Amaro vs. Optimism

Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Every time I start to feel better about the Phillies' direction, the GM opens his mouth.

Whether it's the desperate need for hope in the depths of the worst northeastern winter in 20 years, something seasonal that kicks in every February, or a reaction to the positive A.J. Burnett signing that topped a disaster-free winter, the last couple weeks have seen me starting to gain a little hope regarding the Phillies. Regarding 2014, it's now possible to squint and see a viable contender: a rotation top three that nobody will want to face, better defense and lineup balance, some high-upside arms in the bullpen. For the longer term, the team has added some quantitative thinkers on staff, signed what seems like a smart TV deal, and is cultivating a minor league crop featuring three consensus future big-leaguers and about a dozen additional players one breakout season away from landing on top prospect lists.

But just as the groundhog seeing his shadow portends six more weeks of winter even if Feb. 2 itself is sunny and warm, Ruben Amaro Jr. emerged this weekend to talk with Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal and unleash a wave of stupid that served to temper my optimism.

Now, it's certainly the case that dumb statements are less harmful than bad trades, bad contracts and bad roster management. But presumably his words reflect his thinking: this doesn't seem like a case where dissimulation ("I don't suspect we'll be doing anything") serves any obvious purpose.

Some lowlights:

Q: The guys you mentioned [Ruiz, Howard, Utley, Rollins, Hamels, Lee, Papelbon, Adams], they’re all healthy, but they are older. The criticism of the team is that it’s too old. How do you respond to that?

A: I guess they’re a little older, but they’re not ancient. There are a lot of players out there who can be extraordinarily effective and be a little bit older. You can sit here and name a zillion of ’em.

We saw a team in Boston win the World Series last year, and their starting nine was not the youngest starting nine. They were experienced and they had the right mix and right makeup. They played the right way. And they won. I feel we can do the same.

Amaro has busted out this Red Sox line a bunch of times over the winter. He obviously thinks it's a good comparison. And it's true that the average ages are close. But while the 2014 Phillies project to have five lineup regulars age 34 or older, the 2013 Red Sox had one: David Ortiz, who's a designated hitter. Their next two oldest regulars were Jonny Gomes and Shane Victorino, both 32. Both missed significant time with injuries, playing 116 and 122 games respectively.

How about in the rotation? Well, the Red Sox had two starters in their mid-30s, John Lackey (34) and Ryan Dempster (36). Lackey was very good, posting a 116 ERA+ after missing the entire previous season. Dempster was a bit below average with an 89 ERA+. They combined for 360.2 innings. If the Phillies get that level of performance from their two starters of roughly comparable age, Cliff Lee (35) and A.J. Burnett (37), they're unlikely to follow the Red Sox as world champions.

The Sox did get two outstanding performances from "old" players: Ortiz, who paced the lineup with a 160 OPS+ and won World Series MVP honors, and Koji Uehara, the 38 year-old reliever who was nearly unhittable after securing the closer job in midseason. The Sox signed him last winter to a two-year deal for a bit over $9 million. Around the same time, the Phillies signed Mike Adams to a two-year contract worth $12 million, plus an option. It's understandable why Amaro didn't want to talk about Uehara.

Q: No GM is perfect. You guys all do good things, and all have things go bad that you thought would be good. When you look back on the thing you are criticized most for, the Howard contract, would you have done that differently? (Howard signed a five-year, $125 million extension on April 26, 2010, nearly two full seasons before he was eligible for free agency.)

A: You know, it’s funny. If Ryan Howard had continued on his path and did not blow out his Achilles (in the Phillies’ final game of the 2011 playoffs) . . . with the 10-year contracts that were being doled out at the time that he would have become a free agent, he would have been right there with them. He was the single most productive player in the game at the time just prior to that and when we were signing him. We felt like we should pay him accordingly.

If I'm reading this right, Amaro is suggesting that in an alternate universe where Howard was healthy and unsigned heading into the 2011-2012 offseason, coming off his actual 2011 season (.253/.346/.488, 33 HR, 116 RBI), he would have received a long-term deal roughly comparable to those given to Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. This seems dubious on its face, as Howard was heading into his age-32 season--same as Pujols when he struck his mega-deal, four years older than Fielder when he got his--with much worse recent numbers than either.

