It’s been an interesting off-season for the Phillies. It’s the first a couple that will likely shape how Phillies fans remember the Ruben Amaro Jr. era. It’s an era that got off to a hell of a start. He piggy-backed on Pat Gillick’s run nicely and took over control of the club by making aggressive and bold moves. Raul Ibanez was the dream signing for about 4 months. He fearlessly swashbuckled for Cliff Lee and then got Roy Halladay at a slight discount. But he also gave Jamie Moyer two years. He buried Joe Blanton in money. He tried to get ahead of the market on Ryan Howard…and then the market evaporated. He almost certainly overpaid Jonathan Papelbon.
For me, Amaro has two distinct qualities: He’s aggressive (which sometimes manifests itself in a lack of patience) and he’s committed to pitching. Some people think he learned these traits from working under Pat Gillick, but Amaro has intensified them. The pursuit of pitching has become absolute. The question I have is, how much of this philosophy was shaped by the events of 2009, Amaro’s first year on the job? The Phillies had a very good team that year. It may have been the best team they’ve put together during this run of success. But, they lost the World Series partly because they faced a very good Yankees team, but also because some of their key pieces from 2008 (Cole Hamels & Brad Lidge) woefully underperformed.
You could argue that the Phillies are lucky to have won the World Series in 2008–everything certainly fell into place. You could also argue that they probably should have more than 1 World Series ring in the last five years. Every year the reason for failure is different, but in 2009 it was pretty simple, they didn’t pitch well enough to beat the Yankees. It seems to be a moment Amaro has taken to heart. When faced with a similar scenario after the last two years on the offensive side of the ball, Amaro has chosen to hope his own players come around–or to add EVEN MORE pitching. But, after that 2009 season Cole Hamels was not given the same vote of confidence. The Phillies and Amaro set in motion a flurry of moves that bolstered the rotation, depleted the depth of young position players and oddly enough put them in a position where they now are feeling the squeeze in terms of a long-term deal for Cole Hamels. How did they get to this point, and was it all a mistake?
To get fully up to date, you’ve got to understand where the Phillies came from. The majority of the terrible Phillies teams of my youth had no pitching. Just none. And, as much as we make fun of Steve Jeltz and guys like that, the Phillies were always anchored to the bottom of the standings by atrocious pitching staffs. Any Phillies fan can rattle off the names of several embarrassing starters from the 80s and 90s. Those arms sealed the Phillies’ fate as perennial bottom-feeders. Eventually, though, the tide turned. It turned with some great drafting/scouting and one great trade (Kevin Stocker for Bobby Abreu). By 2002, the Phillies had turned a corner. Then, they signed Jim Thome. Then, they moved into the new stadium. By 2004 the Phillies were shaking off “laughing-stock” status.
Let’s take a look at some of these teams:
2004: 86-76–NL Ranks in parentheses.
- 840 Runs Scored (3rd)
- Avg. NL Runs: 751
- 215 HRs (2nd)
- .788 OPS (league avg: .756)
- 4.45 ERA (13th)
- Starting Rotation: Myers 5.52 ERA, Milton 4.75 ERA, Millwood 4.85 ERA, Wolf 4.28 ERA, Padilla 4.53 ERA
2004 was the last year that Larry Bowa managed the team. After getting a little lucky in 2001, Bowa’s teams were always plagued by bad pitching. In 2004 especially, the Phillies couldn’t get anyone out and despite putting up some gaudy offensive numbers they didn’t sniff the playoffs and Bowa was the victim of a mutiny. Guys like Mike Lieberthal and Bobby Abreu deserve credit for dragging the Phils back to respectability, but in the end they ended up blocking the new generation that would take over the team’s identity. Burrell, Rollins, Utley, Howard…these are the guys that would become the faces of the team and it’s not surprising the older guys had to be flushed out before they really could succeed. That said, it’s criminal the Phillies didn’t make a playoff appearance during Bowa’s tenure and it was the ownership’s refusal to open up the pocketbooks for pitching that held them back.
- 865 Runs (1st)
- Avg. NL Runs: 771
- 216 HRs (3rd)
- .794 OPS (league avg: .761)
- Team ERA 4.61 (11th)
- Starting Rotation: Myers 3.91, Lieber 4.93, Hamels 4.08, Lidle 4.74, Wolf 5.56
This is 2 years into the Charlie Manuel era, 3 years into Citizen’s Bank Park and as you can see–almost nothing has changed. Some names are different. Thome is gone for Howard. Polanco is gone. Tom Gordon is closing instead of Billy Wagner. But, Pat Gillick has arrived in town and the Phillies start to at least make the effort to get pitching. Gillick was far from bullet-proof. Adam Eaton (3/24 million) anyone? Freddy Garcia? The Phillies were still not quite a big-market spending superpower and the bulk of their early attempts to get pitching didn’t pay off. At this point, the Phillies are actively wasting a World Series caliber offense with a patchwork pitching staff and horrendous bullpen.
- 892 Runs (1st)
- Avg. NL Runs: 763
- 213 HRs (2nd)
- .812 OPS (league average: .756)
- Team ERA: 4.73 (13th)
- Starting Rotation: Moyer 5.01, Hamels 3.39, Eaton 6.29, Kendrick 3.87, Lohse 4.72
This year was all about the Mets. The Phillies had no real business in the playoffs with this pitching staff. Again, their offense was a total juggernaut. Gillick is still trying (Moyer/Lohse) but he hasn’t hit on the right combo yet. That would come the next year when Moyer had a better season, Blanton came in and contributed and Hamels had his magical playoff run. Also, the moving parts bullpen would finally click in 2008. Lidge was perfect. Durbin had a career year, Madson settled into a role. Everything came together. They finally supported the offense enough, but here in 2007, it’s still status quo. Ruiz is in, Victorino is in, but other than that it’s the same old story since essentially ’04.
