Ruben Amaro’s Greatest Hits
I got into a discussion over the weekend with a friend who was shocked that I can’t recognize every song on my iTunes. This comes from years of sharing with friends and being told to check out this band or another and never really getting around to it, as well as my not really being a Serious Music Person anymore. This is particularly true when it comes to the old classics–rather than assimilating a band’s entire catalog and poring over deep album cuts, as often as not I like to just pick up the Greatest Hits album, even for a band I really really like, like Talking Heads or Queen. I get all the old favorites with relatively little of what didn’t work. Purists probably think it’s lazy, and they’re probably right, but I don’t care.
But what if we did the same thing for general managers? What if we went through Ruben’s oeuvre and took stock of his biggest moves? The Phillies, near as I can tell, have enjoyed an unprecedented run of success for several reasons: 1) A fantastic streak of luck with high draft picks under Ed Wade, 2) a fantastic streak of luck with scrap heap pickups under Pat Gillick, and 3) an infusion of cash to the payroll under Amaro that brought the team from baseball’s upper middle class to the tier of team that gets protested by college students who are cheesed off they missed the ’60s.
One note: anyone who’s read my stuff over the past 30 months has probably figured out where this is going, so I’d like to qualify whatever invective comes next by admitting there’s a lot I don’t know. There’s more to the general manager’s job than making trades and signing players, and I don’t know how Amaro’s performed in those areas. More goes into transactions than just the GM’s whim. Again, I am ignorant of such considerations. I don’t know what he thinks, or how, and really, I’m judging him as a proxy for the Phillies’ front office as a whole. Equivocation over, let’s go through some of those big moves and see what he’s done.
Dec. 12, 2008: Raul Ibanez signed to a three-year, $31.5 million contract
Not an auspicious start. Amaro, in his first major deal since taking over, lets 32-year-old left fielder Pat Burrell walk. Knowing that Burrell’s best years were probably behind him, and that several core players would need to be locked up long term, this was a shrewd move. However, Amaro replaced Burrell with a player who was five years older, coming off roughly the same offensive season with no better defensive results, and was left-handed, unlike Burrell but like Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. And paid almost twice as much over the life of the contract to do it. Make no mistake, while Ibanez was awful in Philadelphia after a blistering first two months of 2009, Burrell was worse in Tampa. But perhaps the best move would have been not to sign either one.
Dec. 15, 2008: Jamie Moyer signed to a two-year, $16 million contract
Hey, $8 million a year for a guy who averaged 15 wins and just under 200 innings over the past two seasons and won you a World Series game? Sounds great if you make absolutely no effort to learn that he was entering his age-46 season and that you’d be plunking down mid-rotation money for a guy whose age and stuff screamed replacement-level. Moyer’s 2008 was one of only two times since 2003 in which he was was more than a win above replacement by bWAR. So naturally he deserved multiple years and multiple millions of dollars.
July 15, 2009: Phillies sign Pedro Martinez to a one-year contract
Awesome. The Phillies were in a position where they didn’t know what they were getting out of Cole Hamels and Moyer, and they needed another arm to try to repeat. It was cool seeing one of the best pitchers of all time up close, and he actually pitched pretty well, posting a 117 ERA+ and a 4.6 K/BB ratio in nine starts. There’s no such thing as a bad one-year contract.
I thought this was lunacy at the time, because for some reason I was enormously high on Jason Knapp of all people, and I wasn’t convinced that Lee’s 2008 Cy Young season was anything more than a fluke. I apologize for being so aggressively stupid. Lee went on to become a fan favorite and solidify his status as one of the best pitchers in the game, while just about everything has gone wrong for the Indians. Donald and Marson haven’t really hit much, Carrasco still hasn’t become the solid mid-rotation starter the Phillies had hoped he’d be, and Knapp has had two shoulder surgeries since the trade and hasn’t thrown a regular-season pitch in almost two years. The Phillies were undisputed winners here.
