CLEARWATER, Fla. — It is often said that, in football, a backup quarterback is the most popular man in town...until he actually gets a few games under his belt. In baseball, a parallel can be drawn to the assistant general manager, an observation that Ruben Amaro Jr. noted while in Bradenton to watch a Grapefruit League game between the Phillies and Pirates last week. The previous night, the Phillies had shipped catcher Ronny Paulino to the San Francisco Giants in exchange for lefthanded reliever Jack Taschner. The move came a little more than 3months after the Phillies had acquired Paulino in a trade at baseball's winter meetings for catching prospect Jason Jaramillo. While signing autographs at McKechnie Field that Saturday afternoon, a fan shouted his displeasure.
"You shouldn't have traded Paulino," the fan yelled.
"Maybe not," he responded. "Maybe I shouldn't have."
Although the first official game of Amaro's tenure as general manager comes Sunday when the Phillies face the Atlanta Braves at Citizens Bank Park, it will take much longer for him to put his true stamp on the organization. But in sports, particularly in the city of Philadelphia, a fan base's patience does not always match the length of a fair evaluation period.
In many ways, Amaro is in as good a position as any first-time general manager in baseball history. Fresh off just the second World Series title in franchise history, the Phillies are riding an immense wave of public goodwill. With a recordbreaking attendance of 3.42 million last season, the increased revenue from the playoff run, and a 20 percent increase in season-ticket sales this season, the Phillies increased their payroll by about 25 percent, from roughly $104.6 million to an estimated $130.8 million. Of the 25 players on the postseason roster last October, only three — leftfielder Pat Burrell, lefthander Jamie Moyer and seldom-used reserve outfielder So Taguchi — became free agents in the offseason. All but one of his regulars — rightfielder Jayson Werth — were under club control through at least 2010.
But with such a rosy situation comes a considerable amount of pressure. Amaro has been handed the keys to a shiny red Corvette — or, in a nod to the hip-hop music he admits to have started listening to, a tricked-out Escalade — and if that vehicle comes back dented, whether the culprit is a front-end collision in which he is at fault or an erstwhile shopping cart in an Acme parking lot, he will bear ultimate responsibility.
"I've been kind of sitting in the wings," said Amaro, who served under general managers Ed Wade and Pat Gillick for the previous 10 seasons. "The assistant GM, we don't get a lot of the blame, but we get some credit, especially if you have a good boss, which I've had two of them. They've given guys like myself a lot of credit for certain things, but we haven't gotten blamed a whole lot."
One hundred fifty-five days into Amaro's tenure as general manager, it is still too early to identify what his legacy as a general manager will be. But by looking at his baseball background, and listening to him talk about his philosophy, we are able to get some clues.
The mind-set of a ballplayer — Amaro starred for Stanford and went on to play 8 years in the majors before sliding into the Phillies' front office — is the opposite of the mind-set of an executive. Athletes are taught to focus only on the here and now — on the next game, on the next at-bat, on the next pitch. A general manager, of course, must concern himself not just with the next game, but the next month, and the next season, and the next offseason.
Throughout the previous 3months, Amaro has emphasized this point. One of the Phillies' main goals this offseason was to improve the depth of the minor league system, particularly at TripleA Lehigh Valley, which they hope to have accomplished by signing veterans like pitchers Mike Koplove, Gary Majewski and Blaine Neal, along with position players like Pablo Ozuna and Jason Ellison. Amaro's first considerable move as general manager was a trade that sent former top prospect Greg Golson to Texas in exchange for John Mayberry Jr., whose powerful righthanded bat is something the Phillies' system had been lacking.
"I think that I think about the future a lot," Amaro said. "That's part of this job. We're very excited about where we are right now, but my job has to be not just now but we have to look into the future as well, and part of that is to sustain the level of competition that the fans have grown to expect.
