Phillies general manager Amaro facing big test in months ahead

Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro faces his biggest test yet in pivotal months ahead.
Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro faces his biggest test yet in pivotal months ahead. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff photographer)
Posted: June 21, 2011

SEATTLE - They are gamblers by nature, bankrolled by men who expect them to turn their money into something more. For some general managers, the ultimate goal is a net profit. For others, it is a world championship. In most cases, it is a combination of the two, a balance of year-to-year competitiveness and financial sustainability.

As the Phillies prepare for baseball's most pivotal months, their tight rope is strung at an unprecedented height. Lean too far to the right, and they are chalk-lined on the floor of unrealized expectations, an underperforming offense having undercut a rotation for the ages. Lean too far to the left, and they are tumbling into the darkness of an over-leveraged future, a swollen payroll and a depleted farm system, having eliminated their ability to improve in the future.

Welcome to Ruben Amaro Jr.'s biggest test yet. Since taking the reins from Pat Gillick after the 2008 season, the third-year general manager has developed a reputation as a front-office action hero. Clad in a uniform of khaki and argyle, he sweeps through the hotel suites and conference rooms of National League cities, delivering text messages like uppercuts and emails like karate chops. He sees through the souls of agents and general managers (and maybe even a brick wall or two).

Every year, we hear a similar refrain: that the payroll is maxed, that the farm system is taxed, that he can't afford to trade dollars and prospects in stacks. And then Cliff Lee arrives, and Roy Halladay signs, and Roy Oswalt moves north with his contract in tow.

Still, there are two things to keep in mind. First, Amaro landed Oswalt only after Houston agreed to kick in $11 million of the roughly $25 million that remained on the righthander's contract. Two, the Phillies did not win the NLCS. Over the last three seasons, as they have built their rotation to its current strength, they have gone from Best in Show to Best in NL to Runner Up. When they won the World Series, their top three starters were Cole Hamels, Brett Myers and Joe Blanton. When they lost the World Series, their top three starters were Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Pedro Martinez. When they lost the NLCS, their top three starters were Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt.

That is not to say that their strategy has been flawed. In 2008, they beat the Rays because of an untouchable Hamels and a dominant bullpen. Give them their current rotation in 2009, and the result is likely a second straight world title instead of a six-game loss to the Yankees. Last season, they were the first team since the Cubs in 2003 to lose an NLCS in which they outscored their opponent. Replace Blanton with Lee, and maybe a pivotal Game 4 loss becomes a series-evening victory (that they could have enjoyed such a scenario if not for the decision to trade Lee is another story).

Even if Oswalt does not return to the ace-level dominance he displayed down the stretch last season, instead maintaining his recent production as a consistently very-good No. 4, it will be hard to find fault with the acquisitions the Phillies have made.

At the same time, they took a calculated risk when they poured their resources into this rotation. They decided their offense was strong enough to support their new portfolio, despite signs that pointed to the contrary. Now, with a little more than a month remaining before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, the Phillies are asking themselves the same questions as their anxious fan base.

Were we right? Is it enough?

They entered yesterday with an offense that ranked seventh in the NL in runs, with a losing record against winning teams, and with an unbalanced lineup that had averaged two-runs-per-nine innings against the last 11 lefthanded starters it had faced. Not since 2004 has a team won an NLCS in which it was out-homered: The 61 the Phillies have hit this season trails potential playoff opponents like Milwaukee (84), Atlanta (76), Cincinnati (72), Colorado (69) and St. Louis (66). The Giants, at 46, are the only contender that has hit fewer.

Only once since 2004 has a team won an NLCS in which it finished with a lower slugging percentage than its opponent: The Phillies entered yesterday ranked 11th with a .378 in that category, leading the Giants (.357) but trailing the Brewers (.420), Cardinals (.416), Rockies (.405), Reds (.398) and Braves (.383).

The continued performance of a healthy Chase Utley would bolster those numbers. And Ryan Howard is just now entering his favorite time of year. But is it enough? Since 2008, the imperfect yet powerful righthanded bats of Pat Burrell and Jayson Werth have been replaced by the more imperfect and less powerful lefthanded bats of Raul Ibanez and Domonic Brown. Ben Francisco has replaced Geoff Jenkins, Ross Gload has replaced Matt Stairs, and a couple of utility men have replaced Greg Dobbs. In terms of significant upgrades, you are left with Placido Polanco's consistent contact bat at third base and Carlos Ruiz' development at the plate to supplement an aging core. Jimmy Rollins' power continues to trend downward, particularly from the right side of the plate. Utley's power has declined through battles with his hip, thumb and knee.

You can argue that the Phillies' unrivaled rotation makes up for such shortcomings, that their ability to prevent extra bases lessens their need to produce them. They have the best record in the major leagues, and four pitchers who have the ability to win a game on their own.

But the best gamblers know when they are pot-committed, and the summer months are when the stakes get raised. Last year, the Giants signed Burrell and claimed Cody Ross off of waivers. They acquired a couple of lefty relievers. The Phillies dealt for Oswalt. The result was an NLCS that was far more competitive than we probably remember.

It is easy to forget that Halladay allowed four runs in Game 1, or that Cole Hamels allowed three runs in six innings in Game 3, or that Oswalt allowed four runs in five innings in his start against the Reds in the NLDS, especially when you consider that the Phillies have scored three or fewer runs in 39 of their 73 games this season.

Every general manager south of Boston would probably trade his team's flaws for those of the Phillies. But those general managers do not have the NL's highest payroll, of which Amaro has routinely said, "If I can't field a winning team on [140, 160, 175 million] dollars, something is wrong."

So as the next month or 2 unfolds and contenders around the league throw their chips in the pot, you have to think the Phillies will attempt to call. Dealing for a player like Josh Willingham, a righthanded bat in whom they have long held some interest, would cost them about $2.5 million for the rest of the season, plus whatever prospect heads to the A's. That might sound like a lot of money when compared to the disposable income they supposedly lack. But when compared to the embarrassment and lost revenue of an abbreviated (or nonexistent) playoff run, it sounds like an insurance policy. There are cheaper options (Ryan Spilborghs), and more far-fetched scenarios (Delmon Young, B.J. Upton), all of which we will outline in tomorrow's Daily News.

For now, there is one thing you should know. Regardless of the rhetoric Amaro feeds to the media, or the public position he attempts to portray, the Phils GM has something in common with the majority of gamblers: an unfailing belief that he can change his fate.

For more Phillies coverage and opinion, read David Murphy's blog, High Cheese, at www.philly.com/HighCheese.

Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HighCheese.

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