Amaro in Winter; or, Why There’s No Quick Fix for the Phillies

Jeff Zelevansky

Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has taken it from all sides this winter: overvaluing Michael Young, overpaying for Ben Revere, sitting back too long on Josh Hamilton. But the One Big Move that would put the Phillies back on top simply isn't out there.

The case against Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is pretty easy to make. He stepped into his job a bit more than four years ago at the helm of the defending World F. Champions, with a loaded farm system and a rapidly surging budget. For three years, he courted repetitive stress disorder by pushing all his chips to the center of the table every summer in hopes of hanging another flag alongside 1980 and 2008. Those big moves didn’t yield the ultimate payoff, and as 2012 comes to a close, he presides over a team with the second highest payroll in the National League but a roster that looks squarely middle-of-the-pack in the NL. If the season started tomorrow, few would gauge the Phillies more likely to reach the postseason than the Nationals, Braves, Reds, Cardinals, Giants or Dodgers.

Amaro had some money to spend this winter—still does, in fact—and a clear set of needs to fill: third base, center field, at least one outfield corner, setup relief. As of mid-December, he’s checked off every box except outfield corner, and done so in relatively creative ways: the only high-dollar free agent is the setup guy. The new center fielder is young, cheap, and under team control roughly forever; the third baseman was a classic buy-low move. They certainly might not work out, but the cost wasn’t unreasonable and the alternatives—eight-figure salaries for Angel Pagan or Shane Victorino or Kevin Youkilis, wishcasting on Kevin Frandsen or Freddy Galvis, trusting that one or more young relievers will step up to stop last year’s season-long hemorrhaging in the eighth inning—don’t strike me as any more prudent or likely.

Let’s be clear: I’m not here to hold up His Smugness as Branch Rickey reborn. I hate the John Lannan signing—he’s the lefty pre-2012 Kyle Kendrick with many, many more walks—and if the last domino to drop is an overpay for the almost-useless Cody Ross, I’ll join the hater chorus. But nor should we kid ourselves that Amaro screwed up a can’t-lose proposition. What’s happening to the Phillies is as inevitable and predictable as the sun going down.

The table below shows the yearly production versus cost of the "core four" homegrown Phillies: Cole Hamels, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley. (Yes, you could add in a Victorino here or a Carlos Ruiz there; this would change the numbers but not the underlying story.) tWAR is their total combined Wins Above Replacement; vWAR is the approximate dollar value of each WAR in that year; Total Value is what their combined performance in WAR was "worth" in dollars; Cost is what they actually received in salary; and Difference is the dollar amount by which they exceeded or fell short of that actual compensation.

Year

W

Avg age

tWAR

vWAR (in $m)

Total Value

Cost (in $m)

Difference

(in $m)

2007

89

26.5

20.3

3.92

79.5

14.1

+65.4

2008

92

27.5

19.9

4.11

81.8

26.3

+55.5

2009

93

28.5

14.9

4.32

64.0

39.2

+24.8

2010

97

29.5

14.1

4.54

64.0

49.5

+14.5

2011

102

30.5

13.1

4.76

62.4

53.3

+9.1

2012

81

31.5

8.8

5

44

61

-17

Methodological note: I’m using Baseball Reference WAR for these Phillies players, but a valuation of WAR derived from Fangraphs (taking the value of a WAR in 2012 as $5 million, then subtracting five percent per year back through 2007).

It doesn’t get much more linear than this: at the outset of the Phillies’ five-year run as NL East division champs, they got a whopping $65.4 million in "excess value" of the four homegrown stars versus what they were paid. In each of the next four years, the four players outperformed their compensation, though by a smaller amount each year. In 2012, the bottom fell out—though it’s worth noting that without Howard, the other three would have exceeded their compensation by about as much as in 2011. That contract remains Amaro’s worst mistake, with nothing else in the same time zone.

Again, this is at the heart of almost every successful baseball team, certainly those that remain successful over a stretch of years: they receive value in excess of compensation from homegrown players. That excess value gets a team into the competitive stratosphere—and, if the team plays in a strong market, revenues follow. It then leverages that revenue advantage by acquiring players who can make up for the performance shortfall as the core guys age. In the case of the Phillies, this meant trades with less well-heeled teams and free agent additions like Raul Ibanez, Cliff Lee and Jonathan Papelbon.

The problem? Most of the time, the additions are more likely than not to follow the same trajectory as the homegrown core: performance declines as cost increases. When you add high-dollar free agents, it’s a near certainty you won’t get the excess value of a pre-arbitration Cole Hamels.

So you have to keep the excess value train flowing in one of two ways: another wave of homegrown talent, or brilliant dumpster dives. If the homegrown core was the biggest reason for the team’s success from 2007-2010, a close second was the collective contributions of Jayson Werth, J.C. Romero, Chris Coste, etc, all acquired pretty much for free. But those were all Pat Gillick guys; about the best Amaro has managed in this regard is Juan Pierre in 2012, and his good work unfortunately was canceled out by the giant sucking sound of Chad Qualls, Ty Wigginton, et al.

As for supplementary homegrown talent, a lot of it was dealt away for Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Hunter Pence—which, again, is fine as strategy and often effective in practice. The goal is to win games and titles, not to hoard prospects. The Phillies entered every postseason between 2009 and 2011 as a consensus favorite to represent the NL in the World Series, if not to win it, in large part because of those trades. The Halladay trade cost pieces of value, but got us the best pitcher of his generation. Oswalt helped carry the team down the stretch in 2010. The Pence deal was awful—probably Amaro’s second-worst move—but there was a logic to it, and if he’d helped the Phils to a title in 2011 nobody would be complaining today.

