Hail Ruben: In defense of Philadelphia Phillies’ general manager Ruben Amaro
By Mike Lacy
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
I recently read a blog post that questioned the continued employment of Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro.
Actually, I’ve read many posts and articles criticizing Amaro lately. Carrying an anti-Amaro slant does not exactly make a Phillies story unique these days. Heck, David Murphy seems to write a new one every couple of days. (Keep, grinding that axe, David.)
I understand some of the anti-Amaro sentiment among the fan base. The team has missed the playoffs for the past three seasons, and finished in last place in 2014. Obviously, the team is not where the fans would like it to be, and the team’s general manager has to take at least some of the blame.
But the amount of anger directed towards Amaro seems so excessive, that I couldn’t quite understand it. After giving the matter some thought, I finally realized why so many fans are so angry: They are operating under a series of misconceptions regarding Amaro and the Phillies.
I realize that some of the anti-Amaro crowd is so convinced that the GM has brought about the downfall of the Phillies that there will be no swaying their opinions. But for those fans who are still capable of keeping an open mind, I will attempt to clear up some of these commonly held misconceptions.
Misconception: The Phillies are “supposed to be good.”
I accept that the Phillies fan base has grown in size over the past ten years (although there seems to be quite a bit of regression in that area), and many of the fans are on the newer side. If you’ve only followed the team since the mid-2000’s, then it makes sense that you’d expect the team to always be good.
But it seems like older fans were just as fooled by the team’s success. They began to believe that the Phillies were some sort of elite baseball organization which should be expected to at least contend, if not make the playoffs every season.
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
History indicates otherwise. Anyone with memories of the pre-2001 Phillies will know that success is the exception rather than the rule with this organization.
Admittedly, much has changed with the team over the years. For a long time, the Phillies didn’t act like the big market team that they are today. Back then, the team couldn’t (or wouldn’t) spend the money necessary to compete on a regular basis.
Today, the Phillies have an advantage over many teams thanks to their deep pockets. They are capable of carrying a high payroll. They have the ability to sign expensive free agents, and don’t necessarily have to worry about losing their own players because they can’t afford them.
But those advantages don’t guarantee anything. As we’ve seen in recent years across baseball, money is nice, but it isn’t the end-all, be-all in baseball.
Remember that baseball is designed to help keep the big market teams from dominating their competition. If a team wins, they’ll suffer in draft position. If a team wants to improve by signing an expensive free agent, they’ll have to pay the price in the form of draft pick compensation.
Too many years of success and too many attempts to improve the team in free agency will eventually hurt any team, and the Phillies are no exception. Part of the team’s current malaise is simply a result of an inevitable down period.
Misconception: The Phillies should have been more proactive in sustaining their success
Even with those handicaps in place, some teams have been able to sustain success over extended lengths of time. Teams like the Rays have managed to extend their runs as contenders by trading away veteran players in exchange for prospects.Could the Phillies have adopted a similar approach?Roy Oswalt
. Image Credit: Andrew Richardson-USA TODAY Sports
In July 2010, the Phillies were in second place in the National League East and were on the outside of the playoff field. Looking for reinforcements at the trade deadline, they traded a collection of young players for Roy Oswalt. Partially thanks to Oswalt, the Phillies went on to win the division.
The team could have gone in the opposite direction instead. They could have taken their chances that the team was good enough to make the playoffs without Oswalt, and held on to those prospects.
They could have gone even further. They might have said, “This isn’t our year,” and then traded away some of their veteran players (Pending free agent Jayson Werth in particular) in hopes of replenishing the team’s minor league talent, which might have allowed the successful run to continue longer.
That would have been a tough sell to a clubhouse full of proven veterans like Chase Utley and Roy Halladay. It would have been a real slap in the face for management to give up on the season like that.
The fans certainly wouldn’t have been pleased. The team was still being criticized for trading away Cliff Lee, and making another future-looking trade would have angered the fans for whom playoff seasons were still somewhat of a novelty.
It has also been proven just how unpredictable prospects can be. Even the “sure things” can sometimes miss. Should the Phillies have really given up on a potential playoff season in exchange for an unpredictable prospect?
