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Defending Ruben Amaro Jr. (Unsuccessfully)

Since the end of the season, the cries for Ruben Amaro Jr.'s head have been loud and unrelenting. In response, his defenders have emerged, often just as loudly and just as unrelentingly. Here are their defenses, along with brief sketches as to why those defenses are wrong. Bottom line: Fire Ruben Amaro Jr. and do it now.

Ruben Amaro Jr., in closeup.
Ruben Amaro Jr., in closeup.

Ever since the Phillies' third non-winning season in a row ended, the piling on Ruben Amaro Jr. has been fierce.  In response, a new movement has popped up among Philadelphia Phillies fans -- defending him.

Frankly, this is shocking to me.  In a world when even some of the best teams in baseball are changing GMs, I struggle to find any reason that Amaro still has a job.  He has presided over the quick downfall of a franchise.  What's worse, his decisions have put the team in a hole that will take years, at best, to emerge from.

In other words, Amaro still has a job despite ruining the Phillies.

So how can his continued employment possibly be defended with a straight face?  Below, I list the eight main justifications that I have observed others put forth.  To the defenders' credit, these aren't necessarily arguments in support of Amaro as opposed to arguments in support of his remaining Phillies GM.  For each, I also explain why Amaro should, nonetheless, still be fired.

1) 102 Wins

Argument: This argument is quite simple.  Amaro took over the team after the Phillies won the World Series in 2008.  From there, the teams he presided over won 93 games in 2009, 97 games in 2010, and then an almost unfathomable 102 games in 2011.  Those 102 wins are the most ever by a Phillies team.  If Amaro can preside over teams that are that successful, then he knows what he's doing and should be given the chance to do it again.

Response: Though the incredibly fond memories of that successful time give this argument some appeal, there are two easy counter-arguments.  First, much of the successful team that Amaro ran was constructed by someone other than Amaro.  He didn't remake the team in the 2008-09 off-season.  Rather, he took the team that was given to him and worked within those confines.  Sure, he added Cliff Lee (then removed him, then added him again) and Roy Halladay and several other pieces, but much of the core was there and not because of Amaro.

Second, in baseball time, that run was a generation ago.  What Amaro has done over the past three years is more important.  By now, the team is his.  He has made the choices that have kept the core (now aging) players on the team.  He has made the choices of how to complement them.  And those choices have been completely unsuccessful.  He just can't ride on 2011 anymore; it's been too long with too disastrous results.

2) It's Ownership, Stupid!

Argument: But maybe Amaro isn't to blame for the current mess.  Maybe someone else is.  Maybe Amaro is brilliant (or, at least, not horrible) and he's just being held back by the Green/Montgomery/Middleton cabal that messes with baseball decisions, prioritizing hustle and loyalty over performance and innovation.  In reality, if Amaro were left to his own devices, he would steer this ship in the right direction.  But, with meddlesome ownership, it's impossible.  Any new GM would have the same problem, so why not keep the guy who is already here and knows how to work with this ownership group.

Response: I have two main problems with this argument.  One, I think it's pure speculation about what's going on with ownership.  If we want to blame them over Amaro, is that just wishful thinking?  Two, even if ownership is meddling, Amaro doesn't seem to know how to handle it.  There has to be someone out there who can work within this framework and produce better results.  Amaro clearly isn't that guy.

3) Just One Mistake

Argument: Maybe, just maybe, Amaro isn't bad at all.  Rather, he made just one big mistake - the Howard contract.  Sure, he traded Cliff Lee for no reason (or maybe because ownership told him to) and signed Jonathan Papelbon to a stupid contract for too many years, but those aren't really disastrous.  The Howard contract, on the other hand, is a pure disaster.  We all make mistakes, and this is Amaro's.  Once he figures a way out from under it or enough time passes, he can prove his worth, but it's only one mistake, so he shouldn't be punished for it.

Response: This argument ignores too many other issues with Amaro and excuses the inexcusable.  Amaro's list of mistakes is long -- it's not only the personnel decisions above, but it's also a failure to improve the team in any way (despite having one of the highest payrolls in baseball), giving out extra years and dollars in contracts, poorly identifying young major league talent, not innovating or embracing modern baseball understandings, and paying market value (at best) for performance.  To put it differently, this team is where it is not just because of the Howard contract but also because of many other mistakes made by Amaro.

Moreover, the Howard contract was horrible at the time and is horrible today.  Maybe it is just one mistake, but it is a franchise-crippling mistake, and that cannot be sloughed off.

4) Done No Harm in Two Years

Argument: Well, maybe he made a lot of mistakes in the beginning, but for two years he has done no harm.  He hasn't signed long-term contracts since Papelbon.  He hasn't traded away prospects.  He hasn't signed free agents like BJ Upton or Josh Hamilton who are horrible.  Right now, while the old guys play out their deals, Amaro is working under the Hippocratic Oath of baseball GMs.

