Philadelphia Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has become a frequent whipping boy for baseball fans as of late.
It began back in December when he was generally criticized for how he handled the Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee trade. While few blame him for bringing Halladay, arguably the best pitcher in baseball on board, many thought that he should have held on to Cliff Lee or at least gotten a far better return for him. It continued later in the winter, when the extension he handed out to Ryan Howard, for 5 years/$125M, was panned across the board, for both the amount handed to Howard, and how it would prevent them from being able to resign Jayson Werth, who many figure is the better player. Now, as rumors are running rampant that Amaro is working towards acquiring Roy Oswalt for the Houston Astros in a series of moves that will require him dealing Werth to a third team (the Rays?), Amaro's questionable decisions are being shone under a bright light.
On the surface, all of these points are absolutely fair. Amaro got a poorer package in return for Cliff Lee than the Seattle Mariners did when they traded him to Texas, with less than half of the season, and duration of Lee's contract, remaining. Most metrics indicate that Werth is probably the brings more to the table than Howard, though the ultimate difference between their values isn't huge. And sure, a full-year of Cliff Lee would have been greater than having to acquire the more expensive Oswalt at the deadline and ship away Werth in the process (if that deal does end up going down).
Things haven't gone nearly as well as planned in Philadelphia this season, and the blame for that seems to be going towards the GM. The feeling of course is that having Cliff Lee on the team would have made a big difference, and that's true. Lee's 4.1 WAR season to this point would have been a big boost over the mess that has filled the back of the Phillies rotation so far, and could even be close to enough to cut their deficit in the NL East to a much more manageable number. But let's not forget that this was a team that was holding on to first place in the NL East last year before they even acquired Cliff Lee. Though Lee is gone, they have added Roy Halladay to that team, and still, on paper, boast one of the best offenses in the game. That offense has massively underperformed, only in part due to injuries. The one player people point to in that offense when criticizing Amaro is left-fielder Raul Ibanez, under a big contract through next year. Of course, last year around this time everyone praised the Ibanez acquisition, as he was off to a terrific start for the Phillies.
My defense for Ruben Amaro Jr. starts with the criticism of the Cliff Lee situation. Yes, the players he received back are off to poor starts in their new system, and the deal looks poor compared to what the Mariners got back for Lee - mainly, Justin Smoak, a true blue-chipper. But I don't see the situation as being apples-to-apples. For one, despite having less than half a year left on his contract when the Mariners dealt him, Cliff Lee upped his status as an ace in Seattle. When Philadelphia traded him away, Lee had essentially had one great season and one pretty good one. Comparing that to what they had to pay out for Roy Halladay isn't fair, as Halladay's track record is clearly far more impressive. It was, in my opinion, the dominance that Lee showed in Seattle that led to Texas paying up for his services.
Plus, while the players the Phillies received back haven't had great seasons to this point, I can certainly see Amaro's logic behind interest in them, and if I'm going to get creative, perhaps see why they were on the table in the first place. For one, OF Tyson Gillies and RHP Philippe Aumont, two of the three players the Phillies got back, aren't, or at least weren't, scrubs. They had both been featured on some top-100 prospects lists last year, though not universally. Gillies still appears to be a potential top-of-the-order speedster with great center-field defense, and while Aumont has struggled greatly, if he could put it all together, he has more upside than the pitcher the Phillies traded to the Blue Jays, Kyle Drabek.
There is another angle to the trade too, which I'm surprised has been rarely considered. Now, of course I have no clue if this actually played a role, but from a logic standpoint, it seems possible. When this deal was going down, the Blue Jays were dealing away their franchise player in a move that would certainly upset parts of the fan-base. Attempting to get creative to make the deal work, Amaro was said to be looking to find the players the Jays would want, even if they were outside of his system. Enter Seattle, who sent three high-upside prospects in this trade in Gillies, Aumont, and JC Ramirez, away in this trade. The first two on that list, Gillies and Aumont, are Canadian players. While his judgment if this scenario were true was clearly wrong, the logic behind attempting to keep the Phillies prospects in place while swaying the Blue Jays to take the Canadian prospects back to ease public outcry is there. When the trade began unfolding, the reports of which players were heading where wasn't quite confirmed. Could the Blue Jays have balked at Aumont and Gillies at the last minute, forcing Amaro to take the Mariners package in order to make the three-way trade go through? I'm not going to say it's likely, but it's plausible. While this still winds up to be a negotiation error and miscalculation by Amaro, imagine that had his bluff worked out, he could seem like a hero today in Philadelphia.
And what's increasingly clear is that Amaro is not afraid to take risks. Some risks will pan out, and some won't. Sure, Amaro could have refrained from giving Ryan Howard that extension, but perhaps Werth still would have wanted free agency and left town regardless. And sure, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay would be a ridiculous pair of aces atop their rotation, but Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt will make a great combination too, if that turns out being the case. And with Domonic Brown, baseball's top prospect, ready to take over for Werth the day he gets dealt, the Phillies could get much more for Werth than the draft picks they'd get if he left for free agency, and with Brown there, can at least hope for continued strong performance in right field.
This of course, all ignores the rumors of unrest in the Phillies clubhouse and between the media and Werth, which some even blame as the cause of some of the team's offensive struggles. I won't if some issues are existing with Werth that are hurting the teams performance, it furthers the reasoning behind Amaro sending Werth out of town.
And let's not forget the type of roster Amaro has with him. With superstars like Chase Utley, Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, plus another set of above-average players in Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth (for now) and Cole Hamels, there is clearly pressure on this team to not only win right now, but also to sustain winning seasons as long as possible with the core in tact. While that may seem simple with such a talented core, remember that having such talent means dishing out a lot of money to keep it, and while the Phillies financial situation is confusing based on frequent conflicting rumors, at the very least, this isn't a team with Yankees-like flexibility. To avoid a situation where the team eventually collapses from all of these players taking off, Amaro is faced with the challenge of balancing the present and the future that most other GMs right now don't need to deal with. It's a nice problem to have, but a big problem nonetheless.
The point here is that Ruben Amaro Jr. is cleary not adverse to taking risks. Sometimes these risks will pay off. Of course, other times they won't. But the criticism Amaro has received, in my opinion, has often been a bit outlandish. Many of his moves haven't quite panned out, but the logic behind them all is reasonable. Many claim Amaro has wrecked their minor league system with poor trades, but they still have the top prospect in baseball about to reach the majors and make an impact. They still have the top pitcher in baseball taking the mound every five days, and they may soon add what would be one of the best number-two starters by his side. And as much as on the surface, the idea of sending away Jayson Werth and Cliff Lee to wind up with Roy Oswalt may seem like a bad swap, keep in mind that Roy Oswalt would still be in Philadelphia in 2011, while Werth and Lee will hit free agency beforehand.
For a team with such talented players, Amaro deals with a combination of the present vs. future balancing act with other financial constraints that most other GMs don't need to deal with. On the surface, the 2010 Phillies are under-performing, and keeping Cliff Lee in town could have them far closer to the division lead than they find themselves. But not only is the season far from over, but the ultimate results of Amaro's moves remain to be seen. While early results are bad, the logic remains valid, and that should be a major part of any judgment over a General Manager. Let's at least give it time to see how the players Amaro has brought into town will develop before casting our ultimate judgment. And let's give that potential Halladay-Oswalt-Hamels rotation a chance to shine. It could be dominant in the post-season, which is ultimately what this is all about.