The Golden Age of Philadelphia baseball is over. Injuries, advancing age. and all-time terrible innings of baseball have combined to turn the Phils from the best team in the league to a very mediocre one. Much of the blame has been shoved on general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.’s shoulders for making a series of poor decisions. However, looking past his poor track record from the past two seasons, Amaro actually did an excellent job positioning his team to win another World Series from 2009-2011.
In 2009, with their offense surging and many of their position players (Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins) still in their prime, the Phillies needed to aquire another pitcher to make a run at a consecutive World Series title. Amaro went out and brought in the best pitcher on the market, Cliff Lee, and none of the prospects he gave up in return have featured in the big leagues. And while the Phillies lost to the superior New York Yankees in that season’s Fall Classic, Amaro had done everything he possibly could to assemble a championship-winning team.
Wanting to go one step further next season, Amaro then took a huge risk in the hopes of winning it all in 2010: he traded for Roy Halladay, the best pitcher in baseball, but also traded Cliff Lee for prospects to rehaul a suddenly thin minor league system. At the time, there was very little criticism for the deals. Praise was universal about Amaro’s acquisition of Halladay, and while fans hated to see the universally popular Lee depart, they understood that the organization was in desperate need of prospects. At the time, however, there was concern that Amaro had given up Lee to Seattle for not enough talent. These concerns, knowing what we know now, were well founded: J.C Ramirez and Phillippe Aumont have both struggled in limited major league action, and Tyson Gillies is still toiling down in the minor leagues. However, the Phillies team Amaro assembled was still good enough to win 97 games, the most in baseball. He even acquired Roy Oswalt at the trade deadline in order to bolster an already strong rotation. But this trip to the postseason would not end with a trip to the World Series; in fact, the Phils would be defeated by an inferior Giants club in the first round of the playoffs. Yet again, Amaro did his job: he assambled a team that won the most games in baseball and were certainly capable of winning the World Series. The players were the ones at fault, not Amaro.
Amaro again did a good job building the 2011 Phillies. Realizing how good Cliff Lee was, he pulled off the biggest surprise that offseason when he signed the stud lefthander to a free agent deal. In doing so Amaro put together one of the most talented pitching staffs in the history of the MLB: Halladay, Lee, Oswalt, the homegrown Cole Hamels and Joe Blanton.
Unfortunately, in order to sign Lee, Amaro had to let rightfielder Jayson Werth walk, but Lee was and is the more talented player. And even though the Phillies would cruise in route to winning 102 games, Amaro made another deal at the deadline, sending some quality prospects for the solid outfielder Hunter Pence to bolster a thin outfield corps. Instead of having Werth, Amaro acquired someone 4 years younger, someone who would make $3.5 million less in 2011 and $2.5 million less in 2012, and while producing more at the plate: Pence hit .317 hit adding 22 homeruns and 97 RBIs in 2011, while Werth hit a paltry .232 with 20 homers and 58 RBIs (all those numbers from Baseball Reference).
All in all, the 2011 Phillies were one of the most talented baseball teams I have ever seen. Most of that is thanks to Amaro. Yet the Phillies failed yet again in the postseason, as they lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round. Granted, injuries played a key part in their campaign: Utley would be hampered yet again by knee injuries and Oswalt would suffer a back injury which would lead to inconsistent form. But the Phillies still had a stellar rotation, still had two former MVPs in their lineup (Rollins and Howard), still had Pence as an above-average 5-hole hitter, still played flawless defense. There are no excuses that the Phils lost in 2011. Amaro is not to blame.
Since then, unfortunately, Amaro hasn’t made as productive decisions. He has been unable to put together a productive bullpen since 2011, although, yet again, performance is a large reason for the decline: Antonio Bastardo’s ERA rose from 2.64 to 4.33 in 2012, Chad Qualls was just plain awful, and Michael Stutes couldn’t remain healthy. However, one sigining that could come back to haunt Amaro was his signing of Jonathon Papelbon. In general, the position of closer is by far the most overvalued in baseball, and probably in professional sports. It makes no sense to sign closers to colossal free agent deals when the players who play the position are so volatile in performance year to year. The position of closer is an interesting one, and I will cover it at greater depth in some point, but paying over $10 million a year for a player who pitches at the max 70 innings a year, which is the most Papelbon ever pitched in a season (last year via Baseball Reference), is just foolish.
Also, the trade of Pence to the Giants was a disappointing one, strictly because they gave up so much in order to acquire him just a year before. After dealing their top pitching prospect, Jared Cosart (who pitched brilliantly in his major league debut a few weeks ago), and their top position prospect, 1B Jonathon Singleton, to get Pence from the Astros, they only got one player with a real chance of playing in the big leagues, catcher Tommy Joseph. Joseph has even struggled this season in the lower minor leagues.
But overall, Amaro has done an admirable job. He was willing to take massive risks in order to achieve greatness with this franchise. He should not be slammed by revisionist history because those risks didn’t pan out. The fact of the matter is that if the Phillies had added one more World Series title to their resume from ’09 through ’11, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Two Fall Classics in such a short period would have made all those involved with the successes, including Amaro, legends. Just because the players didn’t accomplish what they were more than capable of doesn’t mean that we should heap all of the blame on Ruben Amaro Jr.