Hey are you finished mourning the Eagles yet? You might want to keep that regular-season finale against the Cowboys in the DVR for a few more months, because you are probably not going to want to make new memories involving the Philadelphia Phillies this year.
In fact, this is likely to be the worst Phillies team since 1997, the year that journeyman Mark Leiter was the number two starter behind ace Curt Schilling, Ricky Otero and Midre Cummings split centerfield, and the team dropped 94 unwatchable games. (The 2000 club was technically worse but underperformed its run differential and at least sported several of the team’s future standouts, including Pat Burrell, Jimmy Rollins, Bobby Abreu, Vicente Padilla, and Randy Wolf).
Like the ’97 squad, the 2014 Phillies will feature a handful of stars but a surrounding cast of aging or below-average players that might drag them down to 90 losses or more.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: How can the Phillies be so bad?
They just got Comcast to give them $100 million a year and free rides for life to the top of 1701 JFK Boulevard! They have Cliff Lee! Domonic Brown broke out last year! And that Cody Asche kid looked solid! The answer to your question is simply that the Phillies also have, hands down, the worst executive management in baseball, led by the Wolf of Broad Street himself, Ruben Amaro, whose staggering incompetence is still somewhat mitigated by the sepia-toned memories of the championship this team won six years ago under the watch of his predecessor.
It takes talent to be the most incompetent general manager in baseball, especially during an offseason in which Yankees castoff Phil Hughes was given a 3-year contract and Tigers stalwart Doug Fister was sent to the Phillies division rival Nationals for some used socks and an IOU for the Detroit city pension fund.
But when it comes to calamity baseball physics, Phillies GM Ruben Amaro is in a league of his very own, and his offseason has been an American horror story from day one. The dysfunction has reached the point where the Phillies have gone from marquee free agent destination to a place that itinerant veterans turn down for lesser contracts in smaller cities — in other words, Amaro has managed to turn the clock all the way back to 2001, which not coincidentally, is when many of the players he seems most eager to sign were graduating from college. The Phillies finished last season in fourth place, with an old, boring team full of overpaid players long past their primes, and the underlying run-differential of a 66-win disaster. So obviously the question on everyone’s minds was:
How will Ruben Amaro make this mournful situation worse?
The Wolf certainly didn’t let the winter tension and dread build to a crescendo. That, folks, is not the Amaro Way. When the Sam Adams Oktoberfest was barely dry on Boston’s Yawkey Way, Amaro swooped right in and signed PED cheat and former Phillies prospect Marlon Byrd to a two-year deal for $16 million. The Byrd deal had all of the markings of an early-offseason Amaroland signing: Byrd is Baseball Old, as he will turn 36 during the 2014 season. He is coming off a seemingly random and almost certainly unsustainable spike in his production, just a year after hitting .210 for the Cubs and Red Sox, sporting an OPS+ of 33. According to Amaro, this is because Byrd changed his “swing path.” Mmm-hmm. And finally, Byrd takes the place of a perfectly serviceable young outfielder named Darin Ruf. But the doctrine in Amaroland has always been “Why settle for cheap production when you can pay more for less of it?” The only miracle here is that Amaro didn’t tack a third year onto that contract just for fun.
With the team’s wallet $16 million lighter, Amaro turned his attention to the Tools of Ignorance. Apparently some sort of ‘market’ had developed around Phillies homegrown catcher Carlos Ruiz, affectionately known as “Chooch.” Chooch had a nice little glory-years run as the Phillies catcher, and even received some (very far) downballot MVP votes in 2010-2012. But as you might have surmised from the fact that Ruben Amaro offered him a contract, Carlos Ruiz is also old (he will play 2014 at age 35), and unlike Byrd, he is coming off both a fairly miserable season that saw him bat .268 with a .388 slugging percentage as well as a 25-game suspension for using amphetamines. Catchers may not fall off a cliff in their 30s, as many have argued, but Chooch is well into the decline phase for any position player. Shortly before the signing, rumors were swirling that Boston was in on the 34-year-old Chooch with a two-year offer. Amaro’s answer? How about 3 years and $26 million? Man, if they sent Amaro to the P5+1 negotiations, Iran would walk away with 50 ICBMs and a suitcase full of $500 billion in cash. Amaro was almost immediately made to look like an amateur when Boston’s free agent catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who is 6 years younger than Chooch and coming off a better season for the World Champion Red Sox, signed for 3 years and $21 million in Miami.
