Ruben Amaro, Jr. owns the title of runner-up luckiest man in Philadelphia. Eagles wide receiver Hank Baskett is a shoo-in for first (his recent engagement to Kendra Wilkinson solidifies that), but the 43-year-old Amaro is not far behind.
Amaro was carefully groomed for his current position as Phillies general manager. Like a teenager learning the fundamentals of driving, he has carefully studied under Ed Wade and Pat Gillick for the past 10 years.
Even with all of that experience, his appointment was not without controversy. Long-time Phillies front-office man Mike Arbuckle quit, citing that he felt "the time (was) right to pursue other opportunities." Many felt Arbuckle was the right man for the job.
Regardless, Ruben was handed the keys to the car in late 2008—only his first car wasn't an oil-leaking Dodge pickup, like mine. His car was a well-oiled Ferrari with all the extras.
Forget the fact that the Phillies will be entering the 2009 season as the defending World Series Champions for a moment and consider this. The Phillies are the only team in the National League that has won 85 games or better in each of the previous six seasons. A far cry from the mess that Martin Mayhew has stepped into as the new GM of the Detroit Lions, for example.
Yet, the time has come for Amaro to learn that his job is not always going to be happy-go-lucky. The time has come for Philadelphia to do what it does best—criticize.
Amaro's offseason started with a bang and has kind of ended with a whimper. Ruben's first move was to let long-time Phillies lightning rod Pat Burrell walk away. Often criticized for being inconsistent and failing to live up to his contract, Burrell was the most identifiable name left from the Ed Wade era.
Sure, Rollins, Howard, Utley, and Hamels were around during Wade's tenure, but his time will be remembered for players like Burrell, Bobby Abreu, and Mike Lieberthal—players that never quite lived up to their expectations.
At the time, the release seemed fairly imminent. Burrell's decreasing mobility coupled with what were rumored to be pretty high demands made it all but a done deal.
Enter, Raul Ibanez. The 36-year-old Ibanez was signed to a three-year deal worth $30 million. This was one of the first major deals of this offseason.
In hindsight, the move likely reflects a bit of impatience on Amaro's part. The MLB hot stove has proved to be lukewarm with many big names still available, indicating that Amaro might have set the bar a little too high.
As guys like Burrell, Juan Rivera, and Rocco Baldelli continue to take below-market deals, some suggest that Amaro might have been able to get Ibanez a little bit cheaper.
With that said, Raul Ibanez is certainly an upgrade over Pat Burrell, and Amaro admirably went out and got the guy that he wanted. Raul's work ethic and consistency will be extremely valuable in the early going as the team tries to keep pace while Utley rehabs from his hip surgery.
The other additions that Amaro made addressed a growing need to add depth. Last year, the Phillies managed to go an entire season with very few injuries, and it would be naive to expect that to happen again. Feliz and Utley are already slated to miss time in the spring due to injury, and Romero's 50-game suspension makes the 50-man roster even thinner.
The end result is a heavier workload for everyone else. To lighten the load, Amaro added veterans Chan Ho Park, Marcus Giles, Ronny Paulino, and Pablo Ozuna. More importantly, he added key depth without breaking the bank.
Park is probably the only name on this list expected to directly contribute at the major league level throughout 2009 (with the other guys competing for backup roles). However, the other players could help with the growth of some of the Phillies' near-ready minor league prospects.
Park will be competing for the fifth spot in the pitching rotation and some scouts suggest that his rejuvenated fastball makes him a player to watch in 2009.
Probably the most significant thing that Amaro has done this offseason is keep the 2008 team intact. He signed all but one of the arbitration-eligible Phillies to contracts, decreasing the risk of any offseason complaining (à la Hamels 2008). He also lured RP Ryan Madson and SP Jamie Moyer out of free agency.
Neither player was expected to return, but both will be welcomed back by teammates and fans alike.
At age 46, Moyer's deal might seem a bit pricey, but in comparison to what Maddux made last year, the homegrown 16-game winner is a bargain at $6.5 million per year. His value as a mentor to Cole Hamels and Carlos Ruiz is well documented and everyone hopes that he can do the same with Joe Blanton and emerging prospect Carlos Carrasco.
Of course, the one player that he didn't manage to sign is the highest paid player on the roster: Ryan Howard. In all fairness to Ruben, I'm not sure if a spiritual encounter with Ted Williams' talking head could have convinced him to sign. It's pretty obvious that the big man is trying to get paid (and rightfully so).
Amaro prioritized future flexibility and consistency ahead of the potential for greater reward. He crafted deals that will keep this team together in the near future without jeopardizing the development of his younger players. The Phillies' farm system has been improving over the past couple of years (ranked 11th in MLB by Keith Law of ESPN) but there are only one or two prospects that could play in the major leagues today.
In two years, the team will have a better idea if any of their prospects are ready and they then should have the roster space to promote them.
Amaro did a great job of bringing everyone back on good terms and should be commended for that. Overall, I would give Amaro a B for his first season as GM. He loses points for being a bit impatient, but he didn't add any long-term deals that could potentially cripple the future of his franchise.
His two most significant offseason signings, Ibanez and Moyer, are both questionable. Besides the fact that many consider their price tags too high, Ibanez adds another left-handed bat to the heart of the order and Moyer will be on the verge of AARP eligibility at the end of his contract. There are no guarantees that he can continue to defy the continuum of aging.
In Philadelphia, we expect great things. We would love to see Amaro aggressively pursuing Manny Ramirez and Jake Peavy, but we don't need it. In the end, the fact remains that the '09 Phillies are still the team to beat. And the Phillies can proudly own that title for, at least, a few more months.