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Evaluating Amaro, Part III

RUBE N DOC 4EVA

Ruben's smitten!

This is the final installment of a series in which I attempt to objectively evaluate Ruben Amaro’s performance as general manager. Part I can be found here, and Part II here.

I concluded Part II with a paragraph that I probably should have saved for the end of this post. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a “edit” function on this blog, or a “delete” key on my keyboard, so my slight error will live on in infamy. Still, when you examine Ruben’s dealings with other ballclubs, as I will today, it remains apparent that he is capable of alternating strokes of genius and mediocrity. The trades, and accompanying analysis, after the jump.

7/28/2009: Traded catcher Lou Marson, infielder Jason Donald, and pitchers Jason Knapp and Carlos Carrasco to the Indians for pitcher Cliff Lee and outfielder Ben Francisco

Like most Phillies fans, I watched with mounting and equal parts excitement and dread as Amaro and J.P. Ricciardi two-stepped together in a constantly discussed Roy Halladay trade throughout the month of July. The names being floated, or at least rumored to be, included the aforementioned players, Kyle Drabek, Michael Taylor, Domonic Brown, J.A. Happ, and Travis D’Arnaud. Which GM was trying to include which players depended on what you read, who you talked to, and where you heard it. The only thing that was clear: Blue Jays fans understandably wanted what learned men refer to as “a buttload” of prospects in return, and Phillies fans’ sphincters were tightening as they prayed that Amaro wouldn’t burn down the farm and piss on the ashes for a season and a half of one pitcher, no matter how awesome he might be.

Three days before the deadline, Amaro pulled the Lee deal out his hat. Frankly, when the terms of the deal were first leaked, I didn’t believe them. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. How could Lee, the reigning American League Cy Young, be obtained for such a pittance, compared to the ridiculous package the Jays were demanding for Doc? After weeks of the Phillies’ faithful going to bed each night, praying that Amaro wouldn’t give up Drabek, Brown and Taylor, he managed to get a similarly talented pitcher without giving up any of them.

What did he give up? Evaluating prospect-heavy deals is more complex than those which are comprised solely of established quantities, simply because a prospect’s ultimate value is still uncertain. Beyond the Boxscore’s Sky Kalkman broke down what could be considered fair return for a frontline starter (specifically, Halladay) here, based on Victor Wang’s research on prospect values. You can access Wang’s article for The Hardball Times through that link, but unless you want to plunge deep into the icy waters of math, here’s the gist: A prospect’s inherent value isn’t solely how well he performs once he reaches the big leagues, but the fact that he is cost-controlled for his first six seasons. Of course, performance plays a big part in it, and much of the hardcore numbers-crunching Wang does is attempting to quantify all outcomes (bust, contributor, regular, star, and everything in between). But the reason prospects are so highly regarded is that, if they pan out, teams get to pay them way below what a free agent who produces similar results would command on the open market. The best player to start a franchise with today would be Evan Longoria, not just because he’s all-around awesome at baseball, or he’s young, or he plays third base, but because his contract is insanely team-friendly.  He’s making $950,000 this year. Lance fucking Cormier is making more than him right now. If the Rays exercise all his options – and they will, barring catastrophe – his first three free agent seasons will have been bought out and he’ll have made $44.5 million in nine seasons. For comparison’s sake, A-Rod has already made $59 million, two seasons into his deal with the Yankees. Assuming Longoria continues to be worth between 5-7 WAR per season, the Rays will be paying him less than a million bucks per marginal win. To paraphrase Gwen Stefani, this shit is bananas. True, most players won’t sign contracts like that, but they’re still getting paid a lot less than they could on the open market. Tim Lincecum just signed a two-year, $23 million deal after winning consecutive NL Cy Youngs, and that was a record AAV for a player with his service time. What kind of deal do you think Lil’ Tim could’ve gotten in free agency?

Whoa.

Probably enough to buy about a billion more piles.

Anyway, you get the point. Back to the matter at hand. What Amaro gave up for Lee was a classic “quantity over quality” deal. Marson and Donald were and are viewed as probable reserves, Carrasco as a back-end starter unless things click, and Knapp, while talented, is still years away and was nursing a shoulder injury at the time of the deal. None of them were premium value guys, with the possible exception of Knapp. Unless all four guys meet or exceed their ceilings, Amaro will have paid pennies on the dollar for Lee. Not to mention the oft-overlooked value of Francisco, a more than adequate fourth outfielder who is capable of starting for long stretches if need be and is under team control for the next few seasons.

After the Ibanez signings and other moves in his first winter at the helm, my confidence in Amaro was rather low. The lead-up to and execution of this deal ratcheted it up several notches. Here was the patience, the restraint that makes a good to great general manager. Amaro handled his first deadline fracas impeccably, refusing to give in to Toronto’s lofty demands and finding not merely a fair deal for a sorely needed ace, but a bargain.