Dec. 3, 2009: Placido Polanco signed to a 3-year, $18 million contract with an option for a fourth
Polanco’s been okay. Having Chase Utley, who hits like a corner infielder, makes up for Polanco hitting like a middle infielder at least a little bit, and his defense has made him a useful player through the first two years of the deal. However, Amaro jumped too early at Polanco, not sticking around long enough to find out that Adrian Beltre could be had for one year at $9 million. Not the worst deal of his tenure, but just one of a litany of instances in which Amaro jumped at the chance to lock up a player in his mid-30s long-term without really waiting to see if there was a better option out there.
Dec. 16, 2009: Travis d’Arnaud, Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for Roy Halladay; Cliff Lee traded to the Seattle Mariners for Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies, and J.C. Ramirez.
This is probably the biggest day of Amaro’s tenure thus far. If two pitchers of Halladay’s and Lee’s caliber were ever moved by the same team on the same day, I don’t remember it. It’s essentially a move of one top-line starting pitcher and three top-line prospects for the best pitcher in the game and three slightly lesser prospects. The argument for trading Lee was that the Phillies couldn’t afford to keep both Lee and Halladay after Lee hit free agency, and Halladay was the guy the Phillies wanted all along. Best to grab Halladay, sign him long-term, and cash in on Lee to replenish a depleted farm system.
Knowing what we know now, that d’Arnaud would turn into perhaps the top catching prospect in the game, that Aumont, Gillies, and Ramirez perhaps weren’t as good as we once thought…for that matter, whatever has become of J.C. Ramirez? He might as well be playing volleyball with Tom Hanks on a deserted island. Anyway, knowing what we know about those guys, and that Taylor would be flipped for Brett Wallace would be flipped for Anthony Gose (more on him later), this trade looks slightly less good than it did two years ago.
In a perfect world, one in which the Phillies had known that they’d have the money to spend on Lee as a free agent, and one in which they knew what would become of the prospects they traded for, the wisest decision would probably have been to flip Joe Blanton instead for whatever they could get, but that’s a lot of hindsight.
Given the choice to either make these trades or not make them, I’d do it again, without hesitation.
Dec. 31, 2009: Danys Baez signed to a two-year contract
I know the Phillies’ bullpen–after the return of Chad Durbin and J.C. Romero to Earth, and the unfortunate death of Brad Lidge–went from being a strength in 2008 to possibly costing them the World Series in 2009. But I’m not sure how that warrants giving any free-agent middle reliever a two-year, multimillion-dollar deal, particularly when he hasn’t been effective in five years. There’s no logic there. Repeat this statement for the less for signing of Jose Contreras three weeks later than his two-year extension after the 2010 season.
April 26, 2010: Signed Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract extension.
I started this project because I was trying to pinpoint the exact moment I figured out that the Phillies had absolutely no idea what they were doing from a roster construction standpoint. It wasn’t the day the contract was announced, because I literally could not fathom at the time how huge a mistake it was, but it was over the following weeks, when it dawned on me that Howard was an average first baseman, and the Phillies had given him the first half the A-Rod deal for the decline phase of his career.
There’s not getting around this one: Amaro took Ed Wade to the cleaners. Oswalt was very good in a season and a half in Philadelphia, and the Phillies sold high on a one-year fluke in Happ. If these are Amaro’s Greatest Hits, this is his “This Must Be the Place.”
Nov. 1, 2010: Jayson Werth granted free agency
Thank God Rube didn’t try to beat Washington’s offer for Werth. I like Werth as much as the next guy, but you’d have to have taken complete leave of your senses to try to beat 7 years, $126 million for a 32-year-old who had only spent three full seasons as a starter.
Dec. 9, 2010: Selected Michael Martinez in Rule V Draft.
It’s still unclear to me what, exactly, Martinez contributes to the team, or why he spent 234 plate appearances contributing it last season. But hey, just because he didn’t even make it to AA until age 26 and had a career minor league OBP of .315 doesn’t mean he’s not a prospect! Let’s keep him on the roster all year–we’d sure hate to lose such a find as Martinez.
