Why 2013 Was Not (Entirely) Ruben Amaro’s Fault…But Why 2014 Might Be – Part One
Image Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
The 2013 season was a failure for the Phillies. There’s no other way to classify a season that saw them finish in fourth place in the National League East with a 73-89 record. When a season goes as poorly as this one did, people start looking for someone to blame. It seems that the majority of that blame has been laid squarely at the feet of general manager Ruben Amaro.
This is understandable. As general manager, he is responsible for building the team that goes on the field. Therefore, it would be ridiculous to say that he is blameless for the poor season we just experienced.
But I feel that the level of disdain that some people have for Amaro is excessive, and far beyond what he actually deserves. As best I can tell, this is mostly due to three factors:
Amaro is often described as being smug and arrogant, and some people find this off-putting. Or at least they find it off-putting when the team is not winning. Back in December 2010 when Amaro was outdueling the Yankees for the services of Cliff Lee, many fans considered his arrogance to be a good thing.
During the recent stretch of five straight National League East titles, Phillies fans became accustomed to winning. Apparently, they forgot that the Phillies have not exactly been synonymous with winning throughout their existence.
Image Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Or perhaps they didn’t forget. Perhaps they simply never knew the dark times. I don’t want to accuse any Phillies fans as being bandwagon jumpers. Yet, “Phillies Nation” has definitely grown considerably larger in the past decade.
New or old, when fans become accustomed to success, they don’t react well when that success ends.
Since the turn of the century, sabermetrics and statistical analysis have become much more prevalent in major league front offices. Many teams now base much of their decision making on the advice of their analytics department. Under Amaro, the Phillies have been a notable exception.
Amaro’s resistance to sabermetrics has drawn a considerable amount of criticism. While I agree that it is frustrating that Amaro limits the amount of information at his disposal, I don’t think that it is the handicap that some people have made it out to be.
I feel that the popularity of sabermetrics has caused increased criticism for executives all across baseball. There have always been “know-it-all” fans who think that they could do a much better job than the team’s general manager, but easy access to statistics has taken it to another level. There are now some fans out there who REALLY believe that they are better suited for the position than Amaro.
Most fans wouldn’t know what to look for when scouting players. They wouldn’t know what a “7” curveball looked like if Nolan Ryan threw one at their face. On the other hand, thanks to readily available statistics, it’s extremely easy to look up a player’s on-base percentage and BABIP and decide that this is a player worth pursuing.
Since I am apparently the only Amaro apologist left on the internet, I’m going to have to stick up for him. Throughout this series of columns, I will explain why I believe that the failure of 2013 was due more to factors outside of Amaro’s control rather than mismanagement on his part. And in the spirit of fairness, I will also explain why I think Amaro should be held responsible if the losing continues in 2014 and beyond.
Bad Contracts? Bad Luck.
One of the main criticisms of Amaro is that he signs players to unnecessarily long and expensive contracts. Some people believe that these contracts are what caused the Phillies to fall out of contention.
While the Phillies do have a lot of money tied up in their payroll, I don’t believe that the contracts are the real issue. In just about every case, Amaro paid fair market value for the player. (For proof of this, take a look at most of the contracts that have been given out to free agents this offseason.) The real problem is that those players failed to live up to reasonable expectations, and instead suffered surprisingly rapid declines.
Here are a few of the more prominent examples:
Jimmy Rollins. Image Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Rollins became a free agent after the 2011 season. While his stated preference was to remain in Philadelphia, he was also seeking a five-year contract. Unable to find a deal to his liking, he came back to Philadelphia on a three-year deal (with a fourth year vesting option) that most pundits regarded as a fair deal.
Rollins had a 2012 season in line with his career averages, but his 2013 was a major disappointment. It was an alarming drop off in performance from a 34-year-old who had been steady throughout his career.
Critics of the deal also need to remember that had they not re-signed Rollins, the options to replace him were limited. Freddy Galvis is young and inexpensive, but there are still doubts that he’ll ever hit well enough to be a major league regular. (If Galvis had recorded the offensive season that Rollins did, we’d probably be impressed by it)
The only viable free agent alternatives were Jose Reyes and Rafael Furcal. Furcal has had injury problems over the past two years, and while he is cheaper, there’s no way that he could be considered an upgrade either offensively or defensively. Reyes would have been an offensive improvement in 2013, but he also missed a good chunk of the season with an injury and costs twice as much as Rollins.
The Phillies bullpen was a mess for most of 2013, and many believe that the problems all started with the contract awarded to closer Jonathan Papelbon. It’s obvious that Amaro overpaid Papelbon, but the overpay is somewhat irrelevant in terms of 2013. Amaro had every reason to believe that he was getting an elite closer (or at the very least, a closer who would be elite for the first two years of the deal), but instead, they got a save-blowing mess who did his best to alienate the fans.
