The Phillies Have Had A Relatively Good Off-Season
Reading the reactions to every player the Phillies have been rumored to have shown interest in, you’d think GM Ruben Amaro was constructing a roster of beer league softball players. The knee-jerk negative reaction to every Phillies transaction, rumored or made official, has more to do with two, going on three, years of frustration after the Phillies won the NL East five seasons in a row. It has to do with losing faith in a GM who signed one of the worst contracts in baseball history, gave a significant amount of playing time to Michael Young and Delmon Young, and was sharply derisive of statistical analysis in baseball.
The Phillies won 73 games and lost 89 last year, their worst record since 2000. They have a lot of money tied up to old, injury-prone players whose best years are slowly fading into the horizon in the rear-view mirror. The Phillies aren’t likely to be in the mix for a playoff spot come the end of September. But you know what? They could be a whole lot worse, and whether you like it or not, Amaro deserves credit for showing discipline this off-season.
In the past, Amaro made a name for himself with at least one big-ticket acquisition. Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Hunter Pence are just a few of the names we’ve seen join the Phillies at exorbitant prices. Not only did Lee and Halladay require $20 million annually, Amaro had to trade what were then a handful of the organization’s highest-ranked prospects. It’s easy to look at the 2013 club and conclude that with a little luck going in the opposite direction, along with a couple of top-tier free agents, the Phillies could once again challenge for a spot in the playoffs. Amaro could have signed Matt Garza or Bronson Arroyo or Nelson Cruz or Carlos Beltran or Curtis Granderson or Jacoby Ellsbury.
He didn’t. He jumped out of the gate and signed Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million contract. It is the sixth-largest sum signed by an outfielder this off-season, but it pales in comparison to the $153 million the Yankees gave Ellsbury over seven years, the $130 million the Rangers committed to Shin-Soo Choo over seven years, the $90 million the Giants will pay Pence over five years, and the $60 million the Mets earmarked for Granderson through 2017. Byrd may be a 36-year-old coming off of what screams “career year”, but the signing also doesn’t hamstring the Phillies in the future in any way.
Amaro also, controversially, gave $26 million over three years to Carlos Ruiz, who turns 35 years old tomorrow. Ruiz was bothered by plantar fasciitis in 2012, missed the first 25 games of the ’13 season due to a drug suspension, and strained his hamstring in May. It all combined for his worst season since 2008. While three years is arguably one year too long, the free agent market for catchers was not particularly robust. The Marlins signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia, seven years Ruiz’s junior, to a three-year, $21 million deal. All else being equal, the Phillies could have gone after Salty and saved themselves $7 million, but Salty is not even projected to out-produce Ruiz in 2014 (though he likely will in the two ensuing years). Breaking up the rapport Ruiz has with the pitching staff, and the Phillies’ knowledge of a player they have known since 1998, for $7 million in savings and little to no gain in on-field production is debatable at best. Aside from Salty, the Phillies could have massively overpaid for Brian McCann or settled for dreck.
On December 3, the Phillies traded catcher Erik Kratz and Minor League pitcher Rob Rasmussen to the Blue Jays for reliever Brad Lincoln. In essence, Amaro traded a Quad-A arm and a back-up catcher for a 28-year-old reliever who could one day serve as a set-up man or even close. (Likely? No. Possible? Yes.) At around the same time, the Phillies signed Wil Nieves to serve as the back-up catcher for $1.125 million. Overall, the transactions are unimportant but Lincoln has upside and cost control which are always beneficial.
The Phillies tendered contracts to Kyle Kendrick and John Mayberry, eventually settling on respective salaries of $7.675 million and $1.5875 million. Many fans reacted harshly to the dollar amounts, but that was mostly out of Amaro’s control. Salaries for arbitration-eligible players are structured based on service time and how the player compares to his peers. Amaro could have avoided paying Kendrick and Mayberry by non-tendering them, but he did not want to risk curtailing the team’s depth — understandably so.
Then came the depth signings. Amaro has given minor league deals with spring training invitations to Chad Gaudin, Shawn Camp, Jeff Manship, Sean O’Sullivan, Andres Blanco, Reid Brignac, Ronny Cedeno, and Tony Gwynn, Jr. just to name most of an otherwise uninteresting list. These deals are non-guaranteed, so if any or all of the players fail to perform well in spring training, then they simply don’t head north with the Phillies to start the season. It costs the Phillies nothing to give them a tryout but it does potentially give them something to gain.
You’ll notice that last year, our attitude towards these signings wasn’t so accepting because the players had real fundamental flaws and were likely to get more than an insignificant amount of playing time. We saw that come true with both Youngs, combining for -2.2 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball Reference. Yuniesky Betancourt, too, presented a legitimate risk to the Phillies’ production but the Phillies ignored his hot spring somehow. Betancourt went on to post a .595 OPS with the Brewers in 409 plate appearances.
This off-season is superior to the last couple of years in many ways:
- Filled holes at starting positions with productive players without getting bogged down in expensive, long contracts
- Avoided pitfall players like Youngs Delmon and Michael as well as Betancourt, and did not make a significant amount of playing time available to obviously unproductive players
- Did not “bolster” the bullpen by signing old and/or injury-prone relievers to multi-year deals (Mike Adams)
- Did not hamstring future teams by blocking a young player’s progress in favor of a veteran
Did Amaro’s moves this off-season make the Phillies significantly more likely to compete for the post-season? Not really. But there were no moves the Phillies could have made that would allow them to compete without punting future seasons. The Phillies were always going to be mediocre in 2014. The next-best thing is having a cautious approach. While it was Amaro who put the team in this position with some poor decisions in the past, he deserves credit for putting the team in a better position to be a consistent, long-term winner with his restrained approach to the off-season.
It’s very easy to jump on the Amaro hate bandwagon, and the 2014 Phillies won’t be terribly exciting to watch, but Amaro has done better this winter than the knee-jerk negative reactions (for which I’m guilty of making, as well) would have you believe. We’ll be thankful for it in 2016 and beyond with a more robust farm system and plenty of payroll flexibility.