Response: This is probably the least convincing argument to me.  Even if I give you that he has done no harm recently, what I want from a GM is much more than that.  I don't want someone who is now fulfilling the minimum requirement of the job of not destroying the franchise.  I want someone who we can confidently say is doing good for the team.  Someone who we think, in an open job competition, would be hired again.  Amaro, in his do-no-harm mode, is far from that level.

5) Believe It or Not, He's Been Good

Argument: I have trouble even typing this out, but this argument is out there, and it's being made by smart people who I normally think do good work.  The argument goes as follows: despite years of drafting at the bottom of the first round (if at all), the farm system has J.P. Crawford and Aaron Nola, who are top prospects in all of baseball.  We have an ace locked up at a reasonable rate for a long time.  We have a middle infield that is tops in the game also at a reasonable price.  We have signed free agents like Marlon Byrd, Jerome Williams, and Grady Sizemore who have been meaningful contributors.  We have a young, valuable center-fielder who is still cost-controlled.  We have a promising closer-in-waiting who throws in the triple-digits and strikes everyone out everyone.  We have entered the game of statistical analysis, despite the troglodytes who own the team, have hired a promising scouting director from outside the organization, and are active participants in the international market, including at the highest level.  Sure, the on-the-field results are colored by the Howard contract and the troubled rotation behind Hamels, but Amaro has actually done a good job for the position he finds himself in.

Response: Like I said, I have real trouble believing that people really believe this argument.  I feel like it's a defense mechanism against the mob mentality that the fire-Amaro crowd has taken on.  Despite how much fun it is to swim against the mainstream, I just see no reasonable argument that he's doing a good job.  The best that can be said is that he's doing no harm (see 4), but to say he's doing a good job when the team is horrible, attendance has plummeted, and the best hope that we have is 3 or 4 years from now (if we're lucky) is to re-write what it means to be good at your job.

6) It's Hopeless

Argument: The situation the team faces is hopeless.  The aging core is locked up and not getting better.  The farm system's best prospects (other than Nola) are in the low minors.  The Howard contract is a beast.  The ownership group won't innovate.  In this situation, keeping Amaro is better than the alternative of firing him and either 1) not finding someone good who is willing to take the job or 2) ownership hiring someone worse.

Response: I just can't accept this.  We are a top-5 market team finally spending like a top-5 market team.  We have a great stadium with a passionate fanbase.  The owners may be meddlesome people who think a pitcher's win is the most important stat in baseball, but they're business people first and foremost.  They know what this team's struggles are doing to the bottom line.  And, they know what 2008 felt like and want to win.  I have to believe that they are capable of finding someone who is smarter, more effective, and more successful than Amaro.  If they aren't, then at the very least, they need to send a message in the organization that incompetence is not rewarded with job security.

Make no mistake - I do fear the owners filling Amaro's spot with someone who is worse.  But, I fear more years of Amaro at the helm more.

7) Re-Sign Him

Argument: Amaro's in the last year of his contract.  The fear is that he'll act like he's in his last year and do everything he can next year to win now.  In the process, he'll sacrifice the future for a one-year run so that he can possibly have another job after this contract is up.  So, instead of living with that situation, the team should re-sign Amaro so that he is operating comfortably, thinking about the long-term success of the franchise.  If he fails with that mindset, then you fire him.  But, in the meantime, re-sign him.

Response: Amaro's not stupid.  He has to know that his job is on the line next year, whether he has a new contract or not.  The Phillies, with all the money they have, are not going to decide whether to keep or fire Amaro based on whether they will have to pay him pocket change (for the franchise, not for Amaro) for years he isn't working for them.  Amaro knows this and his GM moves next year (if he's still here) are going to be the same regardless of his contract status.

8) Out of His Control

Argument: Amaro is the victim of circumstance and the dismal state of the team was out of his control.  Amaro isn't responsible for Roy Halladay crumbling halfway through his contract.  Amaro isn't responsible for Lee's left arm or Howard's Achilles or Chooch's PED use or Utley's knees or Brown's unfulfilled promise or Biddle's hail concussion or Papelbon's velocity or, well, you get the point.  On top of that, it's not Amaro's fault that the drafts of the late 90s and early 00s produced franchise-best players who are so loyal to the team that they are still here now that he's GM, clogging up the roster and payroll.  These things are out of Amaro's control, so he shouldn't be punished for them.

Response: If there's one constant in baseball, it's that shit happens.  The best GMs are the ones who can handle bad luck and pivot as needed.  Amaro has shown that he can't do that.  Time and time again, we see that he doesn't have the creativity and ingenuity to address the current situation, even if he's not responsible for it.

Bottom Line

I keep coming back to these two questions:  1) What is Amaro actually good at? and 2) If this were an open job competition, would you hire Amaro for the position?

The answer to 1 is a very very short list -- going after front-line starting pitchers and keeping prospects.  Beyond that, there may be some disagreement as to a few other things, but the list is woefully short.

There can be no disagreement as to the answer to question 2.  No one would hire Ruben Amaro Jr. to be the Phillies GM if the position were open.

If that's the case, then why keep him now?