OF THE four general managers of Philadelphia professional sports teams, Ruben Amaro Jr. is perhaps best qualified to speak of the job's perks and perils. Celebrated for trades that made baseball in these parts extremely fun over his first three seasons as Pat Gillick's successor, he may be at an all-time ebb in popularity after a winter of free-agent signings that made his team older and even more suspect.
As he did last spring, Amaro yesterday graciously agreed to sit down and discuss this and other topics in a wide-ranging interview. Although no words have been changed, some questions have been re-arranged for the sake of continuity.
Daily News: I'll start by asking you the same question I asked you last year: You've been deemed the village idiot and you've been deemed emperor over your tenure as general manager. How about you? Do you feel any job vulnerability these days?
Ruben Amaro Jr.: You know what? I don't think about my job security. I think more about what can I do to make us better. What is it that we need to do as an organization, all of us, to improve and I think about where we want to go and what we're trying to do and how we can improve. And I think about where we want to go and what we're trying to do. And figuring out how to win this year.
And if we don't win, figuring out what's the transition move. Where do we need to go? Who we need to trade to get the best bang for the buck. We have to think about all the options. Pluses or minuses. All right, these are the guys we might have to acquire. These are guys we might have to let go. That's my job. My job is to prepare for whichever way this club takes us. My hope, like all of our fans and our organization is that these guys play the way we think they can play and if they do that we can contend. If not, then we'll have to make some adjustments.
DN: There are so many of them. But what is the key health issue this season, in your view?
RA: I think offensively we are a weaker offensive club. We only scored 610 runs last year. That can't happen again. So if we lose guys in the middle of the lineup again, we're basically screwed. We need the production from the guys in the middle. Particularly [Ryan] Howard and [Chase] Utley and [Marlon] Byrd. We need those guys to produce and stay healthy. I mean, pitching is always the most important part, but if we don't score runs with a team that was weak offensively last year, we're going to be in trouble.
DN: In that regard, last year you intimated that you could not swing big at the deadline if Delmon Young didn't work out. Any more flexible this summer?
RA: Well, listen, our ownership group has given me every opportunity. We're so above and beyond where our budget numbers are supposed to be. And then we add A.J. Burnett to the picture and you can see the commitment that the ownership group has to give us the opportunity to win. Is it the right thing? We hope it is. Because clearly a guy like that at the top of the rotation makes us better. There's a price to pay for that. But they've given us every opportunity to do things. All I can do is thank them for their support.
DN: Have they endorsed all your moves?
RA: I think they have. But they also understand there might have to be a disaster plan. There might have to be something.
DN: But you don't have a folder that says, "Disaster Plan," do you?
RA: Listen, we talk about these things all the time. I believe in karma, so my thought process is to stay positive. Things are going to go well and Ryno [Ryne Sandberg] is going to be a helluva manager - which he's already showed signs of - and our guys are going to buy into it and we're going to stay healthy enough to be contenders throughout the season and who knows what happens at the end of the year. But we also can't be so blinded to the fact that if this doesn't work out we're going to have to make some tough decisions.
DN: How do you think Ryne Sandberg has handled his first spring training as manager?
RA: I think Ryne has handled this spring extraordinarily well. There are some things that he really wanted to do and we wanted to as an organization implement. Particularly some of the fundamentals just to get back to doing certain things. Holding runners. Defense. And outfield defense. And baserunning. That really set the tone for the organization. And I think he and the rest of the staff have been on board and I think the players have bought into it.
You're seeing it happening. You don't necessarily see these things happen so quickly. But in this case you're seeing things being implemented. The way we're running the bases. The way guys are holding runners on. We're throwing guys out on the bases. We're doing certain things that needed improvement. Now, will it carry over into the season? Who knows? But there was some emphasis put on it this spring. And it was great, one, to see the players buying into it, and two, Ryne demanding it and making it happen.
DN: How do you think he handled the Jimmy Rollins episode?
RA: I think he handled it fine. I think he admittedly said the 'no comment' thing was something he shouldn't . . . but he's learning to - he's learning the process. He's learning how to deal with being a manager of a major league club. He's not going to be without mistakes from time to time. But that's what makes people human. But I think overall he has gained the respect of the players and I think he will continue to do that because he wants to communicate with them, and he wants them to respect the game and play the game the right way. And I think he demands that. And I think the players buy into it.
