Raise your hand if you're the problem. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Can The Phillies Escape the Handcuffs of Bad Contracts?


Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Ruben Amaro Jr. loves conventional wisdom. In baseball, conventional wisdom tells him that when you inherit the job of GM of a championship team, you have three priorities the following year: Retain key members of the winning team, replace any departing free agents, and address any perceived weaknesses that were overcome the previous season. In essence, reload.

On a surface level, this logic makes sense, and in 2009 Amaro stuck to these three tenants from the end of the World Series up until the trade deadline.

He (questionably) re-signed 45 year old Jamie Moyer to a two year deal, signed free agent OF Raul Ibanez to replace Pat Burrell, and pulled off the blockbuster deadline trade – Cliff Lee for three of the Phillies’ top 10 prospects, including top organizational prospect Carlos Carrasco.

Amaro has attempted to repeat this process every season of his time in Philadelphia, to repeatedly diminished results.

The team has become saddled with bad contracts, the same aging players, and a severe lack of talent in the minor league system (which makes the only viable option seem to be signing more veteran free agents – it’s a cycle that Amaro’s trapped himself in).

All the while, teams like the Cardinals and Rays perpetually reform their cores with youth, receive extra compensatory first round picks for letting veterans leave, and only sign 32-34 year old free agents as complementary pieces, not core pieces.

This gets us to the main question of the 2014 offseason – is Amaro going to continue down the same path as previous years, or will he realize that after two failed seasons, his philosophy needs to change?

Ruben has four major areas to focus on in order to get out from under the cycle of awful contracts currently plaguing the club:

1. Address amateur scouting and the draft.

It sounds obvious to say, but the best way to not sign huge contracts to aging players is to not have holes for them to fill in the first place.

Free Agents are best used when complementary pieces, not being relied on as a cornerstone. Ask St. Louis or Tampa Bay. In terms of the Phillies, 2014 is the first season in a while where there has been reason to watch the AAA club – some talent has shown itself and the overall health of the system has improved. Top prospects Jesse Biddle and Maikel Franco, along with Kelly Dugan, and annual “3rd starter potential” prospect Adam Morgan offer some hope for mid-2014/2015 and beyond.

Further down the line, despite the apparent overall failures of the 2011 and 2012 drafts, there was a generally positive reaction to the 2013 haul, with particular optimism surrounding first-round pick J.P. Crawford, and third-round selection Cord Sandberg. If Ruben can string together a couple of good drafts, we’ll have jumped the most difficult hurdle from getting out from under the awful contracts killing the last two seasons.

2. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot; keep the prospects you already have.

I believe the Phillies have competent scouts – the problem in the past has been forfeiting all our first round picks. In the 5 years that Amaro has been General Manager, the Phillies have had only 2 first-round picks (Biddle and Crawford), and three Supplemental round picks (Larry Greene, Mitch Gueller, and Shane Watson. Ugh…).

In the same time, The Cardinals have had 6 first rounders and 6 supplemental picks. The Rays have had an astounding 8 first-round picks and 9 supplemental picks in those 5 seasons.

In addition, the Phillies need to not trade away the future in order to get three months of an All-Star. Across the same three teams from above in the same 2009-2013 time frame, Philadelphia actually traded away 7 more players on Baseball America’s top 100 prospects than traded for.

Tampa Bay GAINED 4 top 100 prospects in those 5 years. Relatively neutral, St Louis only traded away one more prospect than traded for during this time, and additionally they like to make smart, smaller-name minor league deals (anyone familiar with David Freese?).

There’s reason to be optimistic here as well – in the 2013 offseason, the only major trade was receiving Ben Revere for Vance Worley and Trevor May, two comparatively overrated prospects, and youth was received in return. In the case that he needed to trade for a veteran (Michael Young), two non-prospects, Josh Lindblom or Lisalverto Bonilla, were given up in return.

3. Stop making dumb smaller signings.

This might be the most difficult for Ruben to figure out. It’s easy for him to want to sign someone when everyone agrees they’re THE shiny toy that everyone wants to have. What becomes hard is when you have to actually target the correct players and negotiate a budget deal.

For instance, this season the Phillies released all three players signed to cheaply fill holes in the club for under $2 million (Laynce Nix, Chad Durbin, and… Delmon Young… ugh…). Francisco Liriano these are not.

Using Nix as an example, there is no reason a left-handed bench OF/1B should be signed to a multi-year deal. His 2012 offseason right-handed mirror image, Jonny Gomes (also 31 that season), had to that point a career .780 OPS to Nix’s .718, while having nearly the same BA (.242 to .244), and averaging 25 HR/162 to Nix’s 18.

Jonah Hill clearly saw his highlights interspersed with his Kevin Youkilis DVDs, and the A’s signed him for 1-year / $1 million. He had 18 HRs, with an .868 OPS in roughly the same number of PAs as Nix that season. Nix hit 5 HRs in total during his time in Philadelphia, and we were stuck with him for 2 years.

And Delmon Y

…never mind.

The point is, Phillies management needs to adjust their pro scouting focus from whatever it is to anything else, because they’re looking at the wrong things. This was really the only part of Ruben’s 2013 that I thought he truly did poorly. If the bench bats and relievers/5th starter signed this offseason perform well, that will be Amaro’s largest area of improvement.

4. Assuming trading veterans won’t happen, please god no huge extensions and no settling for “best available” free agents.

Want to get out from under paying huge contracts to deteriorating talent? Stop signing them. Again another strength of the 2013 offseason, the largest contract signed by management was Mike Adams for 2-year/$12 million. They didn’t force the issue on any of the big name free agent bats, wisely not offering over their estimation of what the players were worth.

Good news, too – because even those estimates were clearly too high for most of them. Ruben needs to do something to create confidence that he can IDENTIFY talent, not just parrot the obvious. Anyone can want to sign Roy Halladay to a three-year extension; it takes guts and skill to be The Rays and remain competitive annually while trading away top starters (Matt Garza, James Shields, soon David Price) like clockwork.

In addition, while the Hamels and Utley extensions make financial and logical sense, none of the remaining veterans are Utley or Hamels. While the pressure of the upcoming TV contract makes it understandably difficult to trade away players that fans identify with, or begin rebuilding, there’s no reason to drag players like Lee or Rollins beyond that. I shouldn’t have to say all this, but Ruben’s recent comments about not wanting to “embarrass” Roy Halladay with a low-ball offer are scary for obvious reasons.

You’ll have noticed I’ve gone an entire “Phillies’ bad contracts” article without mentioning Ryan Howard – and that’s because there’s nothing constructive that happened from that, other than preventing us from spending even more money on Albert Pujols two years later. Also, if young players improve and show themselves to be worth extensions, Chase Utley’s original extension should be the model.

If Domonic Brown has a couple more All-Star seasons, or Maikel Franco shows up and is the stud we think he can be, maxing out at a $15 million AAV covering the last couple years of arbitration and a few years beyond would be a nice ceiling for their deals. Players should see Ryan Howard’s contract as an example of something the Phillies WON’T repeat, not precedence for a future deal.

Ruben Amaro Jr. and the Phillies organization made some tangible progress last year toward making smarter roster decisions, and getting out of the cycle of filling the same holes with too much ineffective money and age.

The Phillies didn’t pay batters proportionally to age instead of talent, the early results from the draft indicate a success, and the minor league system was allowed to develop in peace.

The worrisome bit about Amaro is still that his large budget disguises his inability to evaluate talent. He can just overpay for anyone with obvious talent, but still consistently makes mistakes in small deals for supporting roles.

If the bench performs well in 2014, then we have some reason to celebrate.

It’s a weird time for the Phillies.

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