Misconception: It was foolish to go “all in”
Put yourself in Amaro’s shoes: You’ve just taken over as general manager in 2008, and you take a good hard look at the organization, what do you conclude?
The team had a championship-caliber level core, with most of the key players in the primes of their career. Should he have said, “We’ve got a once-in-a-generation talent and the money to sustain it. Let’s do everything we can to win another,” or “Let’s just try to be good for as many years as possible and hope that things break our way one of these years?”
If you said the latter, then you must have loved how the Eagles operated under Joe Banner.
Joe Banner. Image Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
For those who don’t follow the local football team, Banner was the Eagles’ president who (along with head coach Andy Reid) was largely responsible for making personnel decisions for the team. Under his watch, the team was forward thinking to a fault. The team would seem much more concerned with the future rather than any given season.
When a player reached free agency, it didn’t matter if that player was still good or would still be good for another couple of years. It didn’t matter if the team had a capable replacement. If Banner thought the contract would be a burden on the salary cap in a few years, that player was gone.
Now there’s something to be said about long-term planning. If a team only makes short-term moves, then that team is likely going to find itself in a bad spot in a few years.
But there’s also a time when you’ve got to say, “Our window is open now, so let’s maximize our chances.” Sometimes, when you’re always worried about tomorrow, then tomorrow never comes.
Ironically, the Eagles did this in 2011 with disastrous results. But the failure of the “Dream Team” Eagles had less to do with the spending spree in free agency and more to do with bizarrely bad misjudgments regarding the rest of the team.
So yes, I believe Amaro was right to go “all in” in an attempt to win a championship. Because as history has proven, Phillies teams that are capable of winning a championship don’t come around all that often.
Misconception: Amaro is too beholden to his veteran players
Speaking of that championship core, some critics believe that many of the Phillies’ problems are because Amaro is unable to let go of the past and look to the future.
Most of the national pundits seem to think that the reason why the Phillies have struggled is because Amaro remains overly loyal to his veteran players. For some reason, these critics have chosen to ignore the departures of players like Pat Burrell, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Ryan Madson, among others.
Yes, the Phillies are still paying a lot of money to Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos Ruiz, and those players are clearly in decline. But all three are still good players who are being paid a fair value for their production.
If there were replacements capable of playing nearly as well as any of those three, it might be a different story. But would the Phillies really be better off with Cesar Hernandez at second, Freddy Galvis at shortstop, and Cameron Rupp at catcher?
Misconception: Amaro did too much damage to the farm system
Maybe the Phillies would have had capable replacements on hand had Amaro not traded away so many prospects. There’s a belief that Amaro inherited a top farm system from his predecessor, and squandered it in trades.
I don’t think the farm system that Amaro inherited was quite as good as people believe. Yes, some of the players traded away have contributed at the major league level. And it is possible that those players would have been more successful had they stayed. But so far, most of the prospects that Amaro traded have been proven to be nothing more than fringe major leaguers or roster depth.
Hunter Pence. Image Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Amaro might have looked at the farm system and thought, “We don’t have the next Howard or Utley in the minor leagues. Once those guys are done, we’re probably going to have some down years. We’re best served using our prospects as currency to help us win a championship while we can.”
While many people were ultimately okay with trades for Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, and Oswalt, there is a great deal of angst surrounding the 2011 trade for Hunter Pence. In hindsight, it was obviously a bad trade, and the Phillies surely regret making it. But if the Phillies hadn’t made that trade, would 2013 and 2014 have turned out any differently?
Roster depth is important. But was a lack of depth the main reason why the Phillies have missed the playoffs?
Misconception: Amaro should have been able to rebuild the minors
Even if Amaro didn’t inherit a top farm system, he’s had plenty of time to make it into one. So why does the cupboard still appear to be bare?
Building a farm system is not a quick process, since even the best prospects take a few years to develop. It certainly doesn’t help that the Phillies had poor drafting position for several seasons, and haven’t even had a first round pick in some of those years.
Side note: Remember how I used the Rays as an example of a team sustaining a run? It’s worth noting that in 2008, the Rays became a winning team and stopped picking at or near the top of the draft. Is it a coincidence that they just suffered their first losing season in 2014?