Someone needs to make it known that the Johan Santanas and Roberto Clementes (or even the Shane Victorinos or Derrick Turnbows) of the Rule V draft are extremely rare, and the reason these guys are left unprotected is that they’re almost universally crap.
June 6, 2011: Phillies select Larry Greene with the 39th pick in the Rule IV Draft
I bring this up because the Phillies reached for a kid from the middle of the woods in Georgia who had never faced top-level pitching and as a high schooler was already too musclebound to play anywhere but first base in the major leagues. On a personal note, the Phillies passed on University of South Carolina outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., a potential top-15 pick who slipped to No. 40 (one spot after the Phillies) because of an injury from which he’d already recovered by the time the draft came around. Bradley has speed, contact skills, and one of the best batting eyes in the minor leagues, and thanks to having played three years of college baseball at the highest level, in addition to being older than Greene, will be major-league ready long before the guy who got drafted before him.
I know you’re sick of hearing me complain about Greene-over-Bradley, because it’s all I talk about, but this pick is representative of two problems with the Phillies’ draft philosophy: first, that their reliance on free agency has robbed them of first-round draft picks that allowed them to get at the very best amateur talent. And second, that they have consistently taken high schoolers from areas with relatively low levels of competition.
The most sure prospects are major-college guys. These players play for good Pac-12, Big 12, ACC or SEC teams (or a traditional mid-major power like Rice or Long Beach State) and have already been facing minor-league-level competition, often on television and in high-visibility events, for three years. These players are lower-risk and reach the majors quickly. Bradley is such a player as this, as were Pat Burrell and Chase Utley. More recent examples: Evan Longoria, Troy Tulowitzki, David Price, Buster Posey, and Tim Lincecum. Don’t get me wrong, these guys flame out all the time, and Bradley might too. But the hit rate is much higher on top-level college players in the draft, and the Phillies haven’t spent their first pick on one of those since Joe Savery in 2007.
There’s even a difference between tiers of high school players. The best players in the Southeast, Texas, and California get scouted a ton. If they go to a big enough school or get scouted enough live, you might know as much about a high school prospect as a major college prospect–this was why the top of last year’s draft had high schooler Dylan Bundy thrown in with UCLA’s pair of aces, Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. Bundy had been scouted to death by every team, and was quite polished as a high schooler. Because they were scouted so thoroughly and played against other talented amateur players, no one really doubted Cole Hamels, Josh Beckett, or Clayton Kershaw, even though they were all high school pitchers, theoretically the riskiest draft investment.
By contrast, the high schoolers the Phillies have been drafting–not only Greene but Jesse Biddle and Anthony Hewitt as well–come from schools that, either by size or location, are outside the traditional amateur scouting crucible. We know they’re big and can either throw hard or hit hard, but we don’t know how they’ll fare against professional-level competition, or at least, we know with less certainty than if they had played three years at Florida State.
Yes, it’s true that reaching outside the traditional scouting hotbeds can land you a Brett Lawrie or Mike Trout every so often, but you risk a lot when you do that every single year, as the Phillies have under Amaro. If you hit every time, or most of the time, you can gain an advantage, but if you don’t, which is more likely, you wind up with a team of major leaguers on the wrong side of 30, no one in the high minors to replace them when they’re gone, and nowhere else to turn except the free agent pool, which seemingly gets older, weaker, and more expensive every year.
Again, I’m not sure how much of this is Amaro’s fault, but if you want to know why the Phillies are old and no relief is on the way, the first place you should look is the starting rotation, which was bought at a high price in prospects (though Vance Worley was a third-round pick out of a powerhouse college). The next is the draft.
The top two minor league prospects in the system for an average outfielder who has had two really good seasons thanks to inexplicable and temporary surges in line drive percentage and, by extension, BABIP. Before a hamate fracture in spring training 2011, it would not have been not out of the question for Brown to match Pence’s .341 wOBA in 2010. Instead, the Phillies lucked into the two best months of Pence’s career, and to make room demoted Brown, who was ostensibly learning from the first everyday major league experience of his career, instead of benching Ibanez, who, like Pence, was still dining out on his first two months as a Phillies player having been the best two months of his career. Never mind that Brown, at the time, was outperforming Ibanez in every facet of the game.