Listen, I think players generally like to have structure. There are always going to be guys who are resistant. That's the nature of the world we live in today. Listen, I view the Jimmy Rollins thing as something that the media wanted to make a big story out of. Internally here, it's not. We all know that we have to have success with Jimmy having success. That's the bottom line. Jimmy's not going anywhere. We're not asking him to go anywhere. That's never happened. And for us to have success, Jimmy Rollins has to be our shortstop and play well. And Ryno knows it. I know it. Jimmy knows it.
DN: Isn't this trying to teach old dogs new tricks?
RA: Yeah, but I think, more than anything else, everybody is on the same page. Everybody wants to win. And I think everybody knows that's what Ryno wants. And that's what the players want. They want to win. That's the underlying message here that Ryno is doing things that, whether it makes people angry, or ruffles feathers, he's doing it because he believes this is what we have to do to win. And I think players buy into that because I don't think the guys are very happy about having a losing season or losing seasons.
DN: I often make this case for you, that you have yet to be "burned" by trading a prospect for known talent. On the other side, the people you got for Cliff Lee the first time haven't panned out yet either. Why is it harder to get young talent now for veterans than it used to be?
RA: Because prospects are prospects. We can have the greatest can't-miss prospects on the planet and they miss.
DN: Are they missing more these days?
RA: I don't think they are missing more. I just think that what everybody wants now is close to major league-ready talent. We ended up getting three outstanding prospects who were all 20 years old for Cliff Lee. We ended up getting guys in Tyson Gillies and Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez. Two great arms and a high-ceiling centerfielder with every single tool. And he still has them. He still has a chance to be in the big leagues at some point. But you just don't know. So everybody says the Phillies are too old, they have to get younger. Well, OK, younger's great. But it doesn't mean you're necessarily better. You also want to get better. And so that's a difficulty. You have to make sure you pick the right guys. It's not easy and it's still a crapshoot the lower you go.
And in this day and age nobody wants to give up talent. That's why you see guys getting signed at 22, 23 years old. They haven't even hit the big leagues and they're doing long-term deals. And no one's going out on the free-agent market because everybody wants to hold their talent. Young or old. Everybody wants to hold talent. Nobody wants to go out on the free-agent market because there's not enough talent out there to make your team good.
DN: Given what you just said, would you handle Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino any differently if you could?
RA: Probably not. It's a great question. I think we're at a stage where at some point we're going to have to do some transitioning anyway. And so they had played great baseball and were excellent complementary players. But when they were put in the position to be the guys, they didn't handle it that well. People have short memories about that. Hunter Pence and Vic really kind of struggled those 2 years. Was it a product of them not being comfortable by not having multiyear deals? Who knows? It was hard to gauge whether they were starting to go downhill, or was it a mental issue because Ryan and Utley weren't around. Did they feel the pressure of having to uphold their end of the bargain too much? I believe they were both good players. But I believe they were more solid complementary players than superstars on a club.
DN: Aren't they getting paid that way right now? As complementary players? Nobody is asking Victorino to be David Ortiz or Dustin Pedroia. Nobody is asking Hunter Pence to be Buster Posey.
RA: No, but they would have put us in a position . . . We wanted to keep Cole Hamels. We already were significantly committed. So to commit to those guys as well would have been pretty, pretty difficult. We were committed to Doc [Roy Halladay]. We were committed to Lee and we wanted to commit to Cole. You can't commit to everybody. So we had to pick and choose. The biggest issue with us was we didn't have those replacements in the outfield. And that's our job in the minor leagues and in amateur scouting and international scouting is to try and have those type of players come and cover for us.
That was a difficult time. We didn't have those guys in our system. Could Gillies have come and stepped up? A lot of those guys didn't develop. Zach Collier [2008 first-round pick] and some of these other guys that we really thought had ability. They really didn't come. They didn't come yet. They might still have a chance to do that. But we had to have some flexibility to round out the rest of the club too.
DN: So, in that light, how do you view your drafts?