- Runs: 820 (1st)
- Avg. NL Runs: 718
- 224 HRs (1st–by 30 HRs)
- .781 OPS (League Avg: .739)
- Team ERA: 4.16 (6th)
- Starting Rotation: Blanton 4.05, Hamels 4.32, Happ 2.93, Moyer 4.74, Lee 3.39
Here’s the year that changed everything in my opinion. It was the last year that this Phillies nucleus was peaking offensively. However, they’d struggle the whole season to find pitching answers. Brad Lidge had 31 saves but a 7.21 ERA. He blew countless games. This team could have easily won 100 games with a rotation that had its own troubles. Cole Hamels couldn’t put two starts together. At the end of the season they brought in Pedro Martinez. And, all that took them to game 6 of the World Series. Aside from inexplicably getting shutdown by A.J. Burnett in game 2, the Phillies offense did a decent job on the Yankees’ staff. Cliff Lee answered the bell in game one, but after that, Phillies pitching would get rocked. Hamels was shelled and almost run out-of-town for his post-game comments. Martinez was totally out of gas in game six. The Phillies, quite obviously, didn’t pitch well enough to get it done.
That brings me back to the beginning, or back to the present where the Phillies have slipped to 7th in the NL in runs scored. It’s a slightly misleading statistic. The team has suffered scores of injuries and at times in 2011 the Phillies offense was still very good, but it wasn’t an elite unit like it had been in previous years. The Phillies offense has been losing the war of attrition against time for 2 years now. It’s been the belief of the organization the answer is to supplement the offense with more pitching. Instead of trying to maintain an offense that leads the league in runs scored, the Phillies have tried to put together a pitching staff that requires you to score far fewer runs. It’s been an unquestionable success in the regular season. In the post-season it’s provided endless frustration.
My question is, if the Phillies had won the 2009 World Series, or if they had written it off as losing to a better team, or to Hamels having a down year, how would the next couple of years played out? They certainly needed another pitcher to compliment Hamels. The NL has been improving exponentially and young arms are popping up every year, but did they go to far? Three aces? Four aces? Was that overkill? When you consider the offense has been neglected, the spending on pitching seems a bit extravagant. Yes, the Phillies have kept their guys and swapped out Werth for Pence, but did they take the offense for granted? Was age, injury, the mileage of all these long seasons ignored in favor of trying to win some pitching arms race? The Phillies finally realizing they needed good pitching was a miracle, but when they hit a slight bump in the road did they jerk the wheel too far in the other direction? Are we now heading into oncoming traffic?
The concern I have about Amaro’s philosophy is that he’s forced himself to be all-in. You see it with what happened this off-season. Amaro started off after the loss to the Cardinals by talking about a change in approach and all this nonsense, but after he took a step back and realized what he had the Phillies stuck with the status quo and the big money went to another pitcher–Jonathan Papelbon. When you have a 70-million dollar rotation, you can’t be cutting corners on your closer, right? And, all this investment in pitching leaves the Phillies stuck with their own veteran position players. First, because a lot of young talent has been traded away, but secondly when the pitching is this good even the smallest bit of rebuilding feels like a waste of time.
The last thing to consider is whether the Phillies rush to add arms will actually keep from signing their youngest (homegrown) ace. Cole Hamels agreed to a 1-year deal today to avoid the arbitration process, but as of now, he’ll still be a free agent after this season. There has been some doubt whether the Phillies could possibly have three 20-million dollar starters on their team moving forward in 2013. You have to assume Roy Halladay is going to vest his 2014 option, so signing Hamels long-term means at least 2 years of three pitchers making 65 million+. Throw in Ryan Howard and Papelbon that’s 5 guys making 100 million. Even with the increased payroll that’s over 50% of your spending with 20 spots left to fill. Hunter Pence will be demanding a salary well over 10 million, Shane Victorino needs to be resigned or replaced. Same with Chase Utley in a couple of years. At some point the signing spree has to stop.
Right now, it looks like Hamels is a prime candidate to lose out. If the Phillies let Hamels go and possibly Victorino as well they’ll finally have some breathing room and could bring in perhaps a couple of impact bats that will then support a rotation that is anchored by only two aces (Halladay and Lee). That seems to make the most sense if you could remove all emotion from the debate, but letting Hamels go at this point would be a PR nightmare. And, trading him or Lee would produce a similar result. It might be the move that makes the most sense, though. If you look at the Phillies farm system it seems far more likely they’ll be able to replace starting pitchers than position players. If the Phils took some money and allotted it to bats in free agency, they might just get cheaper and younger in the rotation naturally.
The way the Philies and Ruben do business, though, I guess you’d expect Hamels to be back and they’ll just figure everything else out. This excessively long post isn’t meant to be doom and gloom. It’s more a question of are the Phillies being piloted by the right captain? When you have this kind of payroll some moves are easy, but there have certainly been some mistakes made, as well. What you can say for Ruben is that he always tries to give the team the best to win that year. And, that’s why Rollins is back and that’s why Papelbon is here, and that’s probably why he jumped the gun on the Ryan Howard contract too. It’s just that with every year that goes by Ruben backs up closer to a ledge, gives up more and more of his slack. And, the question is, are the Phillies going to win another World Series or is Ruben going to figure a way out of this pattern before he has no choice but to jump?