What's Eating Ruben Amaro?

PROBLEMS / PROBLEMS WITH EVERYTHING - Mitchell Leff

We all seemingly hate the guy, but has anyone really pinned down his problem?

In the afterglow of the second Phillies appearance of Cliff Lee, it seemed as though we'd never see any common ground between the analytical fan's perception and the casual fan's perception of Ruben Amaro, Jr. The man who brought in Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee (twice), and Hunter Pence was seen as a brilliant wheeler dealer by the Philadelphia media; at the same time, the guy who lost the Phillies Carlos Carrasco, Jonathan Villar, Jonathan Singleton, Domingo Santana, Anthony Gose, Travis d'Arnaud, and Jarred Cosart (to name a few) was seen as a short-sighted villain by many of us in bloglandia and across the internet. Peaking perhaps in the great Keith Law-Mike Missanelli feud over Ryan Howard's contract (the great "Preeminent Power Hitter of Our Generation" debates), it seemed as if The Amaro Question would rage on forever.

And then 2012 happened. And 2013. And 2014. And Mike Trout happened. And Bryce Harper happened. And rookie arms began flourishing around the country while the Phillies kept getting older. And to add insult to injury, coming off the fourth worst record in the majors in 2013, the 2014 Phillies are looking across at the Astros and seeing one third of a lineup coming together with one fifth of a rotation straight out of their farm system.  Meanwhile, Tyson Gillies has been released; Tommy Joseph is who knows how many concussions away from being a first baseman; and Larry Greene, Jr is inspiring hope because he hit a double. Thank God for JP Crawford.

The upshot here is that Ruben Amaro has suddenly become a fairly universal figure: go to Fangraphs or ESPN, The Good Phight or WIP, Bill Baer or Kyle Scott -- the verdict is plain: Ruben is terrible and needs to go.

The point of this article is not to argue against that position: frankly even if he's not as apocalyptically bad as many have made out (and I don't think he is), Amaro is hardly the best man for the job.  There are many other GMs and GM candidates, both scouting and analytically minded, who could do a better job.  Or at least who could do a different job getting the Phillies out of their rut. I'm one hundred percent on board there.

What I'm not on board with is this tendency to paint Amaro as some sort of reverse Renaissance Man, bad at everything he tries.  Certainly, he has his faults, but the desire to lambast the man has lead us down a fairly un-critical road. We're citing Marlon Byrd's strikeout rate as if the other shoe will certainly drop on Amaro, when, if Andrew Friedman had signed him, we'd be careful to point out that his strikeout rate has only charted 4 percentage points higher in 2014 than 2013, when it jumped (about 10 percent!) into the mid-20s with the Mets.  Coincidentally that corresponds with his power burst.  And, uh, power is scarce in baseball.  It's almost as if...Amaro figured out these stats and the corresponding approach change or accepted the help of others who did? Naaaah, he's a moron!!  And so on.

No, Amaro is not bad at everything: in fact, as far as I can tell, he's only exceptionally bad at one particular thing.  But boy, is he bad at that. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Ruben Amaro's Achilles Heel: Reading a Market.  He has been particularly, arguably historically bad at this in three unique ways: first, he cannot read a free agent's market; second, he cannot read the trade market; and third, he cannot read the general market trends of MLB.

The first issue is one that is nicely emblematized by the Jonathan Papelbon contract.  While Raul Ibanez' 3 year, 33 MM dollar contract ended up looking okay thanks to his surprisingly hot first half of 2009 and steady-if-unspectacular play through 2011 (as well as a pretty weak market outside of Bobby Abreu, Pat Burrell and Manny Ramirez), Papelbon's contract has aged fairly badly.  The next highest deal to Paps -- Heath Bell to the Marlins for 3 years, 27 MM -- looks arguably worse than the 6 years, 58 MM he got, but it's telling that we almost have to double the second lowest contract to get to the one Amaro eventually ended up on.  To be fair to Ruben, the market that year was also not tremendous, as Ryan Madson and Heath Bell were really the only other marquee free agents, and we know how they both ended up.  But process does not devolve upon results (and if it did, we could point to Joe Nathan's 2 year, 14 MM dollar contract and Fernando Rodney's 1 year, 2 MM dollar contract as a counter).  Ibanez' deal to a degree, and Papelbon's deal to an extreme are just much too much.

So what happened here?  Well, if you'll recall, Amaro signed both of these guys very very early on in free agency, both before a market could really be said to have developed clearly.  He did the same thing with Marlon Byrd this year, though he ended up looking prescient given the deals handed out to Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury, among others. Why is this a problem?  Well, it isn't a problem if you guess the market correctly, but if we stop to think about the likelihood of that guess, we'll see the issue immediately. Early in free-agency, you can only account for the ideal market: everyone stays healthy, no team suddenly does or does not have a need for a particular position due to injury or trade, and money plays out exactly as you'd expect it would. This ideal market rarely if ever actually comes to pass, and Ruben's quick trigger finger has him missing out on the potential bargains that remain with an empty dance card in March.  Oh, and he gave up draft picks for both Ibanez and Paps, so uh it wasn't like he was playing hardball there either.

Amaro's first failing: being impatient and unable to wait a market out.  Result: the most expensive slowly-fading closer in the game.

