On Tuesday, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford wrote a defense of Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro, contending that much of the Phils' problems aren't really Amaro's fault.
No general manager is perfect, and there are recent moves Amaro would probably take back, but what he and the organization are experiencing is in some ways the natural order of things in baseball. Teams that enjoy sustained success, as the Phillies did during their run of five straight division championships, usually tether themselves financially to the players who provided that success. Then it becomes a matter of whether those contracts become lifelines to the next generation of winning or anchor ropes to the past. In other words, does the organization get lucky?
Last year, everything fell apart. Roy Halladay imploded. Jimmy Rollins regressed. Ryan Howard still couldn't stay healthy. Delmon Young predictably flopped. Michael Young was only marginally useful. Ben Revere suffered a flukey injury. Carlos Ruiz was suspended then got hurt himself. Roy Halladay was destroyed. Mike Adams was on the shelf for much of the season. And other than Jake Diekman, none of the young bullpen arms the team was counting on to step up, did.
Now, of course, some of that bad luck could be seen coming a mile away. Halladay's troublesome 2012 campaign should have been insured against heading into 2013. But the Phils pinned their hopes on Halladay's word that he'd be all better. Howard's injuries shocked nobody. Adams' problems were unfortunate, but the man was coming off of off-season surgery anyway, so there were injury risks for him from the get-go. And the Phils' hamstrung themselves even more with the Jonathan Papelbon contract, a luxury a team that needed to squeeze every ounce of WAR they could out of an injury-prone club simply couldn't afford.
Teams are going to make mistakes, and in the Phils' case, Amaro has made some mistakes that have come with a large price tag attached.
But what about 2014? The fanbase has not been happy with the direction the team has taken so far this off-season, with the major signings being Marlon Byrd, Carlos Ruiz and Roberto Hernandez. And within Ford's piece, Amaro explained why the Phillies took the route they did this off-season.
"Ultimately, there's such a lack of real impact players, you have to try to hold on to them as long as you can. You lock 'em up so they don't get on the market, and you overpay them, and the market goes nuts," Amaro said. "Is [new rightfielder] Marlon Byrd a superstar? Absolutely not. Is he a decent role player for us? Yeah. I have to take a chance on Marlon Byrd because there's so many other things I've got to do. If I go get [premier free-agent outfielder] Carlos Beltran, then I can't take a chance on [pitcher] Roberto Hernandez. We've got a lot of holes to fill, and our job is to try to make the right decision 70 percent of the time, not the wrong decision 70 percent of the time."
There is a lot to dissect in this paragraph and, basically, Amaro has signaled that the current state of the Phillies is one of two very unpalatable options. Either the front office isn't giving him enough payroll flexibility to sign players he truly thinks can help the team, or Amaro doesn't understand how to put a successful roster together.
Or, maybe both options are correct.
What Amaro seems to be saying is that because of past commitments to the roster and payroll limitations, he was forced to sign a less impressive player in Byrd, rather than a "premier" free agent like Carlos Beltran, in order for the Phillies to fill out all their needs for this year.
There were many good reasons not to sign Carlos Beltran this off-season. He's 36 years old and, despite being an All-Star last season with St. Louis, hit only five home runs after the All-Star Break and posted a WAR of 2.4. He also cost 3 years and $45 million dollars, which ain't cheap. Meanwhile, Byrd cost 2 years and $16 million, is a year younger than Beltran, and posted a WAR of 5.0 last year, with much of that difference coming from Byrd's superior defensive skills.
Both players are equally likely to suffer a regression in 2014, and while I was initially underwhelmed by the Byrd signing, when you compare it to the Beltran deal, you can see the value in it. However, it is interesting to see that Amaro clearly believes Beltran is a better player than Byrd, although it seems as though it was Ford who added the word "premier," leading me to wonder if Ford understands the true meaning of the word.
No, what's most disturbing is Amaro's claim that signing Beltran would have prevented him from signing Roberto Hernandez.
*This is where you would do your spit-take*
Beltran will make $15 million a year for the next three years. Byrd will make $8 million for the next two, with a vesting option for a third. Hernandez will make $4.5 million this year. When you combine Byrd with Hernandez, their '14 total equals $12.5 million for 2014. That's a difference of $2.5 million next year from Beltran's salary.