But the bigger point is that ALL THOSE CONTRACTS WERE TERRIBLE IDEAS. Howard's closest comparable per Baseball-Reference through age 28 was Cecil Fielder, whose career went sharply downhill after his age-32 season. His best comp from ages 29 through 31 was Richie Sexson, who was done as a valuable big-leager after 31. His third-best comp now is Mo Vaughn, a huge star through age 30 who then signed a massive free agent deal, put up three okay seasons wrapped around one entire year lost to injury, and was done at 35. There's just no way to defend the Howard deal--which doesn't mean you have to throw Howard under the bus; see for instance how Ryne Sandberg is talking about him this spring. But pointing to the possibility that other teams might have been equally stupid is much more damning than exculpatory.

Q: How about the Papelbon contract? Do you look at it the same way as Howard’s? (The Phillies signed Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million free-agent contract after the 2011 season.)

A: I do. Listen, there were a set of closers out there that year. We negotiated with several of them. We signed the best one. That’s what we wanted – the best guy to go along with what we thought was one of the best rotations. So far we haven’t won as many games as we could have. But I don’t have any regrets. We wanted the player. We paid for him.

Q: A lot of players think closers shouldn’t get that kind of money. You buy that?

A: I guess there are different theories about that, whether you can develop closers, whether you can just get lucky with them. I happen to believe, and my staff and advisors believe, in having as good a closer as you possibly can to close games and win championships. I don’t know of too many teams in the past 25 to 30 years that haven’t had a great closer or a very good quality closer to win a World Series. Pap has made the last pitch of the season. He knows what it’s like. And that’s an important element when you’re trying to be a contender every year.

Here's the list of the guys who have made "the last pitch of the season" over the last seven years:

2013: Koji Uehara

2012: Sergio Romo

2011: Jason Motte

2010: Brian Wilson

2009: Mariano Rivera

2008: Brad Lidge

2007: Jonathan Papelbon

So, three things about this list. First, of the seven guys, only one--Rivera, the greatest closer of all time--had previously thrown the last pitch of a season. And two, Paps did it seven years ago. If I went back two more years, we'd see Bobby Jenks, who I think is available. It was Keith Foulke the year before that. I wouldn't pay either of them $50 million at this point. Three, the last three guys on the list did not even begin the seasons in which they ultimately threw the last pitch as their team's closers. At some point you figure a GM might notice that not having a guy who's "been there before" probably isn't a deal-breaker.

****

Whether or not you think any of this matters probably depends on how you understand the last two seasons and the winters that followed them. Has Amaro learned from his mistakes? Would he avoid the Papelbon extension if he had it to do again? Are future additions below the superstar level more likely to follow the Bobby Abreu model of low-risk/low-investment, or the Delmon Young path of a guaranteed job to a guy who's all but proven he won't do it well? Are we done with the subtraction-by-addition thinking that brought in Chad Qualls and Chad Durbin to inflate bullpen budget and ERA?

Notice that there's nothing in this interview about sabermatrics versus traditional stats, among other sore spots that Amaro-bashers tend to focus on. Rosenthal didn't ask, and Amaro didn't offer. But there's a lot by implication about how Amaro evaluates players and builds his roster. In his tilt toward traditional evaluation, he's similar to Hall of Fame predecessor Pat Gillick and successful contemporaries like Frank Wren and Walt Jocketty. But while Gillick had a genius for dumpster diving, and Wren and Jocketty have built contenders through great drafting and prudent payroll management, it still seems that Amaro's sole clear strength is leveraging the Phillies' deep pockets. Sometimes this works, as with the Burnett signing. But it's not going to be enough to rebuild or sustain a contender as the current core continues to age. Whether or not the GM can grow and learn as he goes on will determine whether the recent grounds for hope really indicate that spring has come to the organization, or if this is just a false thaw.

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