Second, the trade market.  In some ways, trading is what made Amaro a folk hero to so much of Philadelphia media in the first place.  He wrangled Cliff Lee for pennies (though Carlos Carrasco is starting to show promise in the Indians' bullpen), got Roy Oswalt reasonably cheap, nabbed his White Whale in Roy Halladay and (disastrously) traded for Hunter Pence.  Four high value trade targets, four successfulish hauls.  And frankly, one thing that we can credit Amaro for is his prescience or canny evaluation of advanced (ie above A ball) prospects: Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Carlos Carrasco, Kyle Drabek, Josh Zeid even Anthony Gose have produced a whole bunch of nothing for their current teams.  And Jason Knapp fell prey to injury, while Jonathan Villar's bat is flawed and Jarred Cosart's results belie a fairly troubling underlying skillset.  Jon Singleton was the (unfortunate, stupid, totally unneccessary) cost of doing business, and Domingo Santana is an unforgivable bungle.  If you're counting, that's not a bad track record.

So what's the issue?  Well, again, it's not always about results, but also about process.  Amaro seemingly telegraphed his intention of getting a splashy trade every summer, like Babe Ruth calling his shot, and every summer, he'd ship out four prospects to get one stud (pitcher, usually).  Prior to the Pence trade, even Charlie Manuel was openly stumping for a right handed bat, and it seemed a foregone conclusion that the Phils would get Pence.  That's a really terrible bargaining position: try going into a dealership and telling the first salesman you see that you're definitely going to buy a car today and you'll quickly see the issue. Amaro's lack of imagination in trade targets (save perhaps Cliff Lee in 2009) has always put him in an early hole in trade talks, mucking up the market for him with a preemptive handicap.

But it's also about selling. The first Cliff Lee trade is rightfully loathed by all, and for both process and results.  Lee was far and away the best trade piece (suddenly, inexplicably) available in 2009, was cheap, and could be flipped midseason. He should have gotten one blue chip prospect back at least, and neither Phillipe Aumont nor Tyson Gillies was that.  Not to mention JC Ramirez. Now, after Gillies' recent release, all but Aumont are out of the organization, and he's still walking six and a half per nine in triple A.  Suffice it to say, Amaro got a raw deal. But why? Primarily because, between the moment we heard that Lee might be traded to the trade itself, we were hardly able to take two breaths.  It's pure speculation by nature to second guess trades, as none of us were in the room, but it certainly felt as if Lee wasn't exactly shopped around.  And that means that no market was explored.

Amaro once again lets his impatience get the better of him in his second failing: not letting a market develop to maximum scarcity before selling.

And this specter of bad sales comes back to us in Amaro's final failing: falling prey to the changing nature of MLB.  During Amaro's tenure, we've seen him trade to get star players and aggressively sign players he expects will be stars.  This approach has changed a bit the past offseason, and part of it might be Amaro recognizing the ways in which the marketplace of free agency and trading has changed. But that realization might be too little too late.  I want to suggest -- and I think it's fairly plausible -- that Amaro's strategy through 2013 was to buy in trades and replenish lost prospect talent with free agency talent.  This was a perfectly viable if frustrating big market strategy: the Yankees and Red Sox of the 2000s proved that it could work pretty darn well.  But two changing parts of MLB have hamstrung this strategy badly.

First, teams have started really caring about their young talent.  Part of this is because of the Mike Trout effect, i.e. seeing how a young star can impact a team powerfully and immediately, and part of this is because of the Evan Longoria effect, i.e. seeing how little that young star can be paid.  As a result, teams are greedily hoarding prospects hoping for the next young star that can be had for a 6 year, 45 MM dollar contract.  As a result, your Cliff Lees and Chase Utleys of the world suddenly don't bring back Zack Wheeler.  They bring back maybe like a pitcher in A ball (Jason Knapp?) or a toolsy outfielder (Jiwan James?).  Teams have become deeply gunshy, and that is bad for a team that has a number of veterans to suddenly sell.  If Amaro expects the trade market to give in 2014 as it took in 2009, he will be sorely disappointed.

Second, draft spending has become slotted.  This, of course, would be hard to foresee precisely, so we shouldn't kill Amaro for it or anything.  But it certainly has made things harder.  In the past, if you needed a quick and good rebuild of the farm system, overslot spending was your friend.  Strong talent could be bought late: Jon Singleton was drafted in the 8th round; Jarred Cosart was drafted in the 38th; Domonic Brown was drafted in the 20th.  While you can still get overslot talent in the slotted draft (see: Cord Sandberg), it's trickier.  And it's certainly impossible to stack your draft in the way that the Red Sox or Pirates did in the years preceding the slotting shift.  As a result, fewer blue chip prospects will be drafted year to year and any system rebuild is going to take a lot longer.  This does not bode well for a GM on the hot seat.

So third, Amaro has misread the tea leaves of MLB: not only will teams not trade their young talent to him, but now young talent is doubly hard to get in the first place.

In the end, Amaro has misread three markets: two he could have read better had he been more patient, and one that is likely just an unlucky bounce.  Ironically for Amaro, it could be the latter market that will doom him and his rebuilding plans, but that's for another piece.  The conclusion here is mercifully short: Amaro isn't bad at everything.  He's not an idiot, and if he says idiotic things, we can reliably assume that they're either flubs or gamesmanship.  But he's not good at one of if not the most important part of his job: being able to understand and properly manipulate the marketplace of available talent.  Even for a GM with a deep payroll and a long leash, that's a deeply tough hurdle to climb.

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