By Matthew Kory
Ruben Amaro, Jr. may be one of the more polarizing general managers in baseball today. In an age when most acknowledge more information is better, and better information is worth more than ever before, Amaro has publicly admitted his front office doesn't employ an analytics department. This effectively foregoes about 50 percent of all available types of information. How someone in charge of a hundred million dollar business could do that is, I think, a fair question, but Amaro's ignoring of information may give us insight about why many of his moves have been of the head-scratching variety.
Just this offseason Amaro brought in 36-year-old Michael Young to play third base after his previous team, the Rangers, decided he couldn't adequately play the position or really any other. Young began as a shortstop, but over a four-season span was repeatedly moved to less demanding positions until he ended up as a designated hitter. Apparently Young was the best defensive DH in the league though, because, Peter Principle at work, the Phillies put him back in the field.
Amaro also signed former Tiger Delmon Young to play right field after Detroit correctly decided Young could neither play defense nor hit. Then Amaro strangely told Matt Gelb of the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Obviously we want [Young's] bat, but if he can't play defense he can't play in the National League." Well, Delmon Young is terrible defensively, so no, he can't play defense in the National League, the American League, or the International League. What's more, this isn't new information. We already knew of Young's defensive (I'll be gracious) shortcomings before the season. As someone who eschews advanced stats, simply looking at Young should have tipped Amaro off that defense -- or, really, moving quickly in any direction for any reason -- wouldn't be among Young's best attributes. Also, why would you want his bat? So that was odd. In any case, Young (Delmon, that is) got injured and has yet to play an inning in anger this season. There's more --Yuniesky Betancourt? -- but piling on is uncouth.
The 2000 Yankees could have brought in Young and Young* (and Betancourt) because their core was strong enough to cover for them. The Phillies core might have been up to it in 2008 or 2010, but it's highly debatable that they are now, which is a nice way to say that they aren't.
* Young and Young sounds like a law firm. Motto: We can help you win this case, but not the National League East.
The reason for that is simple: age. If you leaf back through Baseball Reference's Phillies team pages during the Amaro years, you'll notice a similarity in the core players. That's because they're almost all the same. In 2008 when the Phillies won the World Series (Amaro was an Assistant GM then), the Phillies infield consisted of Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Pedro Feliz. The next season, 2009, featured the same infield. In 2010, Amaro signed Placido Polanco to replace Feliz at third, which was curious for two reasons: First, Polanco and Feliz are roughly the same age (Polanco is six months younger than his predecessor) and second, Polanco had been a second baseman for the past five seasons. Second base is known for many things, one of which is it isn't third base. In fact, Polanco hadn't played third base between 2005 and when he signed with Philadelphia. Amaro gave him a three-year deal anyway.
In 2011, the infield was the same, and the pattern continued in 2012. All those players kept getting older. Some GMs are stuck by moves their predecessors made, and its true that Amaro inherited Utley's contract, but he kept the trio together by re-signing Rollins to a three-year deal after the 2011 season, buying up his age 33, 34, and 35 seasons.
Keeping the infield together was so important that Amaro gave Ryan Howard a five-year, $125 million contract extension two seasons before his deal was set to expire. The reasons for handing out such a bizarre contract seemed to be best expressed by Jon Heyman, then writing at Sports Illustrated, who offered two reasons in support of the deal at the time. The first was Howard's MVP award, which should have gone to Albert Pujols. However, it would have been Pujols' second in a row, which is apparently a no-no.
MVP Voter 1: We just can't give the MVP to Albert Pujols again.
MVP Voter 2: Totally. I mean, if he won that would be... what? [pulls out calculator] Two in a row! Yeah, that would be obscene.
Voter 3: [slumps back in chair] Well, why don't we just whip out the old Baseball Encyclopedia here and pick a name at random. I'll just close my eyes... and... "Howard, Ryan." There. Done. Howard Ryan. That's your MVP.
Voter 1 and Voter 2: MVP! MVP! MVP!
The second reason was, "Why mess with a good thing?"
Phillies GM, Ruben Amaro, Jr.: Ryan Howard is an excellent player and we love having him here with the Phillies, but your proposal of $25 million a year for five years beginning two years from now is completely insane. There's no precedent for it and what's more, Ryan is already a Phillie for two more years. Why in the world would we agree to that offer?
Casey Close, Ryan Howard's Agent: Why mess with a good thing?
Amaro: OK, lets do it!
The Phillies set the market on a player who wasn't yet on the market, and took on all the risk, a fact that became even clearer when Howard ruptured his Achilles tendon on the last play of the 2011 season, one year before his new contract was to kick in.
So now Amaro has stuck the Phillies with an infield whose average age exceeds 34 years old. This is a bit of a problem. When we talk about hitters, we know based on years and years of data that hitters' performance peaks in their mid-to-late 20s, generally speaking. There are always outliers, but building a team around players in their mid-30s is not often a recipe for success. Usually it's a recipe for the opposite.
This is a big reason that the tale of Ruben Amaro's tenure as Philadelphia general manager is one of slow decline. The franchise had just won the World Series when he took over. The next season the Phillies made it to the World Series, but lost. The following season they lost the National League Championship Series, and then in 2011 they lost the division series. Last year they missed the playoffs entirely and this year they're behind the Nationals and Braves and with a losing record.
I just framed making the playoffs three out of four seasons as a bad thing. It isn't. And that's the thing about Ruben Amaro: Disagree with his methods all you like, but the Phillies have won an average of 93 games during his four years in charge. That's an impressive resume and he deserves credit for it.
He certainly has made some good moves. His trade for Roy Halladay and the subsequent signing of the ace pitcher to a below-market contract extension was a masterstroke. That it was accompanied by trading Cliff Lee to the Mariners for three Single-A players was and remains, to me at least, inexplicable and muted the effectiveness of the Halladay acquisition, though he did re-sign Lee a few seasons later. Amaro has focused his most recent teams on his impressive core of starting pitching (Lee, Halladay, Cole Hamels), but bringing in older players with known defensive problems isn't a way to maximize that bounty, it's a way to minimize it.
He also re-signed Cole Hamels, though not unlike some of the other Phillies, Hamels' deal will pay him top dollar through his decline years. That's not to say Hamels won't be a good pitcher or the deal will turn out badly (pitchers age differently than hitters do), just that aging players for lots of money is more of the same from a general manager who has overseen his team get older and worse with each passing year.
Amaro may be one of those guys who was perfect for the time and place he existed. His predilection for veterans and his certainty that he was right allowed him to ignore age and future considerations and stretch the Phillies window of contention like a rubber bicycle tire. But just as a player eventually reaches the end of his productive life, it's right to question whether the effectiveness of Amaro's methods is dimming in light of his team's play, its trends, and future prospects. There aren't any more core players to sign to long-term contracts, there aren't any more prospects to trade for veterans, and there isn't much money left in the budget to band-aid over past mistakes. What's left is what he started out with, but less, and for more money.
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Matthew Kory is an author at Baseball Prospectus, a writer at SB Nation's Over The Monster Red Sox blog, a stay-at-home dad, and the author of the books "How Dare I: An Unauthorized Autobiography" and "The Best Things In Life Are Stolen Which Is Why You Just Paid For This Book," neither of which will ever be published. He lives in Portland, Ore.