Saturday, November 22, 2014
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Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't "do" five-year plans, but the Phillies need a good one

Ruben Amaro Jr. says he grades his team as "incomplete" and that he next month will dictate his trade deadline strategy.

Ruben Amaro Jr. doesn't "do" five-year plans, but the Phillies need a good one

Ruben Amaro Jr.´s distaste for five-year plans would offer a tidy explanation for the franchise´s current predicament. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)
Ruben Amaro Jr.'s distaste for five-year plans would offer a tidy explanation for the franchise's current predicament. (Yong Kim/Staff file photo)

Any professional who talks to the media about his area of expertise is succeptible to a certain level of contrarianism. Legend has it that even God the Creator once answered a question with the words, "I don't know if 'rest' is the word I'd use to describe that seventh day, but. . ." So when the man responsible for the short and long-term success of the Phillies organization said on Monday afternoon that he doesn't "do five-year plans," it may have offered more of an insight into his psychology than his business philosophy (like, perhaps,  previous assertions that he cares about production, not walks, and that a player like Ryan Howard can "set his own market).

No doubt, a distaste for five-year plans on the part of the Phillies' chief personnel executive would offer a tidy explanation for the franchise's current predicament (after all, a five-year $125 million contract extension looks a lot more palatable when you ignore its ramifications for all five years that it covers). But after Amaro answered a question about how his five-year plan would affect the decisions he makes prior to this year's nonwaiver trade deadline by saying, "I don't do five year plans -- other organizations do, I guess," he continued by describing something that sounded awfully similar to one.

"We do look at the total picture, and you're right, the free agent market has been dwindling significantly," the general manager said. "Some of the guys who are going to have to take the some of the places of the potential free agents who have been core players for us may have to come from within. They may have to come from our own organization. But again, my job is to make sure that we are contenders every year. I know there are some things that have been written about us blowing things up and that sort of thing. I don't think blowing things up, so to speak, is the way to go for us. I think that we have to do is try to be intelligent about the decisions that we make for now and for the future. And there are ways to do it and continue to contend and move pieces and move things around. Hopefully, we have the wherewithal to be able to do it well."

Whether Amaro does have that wherewithall is the most important issue facing the Phillies as they enter the third week of June with a 33-37 record and a $160 million payroll that includes a number of regular contributors who are scheduled to become free agents after the season.

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In a 15-minute question-and-answer session with reporters, Amaro said that he still does not know what to expect out of the roster he has built, that it deserves a grade of "incomplete" because of the absences of some of his key players, from catcher Carlos Ruiz, who could return from a hamstring injury as soon as Tuesday, to second baseman Chase Utley, who could be back from an oblique strain before the end of the week, to starter Roy Halladay, who is hoping to return from shoulder surgery at some point in the final two months of the season. But Amaro might be in the minority in his assessment. Over the last week, starting pitchers Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels have both vented some frustration into the public sphere, and on Monday Charlie Manuel suggested that the Phillies might actually be overachieving given the talent level of the players who have seen regular playing time.

Amaro gave Manuel a vote of confidence, saying that the veteran manager "is doing everything he can to try to spark plug us and at some point it is up to the players to try to do it."

But it is up to the general manager to put the right players in place, and as the Phillies consider the prospect of a second straight year without a playoff berth, Amaro is the man who will be responsible for the eventual success or failure of the roster he has constructed.

The disconcerting thing for fans is that the decisions that the GM makes over the next month are ones that will directly impact the team's competitiveness in 2014, 2015 and beyond. And when you look at the Phillies current level of competitveness, it is very much the product of decisions that were made over the previous two or three years

The three most significant decisions that currently haunt the Phillies occurred in 2009, when they traded Cliff Lee to the Mariners for a package of players that have failed to make any measurable contribution in the majors, in 2010, when they gave Ryan Howard a five-year, $125 million contract extension on top of the two years that remained on his existing deal, and in 2011, when they opted against adding a free agent hitter or two who might have been able to counteract the regression of the core players in the lineup. Similarly, the decisions that will be made over the next six weeks are ones that will impact the Phillies' title hopes not only this year and next year, but five years from now.

