Ruben Amaro Jr. is the general manager of a bad baseball team.
As Major League Baseball enters the offseason and winter months, the Phillies executive is fighting for his job and legacy. Repairing the damage that has been inflicted upon the organization can't be undone overnight. The path to returning to contention will be long and arduous. Until Amaro realizes that, the team won't be properly suited to turn around.
From the moment Amaro took control of the Philadelphia front office, the franchise has experienced extremes.
In 2009, Amaro's first season as general manager, Philadelphia made a second consecutive trip to the World Series, falling in six games to the New York Yankees. In 2010, the team won 97 games and made a third consecutive trip to the National League Championship Series, falling in six games to the San Francisco Giants. In 2011, Amaro's concoction of talent set a franchise record for regular-season victories (102), but bowed out to the St. Louis Cardinals in a classic, five-game division series.
Since that moment, the wheels have come off at Citizens Bank Park.
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2012 brought about the franchise's first nonwinning season since 2002. Instead of a full, thorough and introspective look at what went wrong, Amaro and Co. decided to push forward in 2013 with an eye on returning to the postseason.
The result? One of the worst teams in baseball. At 73-89, the Phillies finished in fourth place in the NL East, behind the lowly New York Mets. No team in the National League posted a worse run differential. Outside of the Houston Astros and Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia's was outscored at a higher clip than every team in professional baseball.
Now, as Amaro gears up for his sixth offseason at the helm in Philadelphia, his job and legacy are on the line. If he can't transform the Phillies back in a winning outfit, he won't be around much longer, especially after firing manager Charlie Manuel in August. When the passionate Philadelphia fans look for accountability, Amaro will be the only one to take the fall.
Unfortunately for the 2009 PSWA (Philadelphia Sports Writers Association) Executive of the Year, job security and legacy are two separate and distinct entities. Due to the dearth of young, ascending talent in the organization, Amaro's fate may already be sealed. At the end of 2014, his tenure as Phillies GM could end.
Amaro's legacy, however, can still be saved. If the GM prioritizes a winter plan that focuses on long-term contention, not a Band-Aid approach for 2014, he can still be remembered as an integral piece in Phillies history.
That's right, folks. Forget big-game hunting for names like David Price or Giancarlo Stanton. Eschew the notion that Carlos Ruiz is a priority. Eliminate the idea of two or three-year deals for flawed relief pitchers.
It's time for the Phillies to retool the farm system, prioritize 2015 and 2016 over 2014 and accept this as the inevitable state of the National League East: As of this moment, the Philadelphia Phillies are the least likely team in the National League East to go on a sustained run of success over the next half-decade. Forget catching the Braves and Nationals atop the division, the New York Mets and Miami Marlins have more young talent on their 40-man rosters.
Of course, before any of those goals can be accomplished, Amaro needs to see the writing that is plastered on the wall. If it takes a magnifying glass, so be it. If it requires a monocle, no expense should be spared. If it takes every media personality in the city of Philadelphia to stage a fan intervention, let it happen.
Next week, some of the brightest minds in the sport will convene for the annual GM meetings. Within days, Amaro must shed the thought process that has been permeating out of Philadelphia since September. That thought process centers around the Phillies adding major pieces this winter with an eye on contention in 2014. In other words, the wrong approach.
In September, Andy Martino of the New York Daily News asked Amaro if it would be fair to say this coming winter wouldn't feature big-name acquisitions in Philadelphia. Amaro's response was blunt.
"Nope," said Amaro.
More recently, CSN Philly's Jim Salisbury pieced together a primer on Amaro's impending offseason direction. Among the many highlights: Prioritizing the re-signing of 35-year-old catcher Carlos Ruiz, adding a right-handed hitter to the outfield mix, possibly Stanton, but more likely signing Nelson Cruz or trading for Mike Trumbo, and adding veteran relief pitchers to the bullpen.
There's probably not enough Web space to chronicle why all of those ideas have downsides, but let's start here: Prioritizing any 35-year-old catcher is foolish, chasing an impossible fish to catch (no pun intended) in Stanton is a waste of time due to limited farm system chips, Cruz is an awful defender and comes with questions off a 50-game performance-enhancing drug suspension, Trumbo just posted a .294 on-base percentage for Los Angeles and allocating resources to veteran relievers is one of the biggest wastes of money in professional sports.
Ruben Amaro Jr. has spent $22.85 million on middle relievers since he became GM. They have yielded a 4.76 ERA. http://t.co/CRB6vdEiUi— Matt Gelb (@magelb) August 24, 2013
The problem, more than the actual players bantered about, is the ideology. Rebuilding teams don't prioritize players like Ruiz, attempt to surrender major assets for a superstar like Stanton or look to bring in a flawed power-hitter like Trumbo. Those are moves made by a team on the cusp of contention or with a nucleus in place that can offset the downside (risk, money, prospects lost, player weaknesses) that all those moves, in some capacity, come with.
As you are probably screaming at your computer or phone while reading this, a rebuild or retooling of the roster is much, much easier said than done. Even if Amaro wants to go that route, ownership, with millions more in their pockets due to Major League Baseball's new national television contract, per Fangraphs, can't just cut payroll and expect fans to flock to Citizens Bank Park. While that's understandable, fans are as well educated in 2013 as any time in the history of sports. If presented with moves that make sense for long-term success, they'll buy in.
Now that the blueprint is laid out for Amaro, how can a plan actually be implemented? Well, to steal a word from the GM himself, the Phillies need to be creative. MLB.com's Todd Zolecki asked Amaro about what it will take to win big again in Philadelphia.
"We have to try to be creative, maybe a little more creative if we can," said Amaro.
It's likely that Amaro was thinking about ways to creatively get better, not worse, in the short term. Yet the same thought process can be used to set the franchise up for long-term success, possibly even one similar to the run from 2005-2011. Over those seven years, Philadelphia averaged 92.2 wins per season.
In the past, Amaro Jr. has shown the creativity to swing major deals for Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and attempting (and failing) to garner a preemptive strike on a team-friendly Ryan Howard contract extension before the market on power hitters exploded.
Now, that same creativity is needed to put a competitive product on the field within the next few years for the city of Philadelphia. Outside of 29-year-old Cole Hamels and the recently re-signed Chase Utley, no member of the organization should be off-limits.
Can Ruben Amaro Jr. save his legacy in Philadelphia?
If ace Cliff Lee could net a franchise-changing prospect like Texas' Jurickson Profar in a trade, it must be explored. If the just hired, via Hardball Talk, "stat-guy" in the front office doesn't rate prospects like Jesse Biddle, Cody Asche or Maikel Franco as highly as Amaro, trading them for similar prospects can't be ruled out. If Domonic Brown, Philadelphia's lone 25-or-under All-Star-caliber hitter, is coveted by a contender, cashing him in for two or three potential future stars is wise.
With those assets, the Phillies sank in 2013. Without them, it's hard to imagine a .500 season in 2014, but Amaro's legacy in Philadelphia could be restored if the next group of young Phils become contenders in 2015 and beyond.
If the beleaguered general manger continues to try to extract contention out of a roster that has seen it's window of contention slammed shut, the short and long-term future won't be pretty for Phillies fans.