When all the Phils' arbitration eligible players are signed, the team will have about $160 million committed for 2014, give or take a few million here or there. The luxury tax threshold for '14 is $189 million. The Phillies also signed a 25-year, $2.5 billion deal with Comcast SportsNet that, even though it doesn't kick in for another couple years, still guarantees the team additional cash flow that they could use right this very minute if they chose to.
The Phils are one of the few teams in baseball not hamstrung by money. They can never use it as an excuse again. If Amaro truly felt that Beltran was a better option than Byrd, he has the financial resources to sign him. Certainly, signing Beltran should not have precluded the club from signing a middling #5 starting pitcher for $4.5 million next year. Signing Beltran should not have precluded the club from signing ANYBODY.
Of course, it's never a good idea to spend money foolishly, even if you have plenty of it. But Amaro seemed to indicate he felt Beltran would have been a good expenditure of cash, yet he was unable to buy him because the team had "other needs."
Perhaps this is Amaro's way of telling the world that the shackles have been placed on him by David Montgomery and the ownership group. If that is the case, that's unfortunate. Certainly the Phillies have a high payroll, and that is a great thing. But if there are moves to be made that the general manager thinks can improve the club, whether he's right or wrong, the men holding the purse strings should not be restricting Amaro from making the moves he thinks are necessary to field a winner.
However, even if Amaro does have his hands tied somewhat right now, the idea that none of what is happening is Ruben's fault is dumb. As the Philadelphia Daily News' David Murphy mentioned yesterday, Amaro has not done enough to stockpile good, young players within the organization to mitigate many of the injuries that have crippled the team the last couple years, many of them foreseeable. He noted the injury problems of other teams throughout the league, and how through smart roster management, they were able to navigate through them.
The Phillies' $4 million earners, who accounted for 97 percent of their payroll, missed a total of $28.6 million worth of games, or 18 percent of the Opening Day payroll. That's a hefty chunk of change. But not as hefty as the Yankees ($78.5 million, 37 percent of OD payroll), the Dodgers ($67.4 million, 31 percent), Cardinals ($37.6 million, 32 percent) or Braves ($18.9 million, 21 percent). The Phillies' total was similar to the Red Sox total of $25.0 million and 16 percent.
The Cardinals and Red Sox played in the World Series. The Braves won the NL East. The Dodgers won the NL West. The Cardinals won the NL Central.
When you compile a roster full of aging veterans with a history of injuries, and then you back them up with a bunch of middling veteran players with limited ceilings and a minor league system devoid of Major League ready talent, what you get is a 75-win season.
Now, have the Phillies been unlucky with some of their prospects getting hurt? Certainly they have. Tommy Joseph's concussion injuries forced the Phils to re-sign Ruiz. Adam Morgan and Shane Watson will both miss most of this season after shoulder surgery. Roman Quinn also will miss 2014 after rupturing his Achilles. But some of Amaro's deals, like the Shane Victorino trade in which the only player of note he netted was Ethan Martin, or the ill-fated Cliff Lee trade of 2010, which gave the Phillies nothing, have really hurt them.
Amaro talked about making the right decision 70% of the time. Unfortunately, his success rate has not been anywhere close to 70% lately. It would be understandable if the Phils' mistakes came as a result of taking chances on young players with high upsides, but the signings of Delmon and Michael Young last year while jettisoning players like Brandon Moss and Nate Schierholtz, were the kinds of killer mistakes that result in a lot of losing baseball.
The Phillies have taken a chance on Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and that is an extremely promising step forward. You'd love to see them do the same with other international players, including Japanese starter Masahiro Tanaka, the only player available who could really improve the team this year and over the next five or six years. But the team doesn't seem to be in a position to offer him the kind of money the Yankees or Dodgers can, and it's entirely possible Tanaka doesn't even want to sign in Philadelphia anyway, so it's likely a moot point. But you get the sense that Amaro isn't even being given the opportunity to make the kind of offer he'd like to, because they had to save some money for Roberto Hernandez.
At the end of the day, the Phils' problems do not lie solely at the feet of Ruben Amaro. Trying to pin the blame on one guy is almost always unfair. Some blame must also go to the front office, if indeed they are restricting Amaro's ability to field the team that he wants. And yes, bad luck is also to blame, but not as much as you'd think.
The bottom line is, if the team has another losing season again this year, it will everybody's fault.