The question: can Amaro formulate a strategy that is more successful than the one he executed over the preview few years? How does the five-year plan impact the plan for 2013 and 2014?

Regardless of what happens over the rest of the 2013 season, the Phillies will finish it in a bind similar to the one they faced in this most recent offseason, with few attractive personnel options to fill the voids that will exist on the roster. We are in a new era of baseball economics, one that features a dearth of impact players on the free agent market and an inflated pool of television revenue that helps drive up the prices on those that do have the ability to make a significant impact.

The Phillies most glaring need is also the hardest one to fill. When the Phillies signed resigned Howard, they did so with the belief that he would anchor the lineup for the vast majority of his contract. Maybe they anticipated having to endure a sluggish end to it, but certainly they comitted the money they did with the anticipation that he would perform at a high level at least in 2013 and 2014.

But Howard has been a league average hitter for close to a season now, with a .241/.304/.431 batting line, 96 OPS+ and 21 home runs in 550 plate appearances over 136 games in 2012 and 2013. On Monday, Amaro was asked if he is concerned that Howard's contract will be an albatross around the team's neck for the next three years. He was noncommittal.

"I think Ryan is going to produce for us more than he has," Amaro said. "It's really kind of up to him. I think right now he is battling a couple of things with his knee, and obviously he had the issue with his ankle and I think it's just a matter of him getting back on track. Charlie is optimistic right now about how Howard's swinging the bat, particularly the last couple of days. Hopefully that can translate into him producing. When he gets hot, he can carry us. He hasn't gotten there yet but we're hopeful that he can."

If he can't, it will represent a huge failure on the part of the front office, which decided to extend the first baseman two years before he was scheduled to hit free agency. Amaro cited Howard's Achilles injury as being a factor in his current struggles, but Howard suffered that injury when he was in the last year of his old deal. The five-year extension he signed in April of 2010 did not begin until 2012. The Phillies thought they were getting a concession from Howard in agreeing to a deal of five years. But the five-year, $125 million contract that Josh Hamilton signed as a free agent this offseason suggests that they misread the market, and that Howard would not have been as likely to command a longer deal had they allowed him to reach free agency.

The Phillies' five-year plan -- or whatever Amaro calls it -- envisioned Howard in the middle of the order hitting 30+ home runs with an .830+ OPS, with the rest of the lineup built around that production. If Howard did give them that production, then maybe the emergence of Domonic Brown and the complementary parts that have been added over the last two seasons would have proven to be an effective formula. Thus far, that has not been the case.

Front offices make mistakes, and Howard thus far has proven to be a huge one. But it did not need to be a fatal mistake, because the Phillies had plenty of opportunities to safeguard themselves against a hasty decline. After they lost to the Cardinals in the 2011 NLDS, they knew that they had a lineup whose production had dropped steadily over the previous couple of years. They knew that they had a second baseman with a chronic knee condition, and a first baseman who would enter the first year of a monster contract with a surgically-repaired Achilles tendon. They knew -- or should have known -- that over the next one, two and five years the free agent market was likely to be thin on power hitters at the positions where they had flexibility to add one. But they decided that Josh Willingham was not worth three years and $21 million, and that David DeJesus was not worth two years and $10 million, and that Carlos Beltran was not worth two years and $26 million, and that Coco Crisp was not worth two years and $14 million. They decided that Aramis Ramirez was not worth three years and $36 million when they owed Placido Polanco $6.5 million for the final year of his contract.

Then 2013 arrived, and the Phillies found themselves in need of a third baseman, and they signed Michael Young, who has not come close to equalling the .297/.361/.520 batting line and 132 OPS+ and 30 home runs that Ramirez has contributed to the middle of the Brewers batting order.

They found themselves in need of a right fielder, and they signed Delmon Young, who has not come close to equalling the .246/.362/.492 batting line and 134 OPS+ and 45 home runs that Willingham has contributed to the middle of the Twins order, or the .280/.344/.508 batting line and 131 OPS+ and 48 home runs that Beltran has contributed to the middle of the Cardinals order.

The found themselves in need of a center fielder, and they traded for Ben Revere, who has not come close to equalling the .262/.341/.415 line and 104 OPS+ and 15 home runs that DeJesus has contributed to the top of the Cubs order, or the .272/.344/.443 line and 119 OPS+ and 19 home runs and 52 stolen bases that Crisp has contributed to the top of the Athletics order.

