Sam Donnellon: It's up to Amaro to drive Phils out of mess as trade deadline looms

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Ruben Amaro Jr. is about to learn, for better or worse, that the trade deadline is not about winning or losing. (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Staff file photo)

SOMEONE ASKED during an online chat on Monday whether Pat Gillick was still involved in the Phillies' decision making process.

And I thought, "Oh yeah, whatever happened to that guy?"

Gillick is still listed as a Phillies advisor, but the days of Ruben Amaro Jr. referencing him at major press conferences — like the one announcing the 6-year, $144 million contract extension for Cole Hamels — has passed.

During extended question-and-answer sessions after the formal one from the podium that day, not once did any of the principals involved reference the former Phillies general manager. Asked about improving the club amid the team's escalating payroll and luxury-tax issues, team president David Montgomery said, "No question. Ruben has his work cut out for him."

Poll

Do you have confidence in Ruben Amaro Jr.’s ability to make the right trade deadline deals for the Phillies?

The unnerving question is whether he is up to that task. The team that finds itself with one of major league baseball's highest payrolls and lowest winning percentages was Ruben's concoction in a way the other teams over his previous three seasons as Phillies GM were not.

If Amaro earned praise for landing Roy Halladay and acquiring Cliff Lee not once, but twice, he most certainly wears the scarlet letter for the drain of prospects required to do that, and for the miscalculations that led to this summer's debacle as well.

If he deserves praise for the emergence of Antonio Bastardo and Michael Stutes in 2011, he also deserves criticism for too much faith in that one-season track record while constructing the 2012 bullpen. And for believing the oft-injured Jose Contreras could last a full season. And for, well, Chad Qualls.

Amaro has been criticized for overpaying for Jonathan Papelbon, but it would have looked like a stroke of genius had the house of cards laid underneath him not collapsed under the weight of early offensive woes and later, the struggles of starters who only a season before made middle relief almost seem like an unneeded luxury.

This is most certainly his mess to fix, a mess that will ultimately decide his true acumen as a general manager. Of the roster that won that lone World Series, only seven players remain (Kyle Kendrick was left off the roster), and two of them — Shane Victorino and Joe Blanton — may not be here by the end of the day.

What Amaro is about to learn, for better or worse, is that the trade deadline is not about winning or losing, but about transforming. Having traded highly touted players who have yet to pan out, he knows the challenge he now faces. Gillick's famous comment about "addition through subtraction" when he traded Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees in 2006 was forged by years of experience on the job, and by the realization that no one move, no one deal, good or gone bad, will determine success or failure.

Gillick, after all, traded away Gio Gonzalez and Gavin Floyd for Freddy Garcia and signed Adam Eaton to a 3-year, $24 million deal. But he also acquired multi-position pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs off waivers and signed a little-regarded outfielder named Jayson Werth, and picking up Matt Stairs at the last minute for that 2008 run was a subtle display of championship construction.

It's why Gillick is in the Hall of Fame. And it's why there's been a subtle difference since he left, especially in the subtle moves that determine a successful run. You have to be willing to roll the dice. You have to be willing to look foolish. You have to be willing to take less for more sometimes, especially if it frees you to do bigger things later.

That's one reason I'll never criticize the Jim Thome signing. It was a risk that cost only Monty's money, and the upside, from a sentimental and production aspect, loomed huge. Had Thome been healthy, been able to play first even a little, the whole dynamic of those first few months might have been different.

That was a risk worth taking. The bet that John Mayberry and his tri-state swing would emerge as an everyday power hitter, even a platoon power hitter, was not. Not with all this money invested. Mayberry and the middle relief, amid a season that began without the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters — it's OK to play one longshot at the track, but not a day's worth.

Ty Wiggington. Laynce Nix. Contreras. These are some of Amaro Jr.'s subtle moves this season. Give him credit for Juan Pierre, who may also be gone by the end of the day.

Give him credit, too, for 2009, when he dug up Pedro Martinez in mid-July and got the Phillies back to the World Series. And for 2010, when the Phillies reversed a seven-game, July 21 deficit after he dealt for Roy Oswalt. And for 2011, when the Phillies' offense revived after the Hunter Pence deal.

These were all addition by addition moves, though. Now he must figure out the addition by subtraction trick, how to saw the beautiful girl in half and put her back together.

Otherwise, we won't be asking whatever happened to Pat Gillick, but rather how much it would take to bring him back. n

 

Contact Sam Donnellon at donnels@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to www.philly.com/SamDonnellon.