Ruben Amaro’s Market-Changing Mistakes
When Ryan Howard signed that five-year, $125 million contract extension back in April 2010, many proponents said at the time that it would look comparatively cheap once Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder got their big contracts, plus inflation would balloon future contracts, too. And that wasn’t altogether incorrect. Pujols signed a ten-year, $240 million contract with the Angels and year two (2013) was just no fun for them as the future Hall of Famer dealt with injuries and diminished effectiveness. Fielder, now a Ranger, signed a nine-year, $214 million contract with the Tigers in January 2012. Joey Votto also signed an extension with the Reds in early April 2012 worth $225 million over ten years.
While those deals are about twice as long and twice as expensive, it’s the Howard extension that comes out looking the worst for two reasons: the extension didn’t kick in for two years (in other words, it was signed in 2010 but began in 2012 when Howard was 32) and Howard’s decline began immediately. Since 2010, FanGraphs lists Howard at 1.9 Wins Above Replacement since 2010. Since Pujols signed his big deal: 4.4 fWAR. Fielder, 7.1. Votto, 11.8. Fielder and Votto still have some of their youth left, as well.
First basemen haven’t gotten big money since that group of four struck it rich. Thus far in the off-season, international free agent Jose Dariel Abreu was the most successful, getting a six-year, $68 million deal from the White Sox. Following up is Mike Napoli, who received $32 million over two years from the Red Sox. Last off-season, Nick Swisher was the big winner, getting $56 million over four years from the Indians. In second place was Adam LaRoche, striking a two-year, $24 million deal with the Nationals.
Now, with teams locking up their young, productive players earlier and earlier — the Diamondbacks signed first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to a five-year, $32 million contract extension in March, for example — it will become harder and harder to find quality talent through free agency. The Phillies tried to do that with Howard but missed badly, setting the example for other teams to avoid getting involved in lengthy, expensive contracts with first basemen.
It looks like Amaro may have done the same thing with the closer market. The Phillies have been trying to trade Jonathan Papelbon throughout the off-season but have drawn only mild interest. The reasons are obvious and have been stated here countless times: Papelbon is old, he’s expensive (still owed either $26 million over two years or $39 million over three years if his option vests), and he is declining rather spectacularly. At SB Nation, Grant Brisbee wonders if we’ll ever see a closer get another contract like the one Amaro gave Papelbon. Based on the results so far, it’s hard to see it.
The world champion Red Sox showed why depth is the most important quality of a bullpen rather than having a “proven closer”. The Sox had Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan, two “proven closers”, but both were some combination of injured and ineffective, leading them to rely on Uehara in the ninth inning by the end of June. Uehara was, of course, magnificent and the Sox couldn’t have dreamed up a better third-string closer.
So far this off-season, Joe Nathan and Joaquin Benoit have gotten the biggest contracts among free agent closers, taking home $20 million over two years from the Tigers and $15.5 million over two years from the Padres, respectively. This past off-season, Rafael Soriano received a two-year, $28 million deal from the Nationals; Brandon League got $22.5 million over three years from the Dodgers; and Jonathan Broxton got $21 million over three years from the Reds. Nothing remotely close to the record-setting four-year, $60 million deal (with a fifth-year vesting option) contract the Phillies gave to Papelbon two years ago.
As a GM, one of the worst terms someone can use to describe a contract you worked out with a player is “albatross”, which the dictionary defines as, “a constant and inescapable burden or handicap.” It is a perfect description of both the Howard and Papelbon contracts, but beyond that, Amaro’s poor decision-making completely altered free agency and two positions. Amaro was burned so badly that GM’s have become reticent to risk getting singed themselves. Free agency is no longer a market for first-rate talent, but a secondary market for teams who have made mistakes with scouting, drafting, trading, and/or recognizing and locking up their young talent.