One day last week, the Philadelphia Phillies played a game in which they sent out a starting outfield of Pete Orr, Roger Bernadina and John Mayberry Jr.. Orr, a journeyman in his early 30s, had just been recalled from triple-A to replace the injured Casper Wells, who went to the disabled list straining under the burden of an .043 batting average. Bernadina had joined the club only a week or so earlier after getting released by the Nationals; he’d replaced 30 year-old Michael Martinez, who has spent parts of three seasons with the Phillies posting OPS marks of .540, .461 and .333 respectively. Mayberry, a 29 year old with a career on base percentage of .309 in nearly 1200 major league plate appearances who’s never held a long-term starting job despite repeated opportunities, was the unquestioned star of the group.
The Phillies have used 26 pitchers this year, including the outfielder Wells—who posted a 67.50 ERA and took the loss in his one appearance—and the 38 year old utility infielder John McDonald, who finished the disastrous inning Wells started. Among the 24 pitchers who actually make their living as pitchers are Raul Valdes, a 35 year old journeyman who’s pitched to a 7.46 ERA in 35 innings; Luis Garcia, who a year ago was cutting hair for a living; and Chad Durbin, who was released with a 9 ERA in June from a seven figure contract.
About 20 years ago, the New York Mets were the subject of a book by two New York area sportswriters titled The Worst Team Money Could Buy. The 1992 Mets had an estimated payroll of $44.6 million, third highest among the 26 major league teams. They finished 72-90, the 20th worst record in baseball.
As a rough measure of GM performance, you probably could do worse than subtracting a team’s won/lost rank from its payroll rank. In honor of the 1992 Mets (and their 1993 successor, which had the 9th highest payroll and 28th best—meaning worst—record among the 28 teams), let’s call this the Wilpon Number, after then-president and CEO Fred Wilpon, now the team's owner. The Mets' Wilpon Number in each of those two seasons was -17.
The Wilpon Number for the 2013 Phillies is actually worse than that at the moment, and could end up worse still. The Phillies are currently 13 games under .500, tied for the 21st best record of the 30 big-league clubs. The Phillies began the season with a $158 million payroll, third most in the major leagues. So as of Labor Day, they're at -18. And the team’s Pythagorean record, derived from the differential of runs scored to runs allowed, has them at 25 under… suggesting that this wretched club has significantly overachieved.
This isn’t a one year phenomenon. Last season, the Phils had the second highest payroll and the 17th best record, again giving them a Wilpon Number of -15. But they were overshadowed by the 2012 Red Sox, a team that in its high profile dysfunction more closely resembled those early-‘90s Mets clubs. Last year’s Sox had the third highest payroll in the game, and the 24th best record, for a Wilpon Number of -21. Without extensive research, I suspect that’s the worst mark in recent years, and probably approaches the all-time record. (The 2012 Marlins were worse than the Phillies as well, with the 8th highest payroll and the 25th best record.)
To underperform payroll by that much, a GM needs to make repeated mistakes in at least two vectors. First, he has to inflate the payroll by signing long term contracts with players who either severely underperform, miss long stretches with injuries, or both. The 2013 Phillies are amply covered here with Ryan Howard, Roy Halladay and others, with bonus points for Jonathan Papelbon and his superstar contract for a relatively unimportant role in which he’s delivered middling performance.
Second, he needs to make multiple misevaluations in filling out the middle and lower echelons of the roster. Here, in particular, Ruben Amaro has stood out: he signed Delmon Young despite his long track record of offensive sub-mediocrity and defensive atrocity, figured that Michael Young would be worth $6 million as an everyday third baseman, paid a couple million to put John Lannan in the rotation, and brought in Mike Adams and Durbin as the reliable veterans in a bullpen.
Amaro’s two-year Wilpon Number is -33, easily the worst in MLB. He’s repeatedly made remarks to the effect of "if I can’t build a contender on our payroll, shame on me." If the team’s quiet owners give this failed executive a third year to spend so much money for so little return, shame on them.