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Amaro’s Last Mistake

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Once lionized for building a dominant rotation, Ruben Amaro didn't do nearly enough in his final three seasons to ensure a playable set of starting pitchers.

The success story: Roberto Hernandez
The success story: Roberto Hernandez
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

This weekend I was planning to write a long-ish piece making the argument that however effective his work had been over the last twelve months—and it was legitimately good—there was no earthly way the Phillies should keep GM Ruben Amaro Jr. in place beyond the end of his contract next month. Of course, the team blew that idea out of the water by giving the longtime executive his walking papers on Thursday. And there was much rejoicing.

We’ve chewed over Amaro’s legacy for a long time at TGP, and I don’t want to re-litigate the whole thing today. But I think an underappreciated element has played out since 2013, and threatens to do continued harm going forward: Amaro’s inability to find usable veteran starting pitching for cheap.

This is at least a little surprising considering that the late Phillies teams of the five-year run were built around a dominant rotation that could cover for an aging lineup. The "four aces" group in 2011 was about as good as advertised, with Vance Worley’s great rookie campaign helping to compensate for Oswalt missing time with injuries. A year, the Phillies remained a consensus playoff pick even after Oswalt left, with Halladay, Lee and Cole Hamels fronting a rotation rounded out by Worley and Joe Blanton with Kyle Kendrick as the swingman.

Of course, that was the season it all started to go south, and the following winter is where our story here really begins. Realizing the 2013 club couldn't ask Lee and Hamels to make 81 starts each, that Halladay was a questionable proposition at best—he wound up making just 13 starts, with a 6.82 ERA—and that Kendrick was, well, Kendrick, Amaro went to find reinforcements. The marquee addition was lefty John Lannaninfamous in Philadelphiafor breaking Chase Utley’s hand in his first major league start five years earlier. He’d spent most of the previous season in the minor leagues; the others were Rodrigo Lopez, a quad-A journeyman in his mid-30s, and Aaron Cook, an oft-injured soft tosser who hadn’t put up an ERA below 5 since 2009. Neither Lopez nor Cook made the club; Lannan went 3-6 with a 5.33 ERA in his 14 starts, and was unceremoniously cut loose after the season. The team finished out the season with the likes of Tyler Cloyd and Zach Miner taking regular turns.

Late in the 2013 season, the Phillies made their first serious foray into the Cuban talent market, coming to a six-year, $48 million agreement with pitcher Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez. But as days stretched into weeks with no final contract signed, it soon became clear some health concerns had arisen. Eventually the deal was adjusted to three years for $12 million. From Amaro's initial expressed hope that MAG could join the rotation before season's end, the talk changed to his need for a winter to regain strength and acclimate to the professional game.

Still fancying themselves contenders, the Phillies needed more pitching going into 2014 to back up Lee and Hamels. Kendrick was still around, and young Jonathan Pettibone had shown promise as a rookie, and Gonzalez had been penciled into the rotation. Amaro went discount shopping again, bringing in Jeff Manship (career 6.42 ERA), Sean O’Sullivan (5.89), and Roberto Hernandez, f/k/a Fausto Carmona. At the end of the offseason, he pulled off what looked like a coup, inking veteran A.J. Burnett, coming off a 200-strikeout season for the Pirates.

And it all collapsed again. Gonzalez showed up in Florida clearly unready, and spent almost the entire season in the minors before a conversion to relief earned him a September call up. Burnett got hurt, pitched through it and led the league in losses; his greatest service to the Phillies was declining a high-dollar player option for 2015 to return to Pittsburgh for much less money. Formerly famous people like Jason Marquis and Jo-Jo Reyes passed through the organization without reaching the majors; only Hernandez performed reasonably well, pitching to a 3.87 ERA before a late-summer trade to the Dodgers for two decent prospects. Amaro also made a canny August waiver-wire pickup of Jerome Williams, who went 4-2, 2.83 in nine late starts. But a franchise-record payroll delivered only the same 73-89 record of a year before.

The focus was different heading into 2015. With the team committed to a rebuild, the big rotation question was whether and when Hamels might get traded. Still, they had to play the games, and few or no homegrown arms were ready to step up. Kendrick left as a free agent, but Williams was retained to fill one rotation spot, second-year man David Buchanan was counted on for another, and there was some hope Lee might return from the injury that had cost him most of 2014. Gonzalez, in the second year of his contract, was hoped on as well. To fill out the front five, Amaro went a bit higher-dollar, adding veterans Aaron Harang for $5 million and Chad Billingsley for $1.5 million. The depth behind them included O’Sullivan, Kevin Slowey, and Pettibone if healthy.

You know the rest. Hamels was Hamels until the late July trade that helped re-stock the system. Lee (and Pettibone) never made it back; Billingsley made seven starts between injuries; Harang, after a great first six weeks or so, has been the worst pitcher in the National League. Buchanan was a Superfund site, Williams a demilitarized zone, O’Sullivan a comedic snuff film. Kevin Correia came and, after five mostly awful starts, went. MAG got hurt again, then shelled in two late season starts… for the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

In all, 14 pitchers have made starts for the 2015 Phillies. Exactly three of them—Hamels (3.64), rookie Aaron Nola (3.56), and Hamels trade pickup Jerad Eickhoff (3.90) have ERAs under 4. Of the other ten, only Adam Morgan, another rookie, has an ERA under 5 (4.60). The current rotation is Harang, Nola, Morgan, Eickhoff, Alec Asher, and Buchanan. The middle four, all rookies, are all at or near single season innings highs for their professional careers. Nola, the prize of the group, will be shut down after another couple starts. The rest probably will have to keep going out, at questionable strength, to see their confidence and statistics alike take a pounding.

By no means am I saying that every one of these moves to add pitching, or even the majority of them, should have paid off. The whole idea of volume signings is that of four or five, one might work out. But the hits—really just Hernandez and, for a month and a half, Williams—are dwarfed by the misses, from Lannan and O’Sullivan to Burnett and Harang, plus all the guys who never even suited up in the majors. Amaro's failures here perfectly reflects the two shortcomings that would have rendered him a poor choice to lead the next stage of the rebuild and beyond: he’s not a good judge of free/cheap talent, and he doesn’t read markets well.

About the best you can say for Amaro and his team is that they didn’t give in to the temptation to promote the guys they got back in the recent trades—Zach Eflin, Jake Thompson and so on—to finish out this lost year. But whoever comes next will need to do a better job of finding arms to bridge the gap between the grim present and the hopefully brighter future those pitchers could help build.