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Ruben Amaro: Year Zero

In which I propose a ceasefire to the endless war of words over the Phillies' beleaguered GM

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Reading the comments to John's Ryan Howard story from a few days back, I see we're continuing to warm ourselves beside the eternal fire of the Ruben Amaro Argument.  I know most of you have this by heart, but for easy reference, I'll summarize the two sides:

  • Anti: Amaro inherited a defending world champion in November 2008 with a burgeoning payroll and deep farm system, and within five years had turned it into a sub-.500 team with an aging roster and a depleted talent pipeline, all for one of the highest payrolls in MLB; he’s failed to show creativity or effectively leverage structural advantages (e.g. play the international market when you could still get a Puig or Abreu at a sub-free agent rate), willingly disregarded important decision-making tools (analytics, pre-extern), structures contracts foolishly, and can’t negotiate effectively with either his fellow general managers, who think he's unrealistic in trade demands, or player agents, who think he's incredibly generous in offering vesting options, no-trade protection and other unnecessary goodies.
  • Pro: Amaro was strategically correct to push his chips to the center of the table for one more championship run from an aging core in 2010-11, particularly since few to none of the guys he traded have yet emerged in the majors; he was constrained by upper management on some of the worst decisions, particularly the Howard contract and the second Cliff Lee trade; you can’t blame the awful drafts and near total absence of homegrown talent after Cole Hamels solely or even primarily on him; he stopped digging the hole deeper three years ago and has done a more than credible job since then, showing evidence of learning from his mistakes.

I can't claim impartiality here. Anyone who’s read my posts on this question over the last couple years will know that I incline toward the Anti view: my preference would be for him to be gone, ideally a year or two ago.

But the Pro faction, here and elsewhere, makes some strong arguments—above all, that Amaro is probably at least as much symptom as cause of what is or has been wrong in the organization, and that he’s avoided big errors, at least those of commission, since the start of the 2012 season. (Of course, part of the problem in evaluation is that short of some leak, we can't know what sins of omission--good trade offers not accepted--he might have committed.) It’s also surely the case that if a couple bounces had gone differently in October 2011 and that Phillies team had claimed a second championship in four seasons, the whole picture probably would look very different.

In any event, he’s here for at least one more year, and his job description has changed in a way that should make evaluation easier. Now that the team has publicly acknowledged and embraced the need to rebuild, every decision is cast in a new light: will it make the Phillies stronger in 2017 and beyond?

The idea of punting on a season or two is obviously depressing. Sports fans are dopamine junkies, and at a minimum, the next 324 games on the schedule will offer an inconsistent and weak fix. But it’s also liberating: the brain trust gets to make decisions for the longer term. Bring Maikel Franco to CBP in April, or not; whichever helps him develop best. Maybe putting Cody Asche in an outfield corner lets him focus on offense? Logic seems dubious, but we’ve got nothing to lose but ballgames; try it! If Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez really can handle a spot in the rotation, fantastic; if not, all he’s done is improve your 2016 draft position (and prove he was a bad investment, but that’s already the presumption).

Beyond development issues, Amaro’s mission is to add as much talent, to build or to flip, as possible. The moves so far this winter—the Jimmy Rollins and Antonio Bastardo trades for decent but not slam-dunk pitching prospects, the two Rule 5 selections—strongly hint that Amaro gets this now. So too that he hasn't moved precipitately to deal Hamels or Marlon Byrd; my growing hunch is that he's much more likely to keep either or both than to trade them for a too-meager return, which is as it should be. The question is whether he and the rest of the decision-makers, very much including the major and minor league coaching staffs, can identify and cultivate the keepers from the myriad auditioners.

I’ll admit I’m not overly optimistic. In some ways, the most infuriating shortcoming of the last few years was how Amaro's team of allegedly elite scouts and advisors—whose expertise, he said or implied, removed the need to develop a strong analytic capacity—serially misevaluated supposedly marginal players like Brandon Moss and Jason Grilli, while giving extended opportunities to guys like Delmon Young and Chad Durbin. And while they haven't yet been burned by the young players they dealt away in those win-now trades, nor have many of the ones they kept turned into big-league contributors.

But here too, the Pro side has a case. During the 2014 season, Amaro had his first scrap-heap successes, signing two contributing vets off the street in Jerome Williams and Grady Sizemore (as well as Roberto Hernandez, inked last winter for cheap and then flipped in August for two decent prospects, in what was arguably Amaro’s best set of moves since the first Lee and Roy Halladay trades). They’re not exactly Shane Victorino and Jayson Werth, or even Greg Dobbs and J.C. Romero; neither will be on the next good Phillies team. But they offer some hope that the GM is getting it. Similarly, Ken Giles is on track to be the Phillies' biggest developmental success--a talent the organization spotted and nurtured, overlooked by virtually everyone else--since at least Michael Bourn.

The Phillies as an organization seem to have set a middle course between the pros and antis. They didn’t fire their GM, however well such a move might have played among a disgruntled fan base. But they didn’t extend him either: Amaro’s contract seemingly will expire after the 2015 season. In other circumstances, the fear would be that Amaro might make win-now moves to gin up a 5-10 game improvement in the standings, claim spurious momentum, and leverage David Montgomery’s infamous loyalty instinct to preserve his job. But the public commitment to a rebuild (hopefully) takes that option off the table. For the first time, with expectations appropriately low and a plan seemingly in place, it should be possible for all of us at least to agree on how the GM should be evaluated from this point on.