It’s a truism of baseball fandom that the arguments are half the fun. Mays or Mantle, Schmidt or Brett, Maddux or Pedro: every generation has its go-to.
The Phillies, of course, haven’t offered much in the way of fun lately, so maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the emerging argument around the team has all the joy of an interminable traffic jam in a rainstorm when everyone in the car has bad gas. It goes something like this:
Irate talk radio caller/internet comment thread participant: RUIN TOMORROW JUNIOR SUX!
Contrarian blogger: He’s not the entirety of the problem, and also you’re retarded
The annoying thing is that they’re both essentially right. And it’s possible bordering on probable that since I don’t live in Philadelphia and am thus spared talk radio, and I don’t really ever go into comment threads other than here (and even that not so often, plus you guys are obviously the best commenters on the internet and I’m so not just saying that because we’re all here), I’m wildly off base in seeing actually more of the latter sentiment than the former.
But let’s just look for the common fucking ground and hold hands, okay? And here it is: Firing Ruben Amaro Jr. isn’t sufficient to get the Phillies back on track, but it’s almost certainly a necessary step for doing so.
There aren’t really any pro-Amaro arguments, but what I'll call the anti-anti-Amaro argument (ably made most recently by, among others, Corinne at Crashburn Alley and Matt Winkelman at Phillies Minor Thoughts, and made earlier by our much-missed former TGP colleague joecatz) pretty much boil down to a strong assertion that the GM hasn’t done anything egregiously harmful to the team’s long-term direction in at least two years, and a softer assertion that he might have learned something about how to be a successful GM. I think the first idea is pretty much inarguable—though I’d also suggest that the sample size might not be large enough to state with confidence that he’s repented from overpaying for aging sluggers with old-player skills or setting records for contracts to closers.
(And not just because he's said he would make both deals again--though that doesn't help. There's a different way to talk about the Ryan Howard contract in particular: that everyone is disappointed, and nobody more so that Ryan. Defending that deal by calling Howard "the most productive player in the game at the time" should only unite the talk radio idiots and the contrarian bloggers. Which in a way, I guess, is my point.)
But let’s take on the maybe-getting-better notion. Without question, the most positive development of the last two years for the Phillies has been the progress of their first-round draft picks, shortstop J.P. Crawford in 2013 and pitcher Aaron Nola this past June. If you want to credit Amaro for that, okay, but they also just fired scouting director Marti Wolever—who presumably was more closely involved. And while the system overall more or less held serve this year (John Sickels thinks it slipped a bit), nobody is saying that it’s now a top five collection of near-ready talent, or that the gains are primarily Amaro’s doing.
At the major league level, the big additions last winter were Marlon Byrd, who had a pretty good season, and A.J. Burnett, who didn’t. Both signings were at least defensible at the time (probably more of us—me very much included—liked the Burnett deal than the Byrd deal), and neither deal really limits the team from doing big things going forward.
But in both cases, Amaro’s extraordinarily player-friendly negotiating approach made them more difficult to move this summer. Was a limited no-trade clause necessary to land Byrd, who publicly said he wanted to end his career where he started it? Did Burnett require all those incentive clauses for the Phillies to beat out Pittsburgh, which already had disdained to make A.J. a qualifying offer, or Baltimore, which wasn’t spending money anyway and plays in a division Burnett doesn’t seem to like?
Remember: contracts are supposedly Amaro’s skill. His experience there was ostensibly why he got the GM job as the Phillies moved from a mid-level payroll to MLB’s high-roller suite. Yet every year, the outlays have risen while the team’s competitive positioning has worsened.
And that’s really the core of the argument. Over the last two seasons, the Phillies have spent more money for fewer wins than any baseball team in the history of the sport. They were third in payroll in both 2013 and 2014, and had the seventh-worst record each year (tied with the Cubs this season).
To take a somewhat comparable recent example that should make us all a little queasy, the 2009 Mets had the second-highest payroll and the seventh-worst record; a year later their payroll had fallen to fifth and the team gained nine wins in the standings while improving to the 11th worst won-lost mark. GM Omar Minaya was fired days after that season ended.
So we’ve got the team’s expensive and awful performance under Amaro and the absence of any clear indication that he’s become a good (as opposed to non-disastrous) GM. The third argument for his dismissal actually goes to the case his (relative) defenders make: that firing him won’t fix the underlying cultural problems besetting the organization, and that the Phillies might just find a new digger to deepen the hole.
I think firing Amaro actually would help fix the culture problem. If the issue is complacency and stale thinking, how better to stir things up than cutting ties with the erstwhile golden boy who’s been an organizational lifer? The bat boy turned prospect turned outfielder turned front-office apprentice who rose to the GM’s chair, who spent most of his life imbibing the sensibility of Green, Bowa, Giles and Montgomery? How could anyone feel safe in continuing on with business as usual after that guy gets cut loose?
(An important point here is that it really has to be a firing. My guess for a long time has been that Amaro wouldn’t be dismissed, but rather reassigned in the organization—maybe even kicked upstairs, to the team presidency, if David Montgomery’s health doesn’t improve. This would fatally undermine the idea that the same-old, same-old is no longer acceptable.)
Finally, it’s a simple argument about accountability. By any objective reasoning, Ruben Amaro Jr. has done a bad job at the helm of the Phillies. Promoted to GM days after the team won a championship, in that sense there was nowhere to go other than down… but in every other sense, the team should have been set up for unlimited long term success. The payroll was rising rapidly. The farm system was highly regarded. Stars wanted to come play for the team, and were willing to take less money to do so.
All the mistakes that brought about the old, bad, boring ball club that yesterday ended its season with a whimper—the December 2009 Cliff Lee trade, the squandered draft picks, the Howard contract, the Hunter Pence deal, the Jonathan Papelbon contract—were avoidable results of a flawed strategic vision, a misreading of the free agent or trade market, or a misunderstanding of the team's strengths, needs and vulnerabilities.
And they were all on Amaro. In any organization that evaluates on performance, he’s gotta go. If that means taking an action with which morons happen to agree, so be it.