-and-defense-focused team, so the lack of offense hurt less than it otherwise would have while his defense was more important. fWAR, with its ever-unreliable UZR metric, values Polanco at $29 million over the first two years of the contract. Even if UZR is grossly overstating Polanco’s defensive prowess, it is hard to argue that this contract was bad in any way (other than that Polanco is not Beltre).
12/15/2009 Ross Gload (free agent) 2 years, $2.6M
The Gload contract is a tale of two seasons. In 2010, Gload was reliable, providing occasional power from the left side off of the bench. He finished with a .348 wOBA. With a hip injury that nagged at him all season, Gload’s 2011 was the worst of his career. He had just eight extra-base hits (all doubles) as his wOBA dipped to .266. Given the relative strength of his 2010, he was overall a net positive. fWAR values him at about $1 million overall between the two years. Still, I have a hard time faulting Amaro for this. It’s a push.
12/16/2009 Roy Halladay (extension) 3 years, $60M
There’s not much to say about this other than that this deal is pretty awesome. In the first year of the deal, Halladay pitched a perfect game in the regular season and a no-hitter in the NLDS. Oh, and he took home the NL Cy Young award unanimously with a 2.44 ERA (2.80 xFIP). Halladay improved in 2011, finishing with a 2.35 ERA (2.71 xFIP). At the time, the Phillies were famously sticking to a policy where no players received a multi-year contract of four years or more, one reason why Halladay agreed to such a team-friendly deal. With Halladay’s blessing, the Phillies lured Cliff Lee back to Philadelphia with a five-year deal. (Halladay’s intangible value!) If you think this contract was bad, you are taking crazy pills.
12/31/2009 Danys Baez (free agent) 2 years, $5.25M
Baez was awful while with the Phillies. In fact, he was so bad, the Phillies released him with two months remaining on his deal. Baez finished 2010 with a 5.48 ERA, but he was inconceivably worse last year when he left the Phillies with a 6.25 ERA. It wasn’t exactly a buy-low deal; Amaro signed a pitcher with an injury history and declining peripherals on a multi-year, multi-million dollar contract. Given the volatility of relievers and the relative ease at which one can be found cheaper than $2.5 million per year, this contract was doomed from the start.
1/21/2010 Joe Blanton (extension) 3 years, $24M
In retrospect, this deal looks very bad since Blanton missed most of the 2011 season with an injury and he finished the 2010 season with a 4.82 ERA. Blanton, though, is an underrated pitcher who provides value when he isn’t injured or bitten by bad batted ball luck. In his time with the Phillies, Blanton’s xFIP is 3.87, ever so slightly above the league average. Still, given the Phillies’ strength in the rotation (Halladay, Lee, Hamels at the time), the Phillies could have simply taken Blanton to arbitration, then let him walk as a free agent. Most generously, this deal can be regarded as a push.
1/21/2010 Shane Victorino (extension) 3 years, $22M
As you can tell by the date, Amaro wanted to get his arbitration-eligible players their multi-year extensions and be done with the whole thing. In the previous four years as a regular with the Phillies, Victorino played great defense with one of the best arms in the game and ran the bases very well with great efficiency stealing bases. At the time, his bat was very underrated as he posted a .350 or greater wOBA in three consecutive years between 2007-09. Victorino’s production dipped slightly in 2010, but rebounded in a big way this past season. Through the end of August, Victorino found himself in the NL MVP conversation, but he tapered off in the final month, killing any hopes of earning some hardware. Overall, Victorino hit for a .372 wOBA, setting a career-high in strikeout-to-walk ratio and isolaTed Power. fWAR values Victorino at $41 million over the first two years of the contract. Even if fWAR is completely off-base in evaluating Victorino’s contributions, he has certainly been quite valuable since signing this deal.
