A baseball player, a lawyer and a rabbi walked into Ruben Amaro Jr.'s explanation for signing Delmon Young yesterday, and now a once-proud baseball team enters 2013 as a potential off-Broadway farce. In contemplating the general manager's justification for acquiring the 27-year-old outfielder, who in April of last season was suspended after a drunken confrontation that included his allegedly hurling an anti-Semitic slur, you can't help but wonder if the whole thing was an exercise in gallows humor. The punchline isn't that the Phillies' next right fielder had just wrapped up an afternoon of picking up dog droppings in Central Park, or even that Young's exit from perdition was aided by a rabbi and a Jewish lawyer who vouched for his character (the lawyer happens to be his agent). One of the defining characteristics of the American pastime throughout the years has been its remarkable tolerance for intolerance. Besides, what Young requested of the assembled media at Citizens Bank park yesterday is an opportunity that all of us feel we deserve.
"Get to know me," he said, "and then make judgments for yourself."
In the same vein, an honest assessment of character probably requires more than just the cursory due dilligence that Amaro says he performed, or the sessions with a rabbi who also happens to be a long-time Tigers season ticket holder that Young and his agents say he had. In fact, one of the lessons in myth-making that we've received over the last few weeks is very little of what we read or hear about an athlete should be considered a valid representation of his nature. That being said, while few of us know enough about Delmon Young the human being to render an honest verdict, the same cannot be said about Delmon Young the baseball player. And this is where we pick up on our comedy.
The Phillies signing of Young is little more than the latest maneuver in a remarkable two-year run in which everything that Amaro and Co. say they are looking for in baseball players turns out to be inversely proportional to the prevalence of those characteristics in the players they end up signing. Last offseason, they said they wanted a younger lineup that had a better approach at the plate.
"It’s not just about the home run," Amaro said after the Phillies fell to the Cardinals in the National League Division Series. "We just don’t have same offensive team that we had in 2008. We have to realize that and work with it … We should have more .300 hitters."
By the start of spring training, the Phillies had acquired 41-year-old power-hitting designated hitter Jim Thome (.256 average, .361 OBP, 3.0 AB/SO the previous season), 31-year-old power-hitting outfielder Laynce Nix (.250 average, .299 OBP, 4.0 AB/SO), and 34-year-old power-hitting infielder Ty Wigginton (.242 average, .315 OBP, 4.8 AB/SO).
This year, the buzz phrase has been "pitch the ball and catch the ball," usually repeated as a comparison to the world champion Giants.
"It's about pitching and defense and playing the game the right way," Amaro said on one of a number of occasions.
On another, he said, "The brand of baseball that we played I wasn’t real happy with, and I don’t think Charlie was either, and that’s playing winning baseball and we just didn’t do that all that well."
With three weeks to go before spring training, the Phillies have traded away they youngest starting pitcher in Vance Worley and one of their top pitching prospects in Trevor May. At third base, they have penciled in 36-year-old Michael Young, who last played the position in 2010 and who spent the bulk of last season as a designated hitter (hitting .277/.312/.370 in the process). In Kevin Frandsen, they have signed a utility man who has played primarily at third base and second base in his career, which could force them to think about keeping another utility man who can back up Jimmy Rollins at short stop.
And to cap off the offseason, the Phillies now welcome in Delmon Young, who was so bad at defense that he played mostly at designated hitter last season, and who was so bad at designated hitter that his best option for 2013 was to accept a $750,000 contract from a National League club.
That club, the Phillies, now plans on using Young as their everyday right fielder, a position he has not played since 2007, pairing him with a left field situation that features a converted first baseman in Darin Ruf and an unknown in Domonic Brown who apparently has so little offensive upside and defensive dependability that he has spent most of the last two seasons playing behind Raul Ibanez and Hunter Pence and could do the same in 2013 behind Ruf and Young.
The irony in all of it is that the Young signing makes some sense, at least in a vacuum (more specifically, a morally-nebulous vacuum). In fact, the Phillies offseason as a whole makes some sense. Rather than pay inflated prices for lackluster commodities, Amaro brought in players who at least give him a chance to net returns that exceed his investments. The problem is that he forced his own hand over the previous couple of seasons, trading away two of his top chips for one year of Hunter Pence, then relegating Brown to the minors and thus delaying the finding-out process, then failing to take advantage of a post-2011 market that featured a glut of veteran corner outfielders known for their power and approach, Josh Willingham and Carlos Beltran to name two (one could argue that the first domino fell even earlier, when the Phillies traded after the 2009 season, which later forced them to trade for Roy Oswalt, who was later re-joined by Lee on a monsterd deal, instead of holding onto center field prospect Anthony Gose, whose absence necessitated the trades of Worley and Revere. And so on).
The result is a roster that looks like a product of necessity instead of a big-picture plan. Phillies fans can only hope that it does not turn out to be a laughing matter.