If you've followed twitter at all recently, you've probably seen some quality bon mots about notable ex-Phillies Jason Grill, Brandon Moss, and Nate Schierholtz. We've wrung our hands a bit about it in these pages, too, particularly as all three players could have been on the Phillies for an essentially nominal cost, as all three were already in the organization. And now that they are raking and striking fools out in the majors on other successful teams (and the Cubs), we're all a bit antsier than we were before. So let's get a few things out of the way and note that, in what will be at least something of a contrarian piece, a few things are absolutely true:
1) The Phillies could totally use a cheap closer (who maybe would have kept them from signing Papelbon); a slugging 1B/OF with patience; and a cheap lefty OF who could handle the right handed side of a platoon (and maybe would have kept us from having to live through the Delmon Young experience.
2) The 1.5 fWAR from Grilli, 1.9 fWAR from Moss, and 1.4 fWAR from Schierholtz would have been a nice ~5 WAR swing for a fairly terrible team overall. The quality of such a swing is probably open for debate.
3) It looks ill for a "scouting organization" to lose out on talent that could or should have been scouted in their very own system. No one's defending the org's absolutist position on that, though, so just chalk this up to added proof in the "yeah, we probably need some stats" column.
But with that out of the way, are these three (plus oft forgotten Phuture Phil Ryan Vogelsong) really the nail in Ruben's coffin? Well, the beat reporter vote seems to be in:
Yeah, that's Jason Grilli, who the Phillies had no use for.— Reuben Frank (@RoobCSN) October 2, 2013
David Murphy (@ByDavidMurphy) May 21, 2013
@DennisDeitch Phillies miss the playoffs despite choosing Bowker over Brandon Moss two Septembers ago.— Ryan Lawrence (@ryanlawrence21) September 28, 2013
Hint: Brandon Moss has more HRs than 2 of them RT @magelb: Can you name the five Phillies with the most home runs in 2012?— David Murphy (@ByDavidMurphy) August 18, 2012
I wonder what the Phillies would have to give up to get Nate Schierholtz ...— Dennis Deitch (@DennisDeitch) July 14, 2013
So, worst mistake in the history of the Phillies? Or worst mistake in the history of MLB????
Look, I don't want to defend Ruben Amaro's shortsightedness in non-tendering Schierholtz, certainly; he was always a better option than Laynce Nix or Delmon Young. This was a classic fear of arbitration move. And I do not want to suggest that Grilli and Moss have been anything but tremendous. Hell, the three have been tremendous all around, and for fringe players prior to their resurgence, that's a fantastic thing.
But we should also be careful not to use this as some sort of easy banner for Amaro Critique, for any number of reasons.
We might first start with the long history of fringe talent becoming good: Johan Santana, Joakim Soria, Dan Uggla, Shane Victorino, RA Dickey, Dave Hollins, Bobby Bonilla, and some long-forgotten journeyman named Roberto Clemente were all Rule Five picks, which means that their parent teams didn't even think enough of them to keep them on the 40-man roster.
And Jeff Bagwell was traded (with others) for Larry Andersen; John Smoltz was traded for one half year of brilliance from Doyle Alexander, and then two more years of 4+ ERA; and Ryne Sandberg and Fergie Jenkins were traded (by the Phillies of old) as throw-ins and add-ons.
And not too long ago, Clay Buchholz looked dead and done; Hanley Ramirez was worth the equivalent of a Jonathan Pettibone in trade; and Josh Donaldson was scuffling to a 241/289/398 line. This year, the three were cumulatively worth 16 fWAR (3.2 Buchholz, 5.1 Ramirez, 7.7 Donaldson).
And let's not even mention that Mike Trout was drafted after 24 other stiffs, Albert Pujols in the 13th round, and Mike Piazza was only drafted as an afterthought favor. Let's not even delve into the vagaries of foreign signings. Injury, growth, and unpredictability make baseball both deeply frustrating and super, super exciting. To expect any front office to get it right all the time is absurd. Even the sainted Cardinals drafted afterthought Zack Cox in the first round while Noah Syndergaard, Taijuan Walker, Nick Castellanos, Zach Lee, Aaron Sanchez, and Mike Olt were still on the board. We can play this game with any team.