Amaro has smartly leveraged single-season servings of probably fluky excess value from J.A. Happ (in the Oswalt trade) and perhaps Vance Worley (for Ben Revere a couple weeks ago). The bigger problem has been that nobody has come through the system to add to the aging homegrown core. Domonic Brown was supposed to be that guy; for a variety of reasons, that hasn’t happened yet. There’s some hope that one or more of Tommy Joseph, Tyson Gillies, and Cody Asche will break through during the current window; looking farther out, Maikel Franco or Roman Quinn or Larry Greene Jr. or Carlos Tocci could be the Phils’ next farm-raised star.

One could make the argument that the seed of the Phillies’ current conundrum actually was planted in the late springs of 2007 and 2008. The team kept its first-round draft picks both years, and selected Joe Savery and Anthony Hewitt. Savery, a lefty from Rice, has been worth -0.3 WAR in his modest big league career thus far; the picks that followed him in the first and supplemental rounds included catcher J.P. Arencibia, Ben Revere (now a Phillie, of course, but at the cost of Worley and Trevor May), infielder Todd Frazier, outfielder Julio Borbon, and pitchers Tommy Hunter and Cory Luebke. That’s a half-dozen names out of 45 selected after Savery, meaning that the Phils would have had to be unusually lucky or perceptive to hit on the pick—but that they’ve gotten nothing from Savery has really hurt. (They did get Travis d’Arnaud with the 37th pick, and he helped land Halladay.)

The 2008 draft, which yielded trade pieces Anthony Gose (Oswalt), Jason Knapp (Cliff Lee), Worley and May (Revere) and Jarred Cosart (Pence) as well as big-leaguers Michael Stutes, B.J. Rosenberg, Michael Schwimer and Tyler Cloyd, was a very good one overall for the Phils even before considering the possible future contributions of remaining prospects Zach Collier and Jonathan Pettibone. But they seem to have missed big-time with first-round pick Anthony Hewitt, a batting practice superstar who’s unlikely to make it past AA. Picks following Hewitt in the first round who’ve emerged as big league contributors included third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, pitchers Lance Lynn and Wade Miley, and infielder Logan Forsythe. Others taken later, including pitchers Jake Odorizzi, Casey Kelly (drafted as a shortstop) and Mike Montgomery, have been key pieces in trades. Again, it’s tough to blame the Phils for Hewitt not paying off, particularly given all the other value they landed through their ’08 draft. But a first round pick is a precious thing—as shown by Utley and Hamels, Pat Burrell and Brett Myers, Kyle Drabek and Travis d’Arnaud—and there’s a big cost when those selections falter.

So Amaro went into this winter with relatively little homegrown help on the immediate horizon and all those holes to fill. He had about $25 million to spend and some trade inventory, mostly minor-league pitching with a mid-rotation ceiling and an extra catcher or two. I think he also grasped the importance of keeping the 16th pick in the draft next June—the Phils’ highest such pick in more than a decade. Between 1998 and 2002, they nabbed Burrell, Myers, Utley, Gavin Floyd and Hamels, all of whom have been highly productive big leaguers. Adding Josh Hamilton would have been worth losing the pick on a reasonable deal… though not, in my opinion, the five-year, $125 million contract he signed with the Angels. (I suspect it would have taken more for him to switch leagues anyway.) B.J. Upton? Maybe, depending on which one shows up. Nick Swisher? In my opinion, no way: he’ll get at least four years and $55-60 million, you’re looking at his early decline, and at his peak he was well less than a star anyway.

Amaro tried to trade for Asdrubal Cabrera from the Indians, a power-hitting shortstop who would have shifted to third base. Cabrera’s 27, under team control for two more years at $16.5 million. Presumably Amaro offered more than what he wound up sending the Twins for Revere. Cleveland said no, and considering the haul they got for a package featuring one year of the older and more expensive Shin-Soo Choo—another guy I hope Ruben asked about—it might have been for the best. With a core on the decline, all-in moves no longer really make sense. Deal away the wrong couple guys, and what could be a two- or three-year retrenchment turns into a half-decade or more at the bottom of the standings.

Thus far, Amaro has added Revere, Young, Adams and Lannan. The only guy he’s given up who might have helped in 2013 was Vance Worley. He was in on Upton, Hamilton, and Pagan to varying extents. He’s still nosing around Swisher and Cody Ross—and while I’d hate both moves, neither would cost anything of value in 2013.

But he’s raging against the dying of the light, and he’s said as much: the success or failure of the 2013 Phillies will rest on the health and performance of Howard, Utley, Rollins, Ruiz, Hamels, Lee, Halladay and Papelbon. Those eight guys will pull down $128.5 million between them. If each WAR is worth $5.25 million, they’ll need to collectively produce 24.5 WAR between them to be "worth it." It's generally agreed that a team stocked solely with replacement level players would win 48 games, and it takes 90 wins to have a decent shot at the playoffs. Let's assume the eight veteran stars produce at the level of their compensation--itself a fairly big if for a group of players with more yesterdays than tomorrows. In that case, the Phils will need the rest of the roster—the four new guys plus whoever else is coming (my guess is Alfonso Soriano, hopefully for nothing more than, say, Laynce Nix and Cloyd), unproven young-ish outfielders Brown and Darin Ruf, Kyle Kendrick, all those talented but raw relievers, Kevin Frandsen and Galvis and Erik Kratz—to come up with about another 18 WAR.

The point: there was no one move out there this winter that could have restored the Phillies to sure dominance in the division or league. As fans, we’d be crazy to like this, but it’s no less crazy to deny it.

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