"We've been competing in our division quite well for several years now. We kind of broke through 2years ago and got ourselves into the playoffs but we'd kind of been dancing on it for a while. Really, the goal is to sustain that level of success as long as we possibly can. If we can give ourselves the opportunity to be one of the eight teams in September and October to play, then I think that's the goal, and that's part of my job."
It will be interesting to see how Amaro distinguishes himself from his former bosses. Wade was mentored by arbitration guru Tal Smith and had a philosophy grounded in reason and rational thought. Gillick rose through the scouting ranks and believed in the divining power of the gut.
Wade's regime did an admirable job of injecting young talent in the minor league system. Most of the major contributors from last year's World Series run — Burrell, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, lefthander Cole Hamels, righthander Brett Myers — were drafted and developed under Wade's watch. But Wade was criticized for being too conservative, too rational, too unwilling to take a major risk. Sometimes, that conservative nature resulted in mistakes — he was eventually fired after eight seasons because the Phillies failed to get into the playoffs despite a team he greatly improved. Sometimes it paid major dividends — he refused to trade young prospects like Utley and Howard despite the veteran talent they could have netted.
Gillick, on the other hand, turned three franchises into World Series participants by aggressively looking to upgrade his roster. Sometimes, those moves failed — see Garcia, Freddy and Eaton, Adam. Other times they paid major dividends — see Blanton, Joe and Lidge, Brad.
In short, Gillick was a lefthander. Wade was a righthander.
Amaro — who, it just so happens, was a switch-hitter — hopes to combine the best attributes of both.
"My goal is to do what is best for the club and to own up to mistakes because the fact of the matter is, I'm not going to make every right decision," Amaro said. "It's not going to happen. Not all my evaluators and the people who work with me are going to make all the perfect decisions. Part of having success in this game is taking risks, and I learned that from Pat. You have to take some risks sometimes. Sometimes those risks don't work. But you hope that you make the right decision more often than not."
Only time can determine the accuracy of those decisions. Amaro already has shown a willingness to move on from a move by trading Paulino. Earlier in the spring, the Phillies released Eaton, despite owing him more than $8million, and then cut outfielder Geoff Jenkins, despite owing him $9 million.
But the bulk of Amaro's proving ground lies in front of him.
The Phillies committed $127.5 million to five players this offseason. It remains to be seen whether the club receives the equivalent in performance. And it remains to be seen how Amaro will react if one of those contracts becomes a burden.
Much like any administrator, the ability of a general manager to make those decisions rests on the ability of those working beneath him. Former assistant general manager Mike Arbuckle and current scouting director Marti Wolever played big roles in drafting and developing the Phillies' current crop of big leaguers. Gillick, meanwhile, relied heavily on Amaro and Arbuckle during his 3years as GM.
Amaro has surrounded himself with three assistant general managers with considerable experience. Chuck LaMar, who served as GM of Tampa Bay for 10 years, is in charge of running the minor league side and will also contribute in pro scouting. Benny Looper, who spent 22 years in the Mariners' organization, will oversee scouting and player development. Scott Proefrock, who has worked for the Pirates, Rays and Orioles, will deal heavily with contracts and the day-to-day logistics of running the organization.
In the long term, it will be the combined work of executives like Wolever, Looper, LaMar, Proefrock and Amaro that determines the Phillies' ability to maintain their current success. The Phillies don't expect their payroll to climb much higher than it currently is over the next few seasons. Myers and Blanton will both be free agents next season. So, too, will third baseman Pedro Feliz.
"The reality is that we will only be able to continue this if we can bring another group of zero-to-three players along," club president David Montgomery told the Daily News earlier this spring. "That was a pretty successful group as it turned out, to have homegrown players named Rollins and Utley and Howard and Pat [Burrell], and clearly [Carlos] Ruiz and two starters in Brett and Cole and your setup guy in Ryan [Madson]. That's a pretty good chunk, and they are all what, between, 28 and 32, ages where we believe they are in their prime...but you have to be thinking about tomorrow in the sense of developing whoever."
For the foreseeable future, that responsibility belongs to Amaro. *