With Chooch inked through the end of the Obama presidency, the Phillies lineup for next season looked like this:
- Ben Revere (26)
- Jimmy Rollins (35)
- Chase Utley (35)
- Ryan Howard (34)
- Marlon Byrd (36)
- Domonic Brown (26)
- Cody Asche (24)
- Carlos Ruiz (35)
That’s right sports fans, your hometown 9 in 2014 will feature a murderer’s row of delicate position players over the age of 34. Amaro has so far added only the 36-year-old Byrd to a collection of characters that finished 14th in the National League in runs scored last year and did not exactly look as if it were underperforming. Yet the team seems to be under the terribly sad delusion that they will contend in the National League East, perhaps because the Phillies won 73 games last year, which isn’t that far from respectability. What you might not know about the 2013 Phillies (probably because you were looking away in horror) is that they were incredibly lucky. Based on their run-differential — the team was outscored by 139 runs, better only than the wretched (but young and promising!) Marlins — the Phillies should have won 66 rather than 73 games last year. In fact, by that measure the 2013 Phillies were the luckiest team in all of baseball.
Even the things that ostensibly went right for the team last year, including the long-awaited offensive breakout for outfielder Domonic Brown, weren’t anything to get overly enthused about. Brown’s 27 home runs were offset by awful defense in the outfield, and his -1.4 defensive Wins Above Replacement were among the 20 worst showings for position players in the National League. Since re-signing with the Phillies prior to the 2011 season, pitcher Cliff Lee has been nothing short of spectacular, and last season he struck out 222 batters en route to 14 wins and a 2.87 ERA. And second baseman Chase Utley, whose early-career dominance was derailed by chronic injuries, managed to stay on the field for 131 productive games. But Utley and Lee will be 35 in 2014, and both are major decline and injury risks moving forward. Beyond Utley, Lee and Brown there was very little for the 2013 Phillies to get excited about, including the debut of young third-sacker Cody Asche, who despite flashes of brilliance, hit .235 with an OPS+ of 90. Asche is likely to be pushed aside soon by prospect Maikel Franco, about whom scouts are very split as to his ultimate ceiling. All of which is a long way of saying that last year’s Phillies were even worse than they looked.
But of course, by the time Amaro had rolled $42 million into the tarp and dumped it into the Schuylkill, the offseason was barely a month old. With his geriatric starting lineup more or less set, Amaro turned to two more pressing tasks: wasting money on relief pitchers, and hopelessly dangling his overpaid thirty-somethings to other teams in the hopes of offloading some of his earlier bad decision-making. Amaro’s first target was free agent Edward Mujica, who was reportedly offered a three-year contract. Mujica saved 37 games for the NL Champion Cardinals last season, but was so bad down the stretch that he lost his closer’s job to rookie Trevor Rosenthal and then was informally exiled from the 2013 playoffs. I’ve seen Hezbollahis hiding from Mossad who were easier to find than Mujica in October. He’s also about to turn 30 with a strikeout rate in terminal decline, and so obviously this is the guy that Amaro wanted to lock down with three years. In a sign of how players and agents are starting to view the situation in Amaroland, Mujica said no thanks and took two years from Boston.
Rebuffed by Mujica, Amaro turned to the trade market, acquiring middling Toronto reliever Brad Lincoln for reserve catcher Erik Kratz. Lincoln allowed 50 baserunners in 31.2 innings for the Blue Jays last year (that is really bad, especially for a short reliever who can basically come in an unleash his hardest stuff for a few batters), is nearing 30 and has compiled a career ERA+ of 85 (that is also bad, meaning Lincoln has been 15 percent worse than the league average during his career). On the other hand, all it cost the Phillies was their 34 year-old backup catcher, so the deal counts as a kind of triumph for Amaro.
With Lincoln in the fold, the Phillies signed veteran starter Roberto Hernandez — the artist formerly known by the obviously made-up name of Fausto Carmona — to a one-year deal for $4.5 million. Hernandez was last seen compiling a 6-13 record with a 4.89 ERA for the 92-win Tampa Bay Rays in 2013. For the first time in living memory though, data-minded analysts almost kind of liked this deal, since Hernandez had better peripheral numbers (like xFIP) than actual results. Fangraphs’ Jeff Sullivan gave Amaro what amounts to his biggest endorsement from analysts in years: “For a team in the Phillies’ position, better to take a cheap chance than a more expensive one.” The Phillies’ position, if you were curious, is not especially good.