RA: Listen, we view our organization as having many more prospects than people give us credit for. Is it the strongest organization in baseball? I can't say that. But I do believe that . . . we have brought some quality into our system. We never have enough quality. That's the most important part of the game. But we also took so much out. And we drafted so low for so long it's really, really difficult to replenish that talent. When you're drafting from the 25th pick on? The only slam dunks are, like, from one through 10. And after that it's almost a total crapshoot. And so, could we draft better? Sure. Could we scout better? Sure. But once you get past those first 15 picks . . . If you look at the draft as a business overall, I don't how many billions of dollars are spent on the draft overall. But the investment, the return? Doesn't match up too good.
DN: Is that world-based free-agent market saturated?
RA: Oh, I just don't see a ton of talent out there. Everybody's looking for the same thing. There's 30 teams looking for the same thing. So you just have to try and be creative and be as diligent as possible and there are people who care about the organization and care about their jobs. I'm pleased with the people working for us. I know that they care and have the aptitude to do it. Marti Wolever was part of the group that drafted Utley and Rollins and Howard. He drafted Cole Hamels. He knows what he's doing. He just hasn't had the opportunity.
We're going to get somebody pretty damn good at 7 [in the first round] this year. We better. We're going to get an opportunity to replenish here. But we haven't had that opportunity for years.
DN: But you don't want that opportunity. You say you are trying to contend every year.
RA: No question. But things may have to change now. I'm not so blind to not know that at some point we are going to have to transition out of some of the older players and from some of the other guys on the other side of the slope. I still believe they have enough young talent around them to contend. We'll find out. And when we find out we'll have to make a decision.
DN: Wasn't your goal always to transition while winning?
RA: Yeah. It's a hard thing to do, though.
DN: I've always been very dubious when you've said it.
RA: Yeah, it's hard to burn it at both ends. But there's some teams that have done it well. Atlanta's one of those clubs. They went down for a couple of years because they went through a transition after Chipper [Jones] got older and their pitchers like [Greg] Maddux and [Tom] Glavine got too old. But it didn't take them long to get back there because they drafted well and developed well.
DN: They didn't draft high for a while, either.
RA: Right. They had a good plan. That's our job, too.
DN: What are you most proud of the job you have done over the last two seasons?
RA: You know what? People think I'm this stubborn guy who doesn't want to make changes. But I think I learned from Dallas Green that if things aren't working a certain way, you have to try and look for ways to improve. And I think one of the things we did this year, we had a full-blown organization meeting in November after not having one for a bunch of years. Not necessarily to revamp the Phillies way, but to enhance it. Particularly in the player development side.
It was a natural time for us to make some changes and to sit back and look at our organization more globally and say, 'OK, what do we need to do with our young players, with our older players, what are the things we need to do with the game changing.'
There are no PEDs in the game anymore. There are certain things that have to happen now within our organization now. Ways to approach our at-bats. Two strikes. Pitchers holding runners better. And it's not rocket science . . . The very first part of the spring we had six meetings dealing with different disciplines. Catching, pitching, hitting . . . Guys like Roy Halladay and Dave Hollins were involved. They were the best set of meetings I've ever been around.
So that for me was the most gratifying part. Obviously getting to the World Series and the playoffs, that's awesome stuff. But knowing that we've got to make some change to improve the organization and implementing it now and watching it happen at the minor leagues this spring and watching it happen at the major leagues this spring. That's the gratifying piece. That's the piece where you go, 'We're making an impact on the club to make it better.'
DN: Does the 25-year, $2.5 billion Comcast deal affect you?
RA: Not me . . . In Philadelphia you've got to win baseball games. It's very, very simple. They're not going to jump back on the bandwagon until we're winning games. We know it. I understand it. David Montgomery understands it. Everybody in our organization understands it. That's how Philadelphia works. We're not going to get a free pass even though we won for 5 or 6 years. We got like a year pass. And that's the same with every one of our major sports. You guys were great but what the hell have you done for us lately. And I get it. That's the way we work here. So my job is to try to win as many games as possible and to put ourselves in a position to do that so the fans will jump on again. I know the fans are waiting for it to happen. I know they want it to happen. I know they're anxious for it to happen. And I hope it does.
On Twitter: @samdonnellon