I can’t see how anyone with more than a passing understanding of the game can look at these two transactions and think they were a good idea in either the short or long term. This trade wasn’t even risky or shortsighted. It was just wrong.
Not to put too fine a point on it.
Nov. 14, 2011: Jonathan Papelbon signed to four-year, $50 million contract with vesting option
Generally speaking, no relief pitcher is good enough or pitches enough innings to warrant an eight-figure annual salary. Apart from Mariano Rivera, no relief pitcher is reliable enough to make it desirable to lock him up for more than two, maybe three years, or prudent to do so.
Not even Jonathan Papelbon.
Dec. 8, 2011: Laynce Nix signed to a two-year, $2.5 million
He’s actually hit quite well, so maybe bad process yields a good result, but remember that Danys Baez thing? This is where the Phillies gave a multi-year major-league deal to a thirtysomething who was never all that good to begin with instead of giving the job to a younger minor leaguer who would be cheaper, lend greater roster flexibility if he has options, and has the potential to 1) improve or 2) surprise you by playing well. But no, that didn’t work out the last time the Phillies didn’t try it. Better to pay more than market value for a commodity no one is wants. So I’ll move on.
Dec. 19, 2011: Jimmy Rollins signed to a three-year, $33 million contract with a vesting option
This is a market-value deal to re-sign a decent player, albeit one with particular historical significance to the Phillies. But given the state of the shortstop market right now, a defensive player of Rollins’ caliber who adds anything whatsoever with the bat is a worthwhile investment, even if said bat has seen better days. This was a solid, if not particularly shrewd move.
Jan. 17, 2012: Cole Hamels signed to a one-year, $15 million contract
I think this has been the most exhausting writing experience of my time at Crashburn Alley, and for the coup de grace, perhaps the worst contract since Ryan Howard’s. It’s instructive that the Phillies leapt over themselves to re-sign Howard for more than he was worth years before it was necessary to re-sign him at all, and Hamels, who is younger and better than Howard, goes unsigned past this year.
These two deals, side-by-side, represent what’s most frustrating about Ruben Amaro as a GM: he’s capable of pulling off a sneaky blockbuster and isn’t afraid to take risks to grab top talent, which is more than can be said for many of his contemporaries. But in the end, he’s the leader of an organization that values Ryan Howard more than Cole Hamels, and that’s why the Phillies are clinging to the end of their window, a window that, given long-term planning and more insightful player evaluation, didn’t need to end ever.
Ryan Sommers made an offhand comment while we were recording our last podcast that he’d be okay with the Phillies going into rebuilding mode if someone else was doing the rebuilding. But we don’t know when that will come, or even if it will, because it’s entirely possible the Phillies think they can re-sign Shane Victorino, throw a ton of money at Carlos Lee in the free agent market this winter, and contend in 2013 even if Hamels walks. For that matter, it’s possible that Ruben Amaro is under the influence of an alien power through the Ktarian game and the only reason the Phillies re-signed Rollins or tendered Ryan Madson at all is that they’ve got Wesley Crusher and the young Ashley Judd running around undoing RAJ’s mistakes before the Phillies get taken over entirely.
The point is that given what we know about the Phillies’ inner workings, we’re left with no choice but to judge based on process, which has at times looked really good but at other times looked unspeakably bad. The end result: I don’t want to go through a rebuild with Amaro in charge, but he can’t get fired until they start losing, (and lest I risk losing my ticket-buying status through negativity, I don’t think that’s happened yet, but winter is coming), and by the time that happens, it will have been too late for years.
If this greatest hits compilation is any indication, we can conclude that the process is to find older players, pay too much for them, and keep them for too long. I don’t want that to be the Phillies’ modus operandi going forward, but until the reunion tour and the comeback album, I don’t know what other conclusion to draw.