To recap: The Phillies have spent profligately on free agents during the Amaro era, frequently sacrificing high draft picks to sign free agents like the disastrous and unmovable malcontent closer Jonathan Papelbon. The draft picks they have managed to hang onto have not turned out especially well, with Zach Collier (’09) and Larry Greene (’11) basically washed out, and top 2012 picks Shane Watson and Mitch Gueller not even making Baseball America’s list of the Phillies’ top prospects. Since 2011, the team’s farm system has consistently been ranked in the bottom third of the game by observers, partly because the team traded away the lion’s share of its prospects in the trades for pitchers Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt, and outfielder Hunter Pence. None of those deals looked particularly lopsided against the Phillies at the time, but collectively they have led to a system almost totally bereft of high-end talent.
In addition, the team made a disastrous investment in first baseman Ryan Howard in 2010, awarding him a 5-year, $125 million extension that didn’t start until the 2012 season. Howard missed a huge chunk of 2012 after tearing his Achilles tendon on the last, heartbreaking play of the 2011 Division Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, was ineffective last season when he wasn’t hurt, and is unlikely to ever recapture his past glory.
Even Roy Halladay broke down in 2012, returning in August 2013 only to make us all collectively sad by getting knocked around like 2007-model Adam Eaton. You might get to go to the zoo with Roy Halladay now though — he has much more free time since he retired. And the offensive core of the ’08 Championship team — Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard — continues to get older and less productive. The end result of this sad story has been a rapid decline from 102 wins in 2011 (arguably the team’s greatest regular-season showing of all time), to 81 in 2012 and 73 in 2013. Those 73 wins came despite outspending the 96-win division champion Braves by $70 million dollars.
It appeared for a time that the Phillies plan was to march this group back out off the plank and hope that this time they float.
But then, when Roberto Hernandez was probably still scouring Craigslist for apartment listings in Philly, the Internet tubes got clogged with rumors that Amaro was shopping Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Jimmy Rollins (the longest-tenured athlete in Philadelphia sports). The reaction to this sequence of events — throwing new dollars at old players and then trying to simultaneously unload the team’s big contracts for prospects — was not especially kind. Are the Phillies trying to win now? Are they trying to get younger? Amaro has become a kind of joke within the industry, and so obviously the consensus is that the Phillies should flip whatever moveable assets they have and rebuild as soon as possible. The most charitable interpretation of the Phillies offseason is that Amaro is actually on the hot seat and is making one last desperate attempt to save his job by positioning the Phillies for the playoffs.
But if the Phillies are in win-now-at-all-costs mode, why were they on the sidelines for this year’s big free agents, like outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury and Japanese pitching phenom Masahiro Tanaka? If Comcast has backed up the money truck and unloaded it into the recycling bin at Chickie and Pete’s, why were the Phillies shopping in the bargain bin this winter? One unpleasant answer is that the Phillies, uniquely in major league baseball, are still holding a 17-year-old grudge against super-agent Scott Boras, who represents Ellsbury, Shin Soo Choo and many of baseball’s brightest lights. For a time in the late ’90s and early 2000s, Boras played the role of baseball uber-villain for people who think that the players make too much money. Mean old Scott Boras would play hardball with top draft picks and have his guys play independent league ball for a year if they didn’t get what they wanted. Mean old Scott Boras also forced teams to pay top dollar for his players, like when he negotiated a 10-year, $252 million contract for Alex Rodriguez in 2001.
A little history: In 1997 the Phillies had the second overall pick in the amateur draft, and used it on an outfielder named J.D. Drew, who was represented by Boras. Drew and Boras refused the Phillies’ $3 million offer and went back into the draft the following year, when he was selected by the St. Louis Cardinals. For years, Phillies fans would dog Drew like he cracked the Liberty Bell himself with his sack of draft dollars (this author included), and ever since, the Phillies have informally shied away from sign free agents represented by Boras (roster filler Rodrigo Lopez was an odd exception in 2009), and have had contentious relations both with homegrown players who are represented by him, and by the rare Boras client they’ve traded for (like Kevin Millwood), highlighted by the winter 2011 fiasco in which the Phillies allegedly pulled an offer to Boras client Ryan Madson so they could sign Papelbon. Sometimes the Boras grudge has worked for the Phillies — Madson has famously never thrown another pitch after unsuccessful Tommy John surgery, and the Nationals would surely love a do-over of their 7-year, $126 million contract with former Phillie Jayson Werth. But other times the Phillies have looked the other way for Boras clients that would fill obvious needs, like third baseman Adrian Beltre, who was a free agent in 2010 and would have filled the team’s longstanding, Scott Rolen-sized hole at third base. Would Beltre have signed here? Who knows, but the smart money says Amaro never even picked up the phone.