12/16/09: Traded pitcher Kyle Drabek, outfielder Michael Taylor and catcher Travis D’Arnaud to the Blue Jays for pitcher Roy Halladay

12/16/09: Traded pitcher Cliff Lee to the Mariners for outfielder Tyson Gillies and pitchers Phillippe Aumont and J.C. Ramirez

Once again, when news broke of a possible three team deal with the Jays and Mariners centered around Lee and Halladay, there was a ton of confusion in the media as to who was going where, but one thing became clear early on: Phillies fans salivating over the prospect of having three aces, a Cerberus that would terrorize baseball all summer and deep into October, were going to be disappointed. Nobody was quite sure about the other details, but this we knew: Halladay was coming in. Lee was leaving.

Beast mode.

Credit: Tug Haines, TheFightins

We’d all fallen in love with Lee in the preceding few months, from his initial dominance of the NL after the trade to a postseason perhaps even more brilliant than Cole Hamels’ run in 2008. His CGBS (complete game bitch slap) of the Yankees in Game 1 of the World Series, complete with not one, but two “did he really just do that?” defensive plays, is one of my all-time favorite games. So while getting Doc was a thrill, it was definitely bittersweet knowing that Lee wouldn’t be pitching in red pinstripes anymore. Lee, for his part, seemed pretty bummed about it, too, and confessed to being “shocked.”

Sentimentality aside, as the particulars began to emerge, I was decidedly unhappy with what had transpired. I understood the idea behind the pair of deals. In the view of the front office, there was simply no way an extension with Lee could be worked out, so Amaro went back to the object of his affection, Halladay. Getting an extension done was a prerequisite, and Halladay took a much shorter deal than he probably could have gotten as a free agent, so the Phillies’ organizational policy on shorter-term deals was observed to good effect. And after making trades for not one, but two recent Cy Young winners, the farm was in dire need of restocking. Cost-controlled talent is going to be vital to the team’s success – and by extension, Amaro’s  job security – over the next couple years, and this deal demonstrated his awareness of that. My displeasure stemmed from the execution, not the idea itself.

Was this really the best we could have gotten for Lee? It didn’t seem like it, at first. It felt a lot more like the deal with Cleveland, except with us getting the short end this time. The media and fan reactions echoed these sentiments, though most were still too fixated on the allure of having Lee, Halladay and Hamels in the same rotation. Would that have been awesome? Of course. There’s not a doubt in my mind that Hamels will bounce back this season, and with those three, backed by our offense, there’s no question we would have rightfully been the odds-on favorites for our second World Fucking Championship in three years. But where would we have been after this season? A severely weakened farm, an aging core, and a huge, gaping hole in the rotation where Lee used to be. Not exactly in position to run shit in the NL East for a decade or more, Braves-style, which should be the goal. Not only are the playoffs a crapshoot where the best team rarely wins, all three guys would have had to get through the season in one piece, which is far from a given, despite their lack of worrisome injury histories.

I still wish we had gotten a better haul (Carlos Triunfel would have been awesome), but my opinion of the package we got is slowly rising. Maybe that’s just me being hopeful. I can’t say for sure. I do think that Gillies has a good shot at developing into a quality leadoff hitter, which we haven’t had for most of my lifetime. My initial pessimism regarding Aumont’s ability to stick in the rotation has abated, though I still think Ramirez is a low-leverage bullpen arm waiting to happen. This year will tell us an awful lot about all three guys. It may yet turn out that Amaro got the better of this deal, particularly since Seattle is almost definitely not going to be able to keep Lee after this season. A few delusional Phillies fans are crossing their fingers that we’ll sign him back, and while that would really make the trade a win for us, it ain’t gonna happen. We’re hamstrung in 2011 as it is without trying to fit another $20 million or so into the equation. Plus, Lee’s almost definitely going to get offers of five or more years.

As for what we gave up for Halladay, it’s important to keep in mind that we got four (potentially five) years of Doc for those prospects, not a seaason and a half. So, while it stung to lose both Drabek and Taylor in the same deal, it was an acceptable loss. If Drabek, D’Arnaud or Brett Wallace (whom the Jays traded Taylor for almost immediately) pan out, the Jays got a nice haul for their ace. It certainly wasn’t anywhere close to the rape job Amaro pulled on the Indians, that’s for sure.

So, as we come to the end of this long-winded evaluation of Ruben Amaro, Jr., what conclusions can be drawn? Amaro has shown a knack for avoiding arbitration with fair or team-friendly contracts. He’s shown that he can be rather single-minded and aggressive in his pursuit of players he’s targeted, which is a double-edged sword. He’s shown an unfortunate tendency to overpay, in money and years, for fungible assets. He’s shown a reluctance, or refusal, to take a calculated risk and allow the market to develop in hopes of getting a better deal in free agenct. Ultimately, what you get is a GM who falls squarely in the middle tier. His flashes of brilliance aren’t enough to put him among the best in the business, but his blunders aren’t egregious enough to excoriate him as the second coming of Ed Wade. Phillies fans should continue to hope that Amaro will minimize his mistakes going forward, while not being surprised if and when he does not. He may not be doing everything in the best way possible to ensure this stay on the mountaintop will last well into the decade, but we’re still bearing witness to a golden age of Phillies baseball. Let’s enjoy it as much as we can.

All bets are off if he lets Werth walk without an offer and Our Beard and Savior signs with the Yankees. In that case, I will probably be found at the front of the mob outside his office, brandishing a pitchfork and a flaming torch. I’m just sayin’.

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