Amaro also is hindered by the fact that while the Phillies operate like a big market team at the major league level, they don’t always do so at the minor league level.
Traditionally, the team has adhered very closely to baseball’s slotting system: Major League Baseball recommends how much a team should sign each draft pick for, and the Phillies have usually come in close to that number. (To read more about the team’s drafting philosophy, check out this write up by Scott Grauer.)
This might not seem like a big deal. Teams can draft whoever they want, and those players have to sign with them, right? As the Ben Wetzler fiasco showed, it isn’t quite that simple.
More than a few amateur players have been willing to sacrifice a year of their career in order to ind a more preferable landing spot. Before a team drafts a player, they pretty much know whether or not they will be able to sign him. If a player makes it known that he’s not going to sign unless offered “higher than slot” money, then certain teams will avoid drafting them.
The Phillies’ insistence on staying near the recommended slot has probably cost them from getting at least one higher quality player over the years.
Most fans don’t remember the incident because it happened when the Phillies were in the midst of a 102-win season, and any bad news regarding the club was quickly ignored. But in 2011, Chuck LaMarr, the team’s director of minor league scouting and development abruptly quit. He basically said that between the many trades, the minor leagues had become decimated, but he wasn’t provided with the budget necessary to adequately re-stock.
The good news is, the team has switched gears when it comes to their amateur and international signings, and have spent more money in recent years.
Has that effort paid off? The improvements aren’t obvious at the top levels of the system, but as Matt Winkelman has thoroughly explained, the quality of talent in the Phillies’ system has increased greatly over the past few years.
Misconception: The team is not rebuilding
Some fans are infuriated because despite the team’s poor record, the Phillies “refuse to rebuild.” They see the team signing veteran free agents like Marlon Byrd and A.J. Burnett and assume that Amaro won’t accept that the team needs an overhaul.
Marlon Byrd. Image Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
I suppose I can understand the confusion. When some people think of rebuilding, they imagine an Astros-style teardown. But not all rebuilds look the same.
For one reason or another, the team was never going to commit to a total rebuild. They were going to attempt to remain competitive during this down period, and hope that things went right for them.
Yes, the chances of that happening were unlikely, but other teams have been successful in similar circumstances. (See the 2013 Red Sox, for example.)
Even while trying to remain competitive, it seems obvious that the Phillies have been operating under a different strategy since the 2012 trade deadline. At that point, they stopped making “win now” moves, and adopted more of a “Let’s try to win now, but not sacrifice the future to do so” mindset.
They haven’t traded everyone they would have liked (partially because some of those aforementioned “win now” moves have left them with some unmovable contracts), but they have traded away some of their more disposable veterans. The return might not be overwhelming, but keep in mind that they weren’t exactly trading away Mike Trout. It also speaks to both the unpredictability and lengthy development time for prospects.
In addition, instead of signing free agents to lengthy contracts, the team has gone after players who could be obtained for deals spanning three years or less. Which means that the team’s payroll won’t be loaded with dead money when the team is theoretically ready to once again make “win now” moves.
Much like the rest of the fan base, I am not happy with the Phillies’ performance over the past few years. If you want to judge Amaro solely on how the Phillies have performed from 2012-2014, then I would agree that he has failed.
But don’t ignore that he helped build a team that had the best record in baseball for a couple of seasons. They may not have won the World Series during that time, but I can’t say that he didn’t put them in an excellent position to do so.
I defend Ruben Amaro because while he is partially to blame for the team’s problems, many of the mistakes were made for the right reason: In hopes of winning the World Series while the team was capable of it.
More importantly, Amaro seems to recognize the situation. If he was still making rash moves to immediately upgrade the team at the expense of the future, then I’d agree that he should be fired. But he seems to have shifted gears, and I want to give him a chance to see that through. We’ve seen what he can do when the team is good. Shouldn’t they give him the opportunity to rebuild as well?
I have confidence that Amaro has the Phillies headed in the right direction. And I’m even more confident that when the time comes, his track record proves that he’ll once again have the guts and ability to make the necessary moves to get the team over the top.