In any case, if the plan is to go for it in 2014, there is absolutely no argument for trading Hamels or Lee, or for spurning the best players in the game based on something that happened almost 20 years ago. And as always, the underlying problem is that Amaro simply does not understand the way that the game of baseball has changed. Amaro looks at Cole Hamels and sees a pitcher in his prime who had a decent enough 2013 and who shows no obvious signs of fatigue or decline, and clearly expects another team to both take the roughly $122 million left on his contract, and to send the Phillies A-list prospects in return.
And it’s true that if Cole Hamels magically became a free agent tomorrow morning, there’s probably a team out there that would give him roughly the money and the years remaining on his contract. However, there is not one team in baseball that would both sign Hamels until the end of time and forfeit their best prospects for the privilege of doing so. This is the kind of thing that might have happened in 2006, but the best that you can do with unwanted 9-figure contracts these days is pray that you can give them away for nothing. This is not about Hamels, a fantastic pitcher who will be trotting out from the bullpen to standing ovations in years ending in 3 or 8 for the rest of his life. This is about changes in the industry that seem not have penetrated the North Korea-style information cocoon on Broad Street.
Since the Byrd, Chooch and Hernandez splashes, Amaro has been content to bottom-feed on even more marginal talent from the past. Last week he inked well-traveled infielder Ronny Cedeno, he of the lifetime 72 OPS+, to a minor-league contract. And this week he turned his attention to veterans Chad Gaudin and, most shockingly, Bobby Abreu, bringing them both in with minor-league contracts. Gaudin was effective last year in a small number of starts for the Giants, but owns a career ERA of 4.44 and would probably be lucky to make the team. Abreu, I’m sure, needs no introduction. The 40-year-old outfielder is second on the Phillies’ franchise leaderboard for career walks and OPS, fourth in doubles, ninth in runs, and 11th in home runs. He might also be the all-time leader in not being appreciated for his brilliance at the time by the fans, who were constantly razzing him for highly scientific problems like not looking winded enough in the outfield and not seeming as if he was enjoying himself as much as, like, Sal Fasano. Abreu was then unceremoniously dumped on the Yankees by GM Pat Gillick in 2006, after which he posted four consecutive 100-RBI seasons and managed not to ruin anyone’s clubhouse chemistry. If you were wondering, Abreu was last seen hitting a combined and thoroughly lifeless .242 for both LA teams in 2012, and has as much chance of making a positive impact on the 2014 Phillies as David Bell. In other words: Welcome back to town, Bobby Abreu!
Your Phillies offseason, then, has been a series of unfortunate signings and more importantly, missed rebuilding opportunities. But the truly terrifying thing about late-model Ruben Amaro is not that he is making mistakes here and there — all GMs make errors in judgment and player evaluation, even the ones destined to be enshrined in Cooperstown like Amaro’s predecessor Pat Gillick. No, what is frightening about Amaro is that he simply does not get it. Everything that Amaro has said and done over the past five years, from the Raul Ibanez signing to his recent favorable comparison of Phillies meatballer Kyle Kendrick to the infinitely more talented hurler Matt Garza on the basis of the discredited statistic of pitcher wins suggests that Ruben Amaro remains analytically stuck in 1991.
This is not ordinary incompetence. This is Xerox getting out of the personal computing business. This is Blockbuster passing on Netflix. Every single day that Ruben Amaro is left in charge of the Philadelphia Phillies probably adds another month of suffering for the fans of 2018.
Amaro is likely to get one more year to turn things around, but 2014 might be ugly enough to test even the Phillies’ world-class loyalty. If the brass just wants someone to throw a gigantic pile of future Comcast Dollars at next year’s free agent class, Ruben Amaro is your man. But if they’d rather take the advice of every single informed observer of the game of baseball and embark on a serious rebuild, they need to move on. Look, I don’t like caterwauling about firing people. No one goes around calling for me to get sacked from my job teaching political science (although in fairness, I’m also not running my university into the ground), and so my policy is generally to extend the same courtesy to everyone else.
Amaro doesn’t need to be escorted out of the building with a cardboard box — he is the kind of organizational soldier whose lifetime of service should earn him a remote corner office and a set of responsibilities that minimize the damage he can do to the organization, with a title like the Deputy Vice President of Organizational Development. Then the brass needs to swallow its weird, luddite pride, admit that they’ve been running the team like a private detective agency without an Internet connection, and hire a completely different group of human beings to manage the day-to-day operations of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Could the Phillies have a 1983-style miracle with this aging roster? Stranger things have happened, but I’ll be betting the under. And until Ruben Amaro is replaced by a management team that believes in modern analytics, going to a Phillies game is going to have a distinctly late-90s feel to it, with enough room in the bleachers for this generation’s Wolf Pack to have the run of the place.
Fausto’s Bargains, anyone?
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