In 2014 we are about to find out for sure if Ruben Amaro, Jr. is worth his salt as a GM. There is nowhere to hide anymore. Personally, I have been what might be called a RAJ apologist: I cite the injury and sudden decline of three of his top five players as a reason for indemnity. Between Ryan Howard’s ruptured achilles, Chase Utley’s disappearing cartilage and Roy Halladay’s sudden senility, I gave Amaro a free pass for 2012. Bad luck is bad luck: there’s nothing to be done about it. But 2013 has a certain unmistakable odor to it and the average fan appears to have turned against him.
Amaro was hit by several slow-moving trains that were headed towards him from the prior year: the lack of offense, the decline of defense, the ill-advised contracts of Ryan Howard and Jonathan Papelbon, the aging of his core, the drop-off in quality at the bottom of the roster and the failures of the farm to help the club much. It seems so long ago since his exciting acquisition of Cliff Lee convinced me he was a top, young GM. Now? The din of doubt is ringing in my ears.
I once believed Amaro’s ability to seek and combine the many opinions of his staff was a strength but now I think maybe a visionary with tenacious personal opinions would fare better — not a cowboy or a rebel, but also not a pure consensus seeker. In film making this is known as the Auteur Theory, where the singular artistic vision of the director filters out the noise of the studio system and avoids the watering-down process of collaboration. When you seek to please everyone, usually you please no one.
Truly, though, the mystery of the Phillies is how decisions are made at all. The owners are an inscrutable lot, removed from the public eye, the sports world’s equivalent of the Bilderburg group. Who knows what it takes to work with them. Perhaps Ruben’s greatest asset is how deftly he caresses the hands that hold the purse strings. Perhaps it is truly torture to reach any decision at all.
When Amaro traded away Lee as a companion move to acquiring Halladay, I recoiled in horror. To this day, I still have no idea what he was thinking or if he had any real choice in the matter. The way it went down was just odd. Why upgrade and downgrade starting pitching at the same time? How utterly strange to take four steps forward and three steps backwards, regardless of the return in prospects. These companion moves signaled one thing above all others: the decision-making process in the front office is dysfunctional.
For Amaro to have any chance of redemption, the run of bad luck has to end. But the Phillies problems run deeper than poor luck. They need a change in the decision-making culture. Amaro has characterized the Phillies as a scouting organization, which would be fine in theory as long as the scouts showed a special knack for the job. Which scouts were responsible for endorsing Laynce Nix, Ty Wigginton, or Michael Martinez? How did they all miss on Ryan Vogelsong, Jason Grilli and Nate Schierholz? Why do our opponents seem to know us better than we know them? Why do we get less from more when other teams get more from less?
Amaro recently acknowledged the need for a different approach in a quote to the New York Times:
We may be looking to fortify some of our information with some more statistical analysis. We have to look at the way we do things and try to improve. That’s our job, to try to get better every year. I’m not so stubborn that we can’t try to do things a little bit different, or think that we can’t make better decisions. That’s what I’ll challenge our people to do, and I think they understand that. That’s part of what I expect of my staff, and of myself.
Hopefully this is the start of things to come. One only needs to look at the Oakland A’s, a team which routinely gets more from the sum of it’s parts than one possibly could imagine when looking at their roster. We live in the information age and the Phillies are long overdue to join the 21st century. With the Philadelphia 76ers embracing an analytic approach to their rebuilding effort, the pressure will only continue to grow on the Phillies to come of age.
Meanwhile, I applaud the hiring of Ryne Sandberg. Much as I grew to admire Charlie Manuel, I think Sandberg will make better use of the roster, especially the bullpen. Still, a great manger is worth five wins a year, tops. That leaves the Phillies well short. Improving by 15 or 20 wins will come down to acquiring real contributions from new players more than anything else.
It may be true that free agency is no longer the panacea it used to be for big market clubs like the Phillies. Amaro has said again and again that it will take creativity to fix the many holes in the roster. The international market appears to be one such avenue. Signing Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez was an excellent start. Who knows if he can be a number three starter in this league; his injury only adds to the uncertainty. A question mark that big should never be expected to be one of your aces.
Amaro comes across as a man obsessed with starting pitching, which is what I appreciate most about him. To that end, RAJ needs to convince his overlords to pony up the loot required to acquire 24 year-old Masahiro Tanaka, the Japanese ace with the nasty splitter and a spotless 24-0 record. Is Tanaka interested in joining the Phillies? Who knows, but it is Amaro’s job to woo him with everything he’s got. No one will be able to replace Roy Halladay circa 2011 — especially not Roy himself — but the only way the Phillies will even begin to compete in 2014 will be to re-establish the Big Three at the top of the rotation. Since there are no aces available without question marks, RAJ needs to roll the dice more than once.
By now it is clear to everyone that the window is closing quickly on the Phillies core. Unless Amaro can rebuild on the fly for 2014 it probably will close on him as well.