From the moment Ruben Amaro Junior hung up the phone with Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik on December 14th 2009, his defense of baseball’s most questioned offseason maneuver began.
Whether Philly fans liked it or not (and please let me know if you have encountered anyone who falls into the first category), Amaro repeatedly highlighted a desire to begin restocking the Phillies farm system with his oft-questioned Seattle Slew.
He also made reference to the fact that a long-term contract with Cliff Lee was not within the Phillies budget, while Halladay was a much better fit for the organization’s long-term economic plans. Finally, he strategized that an improved Cole Hamels would give the Phillies an equally strong top of the rotation.
Unfortunately for Amaro, the only thing more dreadful than the sleepwalking performance of his big league club has been the lack of promise shown by those prospects acquired from the Mariners, especially when viewed in light of Lee’s sparkling 2.59 ERA and blinding 97-to‑7 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
So, despite a 2010 season in which player injuries and underachieving have been the norm, Amaro’s infamous Lee trade has become the easiest variable for Phillies fans to point to as the difference between this season’s struggles and the two National League Pennants that preceded them. The Phillies historically woeful hitting and sloppy field play have frustrated fans, but their reaction to the everyday lineup has been downright gentle compared to the ire focused on the man that dealt away the left half of their one-two Cy Young combination.
To his credit, Amaro has consistently been available to the Philadelphia media and has not avoided questions about the move that fans feel has doomed this season. His stance on the Lee trade? He would love for Charlie Manuel to pencil in both Halladay and Lee every five days, but he had to trade Lee to replace the prospects that were lost in the original Lee acquisition and subsequent Halladay trade (Don’t worry, that logic has confused many more than just you).
You had to hand it to Ruben, his determination to stand behind a deal that prevented the best starting rotation in Major League Baseball was so steadfast that one would swear he would do the deal again if faced with the same situation. That is, until the calendar reached mid-July and Major League Baseball’s trade deadline brought with it the admission from Amaro that his team’s number one priority was to add starting pitching in an attempt to make another post-season run.
Various reporters have asked Amaro if this search for starting pitching was an indictment of the Cliff Lee trade, and the closest he has come to conceding has been to say that the success of the Lee deal will not be known for another decade.
But, the latest trade buzz has the Phillies pursuing Houston’s Roy Oswalt in an effort to bolster a starting rotation that currently consists of only two reliable arms, Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels.
So let’s examine what an Oswalt deal says about Ruben Amaro’s belief in the Cliff Lee trade.
In order to be consistent with Amaro’s argument that the Lee deal was necessary to restock minor league talent, a Roy Oswalt trade would have to include only members of the major league roster, such as Jason Werth, Raul Ibanez or J.A. Happ. However, if Amaro includes any of his low-level minor league talent (many believe that there are still a number of Phils prospects at the Single-A level), he would be contradicting his “leaving the cupboard bare” rationale of the past seven months.
So, what if an Oswalt trade is judged against Amaro’s assertion that Cliff Lee’s contract demands forced his exit from Philadelpia?
Let’s compare the contract figures between Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee. Oswalt is still owed $7 million dollars for the remainder of this season (an amount that Houston seems intent on billing to Oswalt’s new team), $16 million for 2011, and a $16 million option in 2012 (which Oswalt is said to demand in order to waive his no-trade clause). Lee, on the other hand, was under contract for $9 million dollars for the 2010 season, after which it is believed that he would seek a contract in line with that of CC Sabathia’s (with an average salary of $23 million).
Considering the above figures, the Phillies would pay Roy Oswalt nearly the same amount for the final 60 games (approximately 12-13 starts) as Cliff Lee would have made for the entire 2010 season. Then, over the next two years, they would be on the hook for $16 million per year instead of Cliff Lee’s speculated $20-23 million annual price tag. While there is certainly a difference between those last two figures, very few in baseball would argue that Roy Oswalt’s production is comparable to that of Cliff Lee. This salary differential seems even more negligible when subtracting Jamie Moyer’s $8 million salary from next year’s Phillies roster and replacing it with a $470,000 J.A. Happ contract.
Finally, if one considers that Amaro made the Cliff Lee trade with the belief that Roy Halladay was an upgrade and Cole Hamels would return to his 2008 form, one could argue that the Phillies GM was correct on both counts. However, if Amaro completes the rumored trade for Oswalt, the inevitable comparison of a Halladay-Oswalt-Hamels combination to a Halladay-Lee-Hamels trifecta will be the new obsession of the Philly fans and media, and it would be hard to argue that Amaro came up with the better of the two scenarios.
Ruben Amaro Junior’s Cliff Lee trade and his potential Roy Oswalt deal make it clear that he is a general manager with the acumen to secure blockbuster trades. Unfortunately for him, instead of being celebrated as a savvy executive, his ultimate reputation may be that of someone who is forced to repeatedly swing major deals in an attempt to repair his own mistakes.