All of those battling lines and OPS-pluses and home run totals look attractive now not just because of players like Michael Young and Delmon Young and Ben Revere, but because of the big decision that the Phillies made to acquire Hunter Pence at the trade deadline in 2011, shipping away two blue chip prospects in Jonathan Singleton and Jarred Cosart to the Astros in return. Pence was a solid run producer for the Phillies, hitting .289/.357/.486 with a 125 OPS+ and 28 home runs in 676 plate appearances during his time with the club. But then they traded him away without a plan -- or, at least, without a plan they could execute -- to replace him. They did not have the blue chip prospects required to acquire Justin Upton, who is hitting .247/.358/.477 with a 126 OPS+ and 15 home runs in 289 plate appearances for the Braves while $5 million less than Pence is earning with the Giants in his final year of arbitration. They did not have the blue chip prospects required to acquire Shin Soo Choo, who is hitting .278/.428/.476 with a 143 OPS+ and 10 home runs in 320 plate appearances for the Reds.

The trade of Pence mirrored the trade of Lee in 2009 in that it reopened the gaping hole that the player had originally been acquired to fill. And while it is far too early to judge the centerpiece prospect the Phillies acquired for Pence, catcher Tommy Joseph, the move certainly did not make them a better team in 2013. And instead of using the money they saved on Pence's salary to replace him with another power hitter, they decided to use the combination of Delmon Young, Laynce Nix and John Mayberry Jr. to do so. They made this decision three years after their decision to trade away Lee and replace him with Kyle Kendrick, which left them scrambling to acquire a pitcher at the trade deadline, which meant trading away more prospects (Anthony Gose and Jonathan Villar) and more depth (J.A. Happ) and taking on more salary than Lee would have commanded had they simply kept him in the fold.

The reality is that the five year plan matters. A different five-year plan might have landed Gose in center field, where he is instead getting a chance in Toronto (and despite limited success in his first 215 big league plate appearances, his 12 extra base hits are twice as many as Revere has accumulated in 237 plate appearances with the Phillies this season). The right five-year plan might feature a lineup that reads Gose-Rollins-Brown-Ramirez-Pence-Howard-Frandsen-Quintero instead of a lineup that reads Revere-Young-Rollins-Howard-Brown-Young-Frandsen-Quintero. A different plan might have put Crisp in center field and Shane Victorino in left in 2012 instead of Victorino in center and Juan Pierre in left, and would now result in a lineup that reads Crisp-Young-Rollins-Howard-Pence-Brown-Frandsen-Quintero.

The point is, there are plenty of alternate realities in which you would have been able to accept the familiar refrain that Amaro echoed Monday when he said, "We have to see where we are once we get Chooch and Chase back." But the current reality leaves you feeling the same way Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels appear to be feeling. In a word: really?

"I have talked to Cliff and I have talked to him even before he made those comments and I was in complete agreement with him," Amaro said. "I want to win too, and I told him the same thing. I know this organization wants to win, I believe that the players want to win, I know that the staff wants to win. We haven't played winning baseball yet this year but I think all of our goals are the same. But as I told somebody else earlier. Yes, I want Cliff to want to be, but Cliff doesn't have a trade me clause, he has a no-trade clause. I hope to win with him, and I think we have a much better chance to win with him than to win without him, frankly, and as I said, having Hamels and Lee at the top of the rotation gives us a much better chance than with not."

Still, once upon a time, having Howard in the middle of the order gave the Phillies a much better chance than no having him. That did not mean there were not other scenarios that would have given them even better chances in the future. The Phillies are a better team right now with Jonathan Papelbon as a closer than with Mike Adams or Justin De Fratus or Antonio Bastardo or whoever would fill in for him if the organization were to trade him. But the question isn't what makes the Phillies a better team right now. The question is whether keeping Jonathan Papelbon and his contract leaves the Phillies nearer to winning a World Series than they would be with whoever would replace him as closer AND the talent they would acquire in a trade AND the $14.5 million worth of new salary that they could theoretically carry in 2014 and 2015.

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