Furthermore, we have a natural inclination to perform confirmation bias on these breakouts. We'll feel the sting every time Moss hits a homerun, but how many of us will ever remember the great debate over whether the Phillies should call up Pete Orr or Derrek Mitchell to be fourth or fifth OF on the bench? We will constantly shake our collective heads over Grilli, but will rapidly forget the calls to bring up the Robles, Friends, and Zeids of the world. And don't get me started on shot in the dark OF. If you show me someone who could accurately gauge the future performance of Brandon Moss, John Bowker, Lastings Milledge, Nick Johnson, and, let's say, Felix Pie, before the 2011 season, I'll show you a liar.
The point is that we remember well the misses, and forget entirely the ones kept or thrown away who did not pan out. And this rings true even intra-organization. We treat as read that Jason Grilli was clearly dominating the International League and should never have been sacrificed for Danys Baez' roster spot. That might be true, but would it have clearly been Grilli who deserved the spot? Grilli was quite good, with an 11.85 K/9, a 3.38 BB/9, and a 1.93 ERA/2.56 FIP in 32.2 innings. But how about world-beater Mike Zagurski? His line was a bit worse, but he put together 10.44 K/9, 4.47 BB/9, and a 2.65 ERA/3.26 FIP over 54.1 innings. Are any of you actually willing to say that you could look at those two lines and say that the first definitely would be a MLB closer while the latter would be a washout?
And what of the supposedly simple Bowker/Moss decision? John Bowker, in AAA for the Pirates in 2011, hit for 306/348/482 with 15 home runs over 451 PA. Brandon Moss, in AAA for the Phillies in 2011, hit for 275/368/509 with 23 HR over 506 PA. Bit more power and OBP for Moss, bit more BA for Bowker. Is it a choice I'd make? Probably not. Is it absolutely obvious, especially as both players had had fairly-to-totally unsuccessful major league runs and they were just in the running for "bench piece?" Emphatically not.
And while Delmon Young is the worst ever for sure, his 2012 line was 267/292/411 with 18 HR, while Schierholtz put up a 257/321/407 line with 6 HR. Again, we see a tradeoff of patience for power, but this isn't exactly Votto-for-Trumbo here. And even more pertinent, Schierholtz' much bally-hooed 2013 line ended up as 251/301/470 with 21 HR, good for 1.4 fWAR. And against righties? 262/300/499. If you need me to spell it out further: that's a bad line.
But, you might argue, he was better than Delmon. He certainly was. But if Ruben dropped Schierholtz to get Daniel Nava and his 1.8 fWAR on the cheap (who was, let us remember, not guaranteed even a major league spot going into 2012)? Genius. If he traded for Gerardo Parra (4.6 fWAR) or, dare I say it, signed Marlon Byrd (4.1 fWAR)? Prescient, tremendous, important, safe in his employment. And we could do the same experiments with Moss and Grilli.
The point here is two-fold. First, the Grilli/Moss/Schierholtz decisions should not be seen as some sort of smoking gun for Ruben Amaro, Jr's career as GM. This type of "one that got away" issue is common among literally every single GM in the game. Even the ones we idolize as statistical darlings. It's baseball: it's hard to predict things regardless of your system.
The second thing to draw out here is that, due to the Phillies' system, these mistakes do, sadly, seem more impactful. Ruben Amaro's failing is here, not in the easy flags of players we see hitting dingers on TBS. The Howard contract, the Papelbon contract, the insistence on scouting as a total-and-not-partial strategy, the arrogant flouting of metrics that might level the playing field: these are the culprits. If the Phillies had financial flexibility, a sense of roster creativity, and a flair for productive risks, then these misses might be occluded by the various successes. The fact that the Phillies are saddled with a creatively bankrupt FO is disappointing, and it is a problem that, if they don't fix it, will haunt this team.
But to suggest that the Phillies would be a primarily different organization if they'd kept three or four players? That's intellectually lazy and dishonest analysis. We're better than that as a fanbase -- I believe it.