Image Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Was there a way to predict that Papelbon would have such a poor second year of the contract? Look at it this way: If they had signed him to a two-year deal at a quarter of the cost, he still would have been the team’s closer, and he still probably would have fared poorly. And it’s not like they had a plethora of good options to replace him.
I recall critics of the Papelbon signing claiming that because of how much the Phillies paid for him, they then had to fill the bullpen with cheap – and lousy – options like Chad Qualls and Chad Durbin. (If you want an example of bad luck, there it is. If they had signed Durbin in 2012 and Qualls in 2013 instead of vice versa, then Amaro would have been praised for the signings)
That criticism seems unfounded since the Papelbon deal didn’t prevent them from signing a quality setup man in Mike Adams last offseason. Unfortunately, Adams suffered a shoulder injury that essentially rendered him useless for most of 2013 (and possibly 2014 as well).
That was just another bad break for a Phillies bullpen that received almost nothing else. Between suspensions (Antonio Bastardo), injuries (Adams, Michael Stutes), and disappointing performances (Aumont, Jeremy Horst), the Phillies bullpen had much bigger problems than the amount that Papelbon was paid.
Since the day Howard signed his five-year extension in 2010, people railed against the deal, claiming how awful it was. As Howard’s past two years have gone poorly, those critics have crowed about how they were right, and how this proves that Amaro was a fool.
Most of those critics aren’t being entirely honest. When the deal was signed, the common argument was that Howard would age poorly and become a burden on the Phillies’ payroll over the last two or three seasons. I don’t recall anyone predicting that Howard would suffer a major injury and as a result suffer an immense drop off over the first two years of the contract.
It’s safe to say that had Amaro known that Howard would blow out his Achilles tendon in the 2011 playoffs, he wouldn’t have signed Howard to that deal. You could argue that is the very reason why it was foolish to offer him an extension two years before he became a free agent, but that’s the risk you run with any contract. Based on his pre-2010 history, Howard actually seemed like a pretty good bet to stay healthy.
Let’s pretend that Howard wasn’t signed to that extension and hadn’t suffered his injury. Based on the deals that slugging first basemen like Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Adrian Gonzalez received, it’s safe to say that Howard would have received a contract of that size from somebody that offseason. I realize that if you only want to think in terms of dollars spent per WAR, then just about all of those contracts are bad. But that’s the way the economics of baseball work.
While the Phillies would have had additional money available, it still would have been difficult to replace the level of production that they received from the pre-injury Howard.
Roy Halladay. Image Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
The Phillies suffered a great deal of bad luck in 2013, but nothing was as harmful to the team’s chances as the downfall of Roy Halladay.
When they traded for Halladay and signed him to a three-year contract extension before the 2010 season, the Phillies thought they’d be getting four years of one of the best pitchers in baseball. It was reasonable to expect Halladay’s performance would decline a bit towards the end of the deal, but there was no way to predict him completely falling apart a month into the 2012 season.
Considering how much the Phillies were based around starting pitching, having Halladay go from elite in 2011 to an injured wreck in 2013 was too much for the team to overcome.
Perhaps it would have been better for the Phillies to have their wealth more evenly distributed. Perhaps it was unwise to be so dependent on a few elite players. But keep in mind that the 102-win 2011 team was built with a similarly top-heavy strategy.
The real problem – and remember, I’m looking at only 2013 here – wasn’t really the fact that the Phillies have several players signed to long, expensive contracts. The real problem was that the Phillies expected to get better production from those players, and they didn’t get anything close to it.
Why this Will Be Amaro’s Fault in 2014
Unfortunately, most of those players are still under contract, and as they get older, it is difficult to see them improving much. It is much more likely that they will decline even further.
At age 34, even if Howard never suffered his injury, it would have been a stretch to expect him to match his prime production levels. As for Papelbon, unless he finds a way to either regain his lost velocity or reinvent himself as a pitcher, he’s unlikely to be more than a mediocre closer. Maybe Rollins will prove that 2013 was just a fluky down year, but at his age, it might be more likely that it marked the start of a major decline.
Like many long-term baseball contracts, these deals were designed to pay for strong performance at the front end, understanding that the returns would likely diminish over the final years. The Phillies pretty much knew that they’d be paying top value for non-elite players as those deals entered their final years. This is the cost of a team operating under a “win now” mentality, as the team did from 2010 through 2012. Unfortunately, for the 2014 Phillies, it seems as if that cost has now come due.
In part two of this series, I’ll take a look at Amaro’s treatment of the minor league system.