When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, Pat Gillick received a lot of credit for assembling the team as a general manager. Some of this is surely deserved as he was able to acquire the complementary pieces the team needed to improve from an also-ran to a perennial World Series contender- players like Jayson Werth, Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton, Brad Lidge, and Shane Victorino.
But Gillick's moves would have been nothing had there not been a core of players for him to fill in around. None of the top 3 players in bWAR on that 2008 World Championship team was acquired by Pat Gillick. Chase Utley (9 bWAR) and Cole Hamels (4.3 bWAR) were both drafted by Ed Wade, and Jimmy Rollins (5.4 bWAR) was drafted even before Wade's tenure.
Beyond those stars, just about every core player on those 2008 and 2009 teams that went to the World Series pre-dated Gillick's occupation of the front office. Ryan Howard, Carlos Ruiz, Pat Burrell, Brett Myers, and Ryan Madson were all Ed Wade draft picks or international signings. Gillick didn't exactly build a championship team from scratch.
This isn't meant as a defense of Ed Wade and it certainly does not constitute a claim that he was a good general manager for the Phillies. He bungled the trades of the two most valuable Phillies of his tenure. To only get Travis Lee, Vicente Padilla, Nelson Figueroa, Placido Polanco, Bud Smith, and Mike Timlin out of Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen, both worthy Hall of Famers, is criminal. I don't recall any rumors that Schilling's noxious political beliefs diminished his trade value.
Although he lacked in negotiating tact, he left the Phillies in a position to be good in the future with talent he was able to acquire through the draft and in the international market. History has given us perspective to acknowledge that many of the moves made by the Wade-led Phillies front office were central to the eventual success and fringe-dynasty status the Phillies later achieved.
Ruben Amaro, Jr., having recently been replaced as general manager of the team, potentially finds himself in a Wadean situation. Amaro's faults as a general manager are obvious and well-documented. (In fact, they were comprehensively documented by John Stolnis earlier this week, on this very site).
Despite my appreciation of the more recent chapters of the Amaro General Managing Log Book, his firing is absolutely the right move. You can't be as slow to adopt and, more importantly, to explore new ideas as Amaro has been over the past 7 years and still occupy a seat in a front office. Add in blatantly poor decisions like the Ryan Howard extension and the hasty trade of Cliff Lee in 2010 and Amaro's fate was sealed long ago.
Yet, Amaro doesn't leave the Phillies in a total state of disrepair like the one they faced just two years ago when they paired an old and bad major league roster with a bottom-tier farm system. Yes, the major league roster is still bad, but at least it's not as old as it has been in recent memory. The farm system figures, by some accounts, to rate as a top-5 system when such lists are published in the next couple months.
Before we get too carried away about the farm system Amaro has quietly rebuilt over the last 2 years or so, it is necessary to note that Amaro was largely responsible for the state the team was in--old, not very good, no prospects--through a combination of bad contracts (Howard, Papelbon), bad trades (Cliff Lee to Seattle, Hunter Pence to and fro), and poor drafting (Larry Greene immediately before Jackie Bradley Jr.; Shane Watson immediately before Lance McCullers).
The state of the Phillies was not great, Bob.
But, to his credit, Ruben Amaro, Jr. has worked in recent years to atone for the sins he committed early in his tenure. In the draft, he has added J.P. Crawford, Aaron Nola, and Cornelius Randolph with first round picks. Since he's just a couple months removed from high school, we don't have a great sense on what exactly Cornelius Randolph is or will be, but we know what Crawford and Nola are. The latter has already arrived in the majors and pitched like the mid-rotation starter he was projected to be. The latter is one of the five or ten best prospects in baseball at a premium position at which the Phillies have no other truly compelling options.
In addition to this drafts, Amaro has stocked the system through recent trades of older stars and ex-stars. The prospects that came back for Cole Hamels have exceeded expectations since joining the organization. Jerald Eickhoff has already shown back of the rotation ability in the month since coming over. Nick Williams has hit .320/.340/.536 at AA since coming over from Texas. Jake Thompson has a 1.80 ERA and a 34/12 SO:BB ratio in 45 innings with AA Reading. The trades of Jimmy Rollins, Marlon Byrd, Roberto Hernandez, Ben Revere, and Jonathan Papelbon have peppered the high minors with prospects capable of eventually contributing at the major league level.
He's added talent through other means as well. Just in this winter's Rule 5 draft, the Phillies selected Odubel Herrera who has vastly exceeded expectations and belongs at or near the top of any discussion of the Phillies center fielder of the future. Maikel Franco, who should have erased any lingering doubts about his status as the team's future third baseman with his play this season, was signed as an international free agent. Franklyn Kilome, an exciting, hard-throwing righty in low-A was also an international signing.
Long story short, Ruben Amaro and his staff have done well in the past two or three years to transform a truly barren farm system into one of the deepest collections of talent in the game. He's done that through trades, drafts, and international signings. That doesn't erase the mistakes that largely defined his tenure as GM, but it does deserve to be a positive part of the Amaro story. Just as we can't ignore the myriad poor decisions he made, we also can't pretend he hasn't done well in some regards recently.
Baseball general managing is one of the few jobs where one is expected to perform at an elite level from day one. Learning curves are not acknowledged and, even when they are, are not tolerated. Ruben Amaro certainly was a bottom 5 GM when he assumed the role following the 2008 World Series and, because of that, the Phillies were unable to become the dynasty Ed Wade and Pat Gillick put them in a position to become.
Despite his early struggles with long contracts to older players, Amaro has done will to clean up his mess to rebuild the Phillies into an organization with a lot of legitimate prospects in the high minors. Like Ed Wade before him, he won't be around to enjoy the fruits of that labor, but hopefully, like Wade, if the Phillies are successful on the strength of performances by Crawford, Franco, Alfaro, Thompson, Nola, and Williams, Ruben Amaro, Jr. will be recognized for assembling that core.