1/24/2010 Carlos Ruiz (extension) 3 years, $8.85M
The unsung hero of the Phillies teams of the “playoff era”, Chooch was a no-brainer when it came to offering a contract extension. Every pitcher that has passed through Philadelphia — besides, perhaps, Vance Worley — has sung Ruiz’s praises. The guy expertly handles his pitchers, calls a good game, and is among the game’s best at blocking pitches in the dirt. Most impressively, he was an offensive monster in 2010 as his .366 wOBA was the fourth-highest among catchers with at least 350 plate appearances. The Phillies had no reliable Major League-ready catching prospects and the readily-available free agent catchers are as volatile as relievers, so it made perfect sense for the Phillies to extend Ruiz. Even if Ruiz didn’t have a great 2010 season, the contract was a huge bargain.
12/14/2010 Cliff Lee (free agent) 5 years, $120M
This contract is ever so slightly cheaper than the most recent Ryan Howard extension. The important distinction between the two is that Lee’s position is at one of great value, while Howard’s is not. Still, a five-year deal with an average annual value of $24 million is incredibly risky, especially for a pitcher. With the Indians, Lee was not exactly a model of consistency nor perfect health. However, Lee had three consecutive years (spanning 667 innings) where he was among the best pitchers in baseball both in terms of results and peripherals.
Lee arguably had the best season of his career in 2011, the first year of his contract. He finished with a 2.40 ERA (2.68 xFIP) and found himself in the conversation for the NL Cy Young award, along with Halladay and Clayton Kershaw. The contract will ultimately pay him through his age-36 season, not exactly his prime years. Ultimately, this is a deal that will be judged on results rather than the circumstances. Even without Lee, the Phillies would have had one of the best rotations in baseball (even if not historically great) and they didn’t advance past the NLDS with him in the first year, so it seems a bit superfluous. Amaro, though, signed Lee to an incredibly expensive contract to win another championship. If it happens, the risk is justified.
4/26/2010 Ryan Howard (extension) 5 years, $125M
Also known as the contract that split the Phillies’ fan base. Amaro did not want to allow Howard to hit free agency at the same time as Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, so he signed the 30-year-old to a five-year, $125 million contract extension that started in 2012, meaning that the contract would end after Howard’s age-36 season. For all of the warning flags present when Howard signed his initial extension, the same flags remained and more had cropped up. Still, the extension was universally hailed by all in the Phillies community except the Sabermetrically-inclined.
When the 2010 season finished, Howard had a typical offensive season with a .367 wOBA. However, his walk rate declined for the third consecutive season and his isolated power hit a career-low at .229 (it was .292 in the previous two seasons). Managers countered him with left-handed relievers who threw a heavy amount of sliders low-and-away. Howard showed little to no adaptability. In 2011, Howard improved his walk rate, but had the worst offensive season of his career as his wOBA dropped to .354. He showed increased preference to pull, which had a negative effect on both his power and plate coverage. Additionally, while he put in a lot of work improving his defense at first base, it could be considered only average at best. Even before the contract kicked in, it appeared to be a colossal failure.
Then, on the last play of the Phillies’ 2011 season in Game Five of the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals, Howard injured his Achilles running out of the batter’s box. The injury has the potential to put the kibosh on his entire 2012 season, the first year of the extension. If given the power, I think every Phillies fan would now undo the extension granted to Howard on that fateful day in late April, 2010. Of all the multi-year contracts Amaro has dished out, the Howard contract is the worst and there are no others in the same stratosphere.
- 12/12/2008 Raul Ibanez (free agent) 3 years, $31.5M
Going by groupings:
- Free agents: 2 good (Schneider, Polanco), 2 bad (Ibanez, Baez), 1 push (Gload), 1 unknown (Lee)
- Extensions: 4 good (Hamels, Halladay, Victorino, Ruiz), 1 bad (Howard [second]), 2 push (Howard [first], Blanton)
- Re-signings: 1 bad (Moyer)
When it comes to free agents, Amaro is more or less breaking even. He’s had better success on extending players as four of the seven can be deemed successful. Of them all, the Howard, Lee, and Papelbon contracts (each either recently started or to begin in 2012) stick out the most and, ultimately, Amaro’s legacy will be judged by them and not by his noteworthy mid-season acquisitions.