Hey, Rube: Phillies pay dearly for Amaro’s misguided loyalty

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Some years ago, I named particularly terrible baseball contracts “Ricciardis” after former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, who seemed particularly skilled at giving them out. However, in retrospect, I may have been unduly harsh toward Ricciardi. What Ruben Amaro has done in Philadelphia deserves its own place in the Bad Contract Hall of Fame.

Now, let’s make one thing clear: EVERY long, break-the-bank contract is terrible. Every single one.  Well, the 10-year Derek Jeter contract signed back in 2001 worked out well. So every generation or so there will be an exception.

But of the 10 richest contract going in baseball today, the only ones that don’t already look like a complete disasters are the ones that have not had the TIME to become complete disasters. They have either just started or, improbably, will not start for a couple more years.

Don’t believe me: Look.

1. Alex Rodriguez — $275 million from 2008-17

— Disaster doesn’t begin to cover it.

2. Miguel Cabrera — $248 million from 2016-23

— This time bomb is the one that doesn’t start for two years.

3. Albert Pujols — $240 million from 2012-21

— Ugh, there are still SEVEN YEARS on this after this season?

4. Robinson Cano — $240 million from 2014-23

— Fine player. Power already down. Nine more years to go.

[MORE: Phillies set high trade price for Hamels  |  Byrd nurses foot injury]

5. Joey Votto — $225 million from 2014-23

— There are not many bigger Votto fans out there than me but, um, yeah 44 homers the last three years, fall-off-the-cliff decline this year, injuries, and nine more years. The panic button isn’t far away.

6. Clayton Kershaw, $215 million, 2014-20

— Just beginning. He’s the modern day Koufax, and he’s much younger (26) than most beginning these huge contracts. Then, it might be worth remembering that Koufax retired at 30. Always scary with pitchers (see Verlander, Justin).

7. Prince Fielder, $214 million, 2012-20

— Um … help?

8. Joe Mauer, $184 million, 2011-18

— Began the contract as a Gold Glove catcher who won three batting titles and began showing signs of power. Now, he’s an oft-injured first baseman with two home runs. This game does not respect its elders.

9. Mark Teixeira, $180 million (2009-16)

— Well, there are only two years left.

10. Justin Verlander, $180 million (2013-19)

— This one looked like one of the safer bets; Verlander was widely viewed as the best right-handed pitcher in baseball. But then, almost overnight, he lost a bunch off his fastball and lost the feel for his change-up and suddenly this looks like a very, very long deal.

The only deals on that list you would even CONSIDER taking on now are the Kershaw deal, which just started, maybe the Cano deal, which just started, and the Miggy deal, which doesn’t begin for two years. Those haven’t gone kaboom yet. I’m pretty sure in two years or three years, all of these deals (with the possible exception of Kershaw) will already have revealed themselves are fiascos.

You will note that none of these deals are Phillies deals … Amaro’s fiascos are more subtle.

In 2007 and ’08, the Phillies reached the playoffs in large part because the New York Mets collapsed down the stretch. The ’07 collapse is more famous — the Mets blew a seven game lead with 17 games to play — but 2008 wasn’t far off. The Mets had a 3 1/2-game lead with 17 games to play, won just seven of those last 17, and a hot Phillies team breezed by. That Phillies team was so hot, it went on to win the World Series.

The 2009 Phillies led the league in runs and went back to the World Series, where they lost to the Yankees. The 2010 Phillies added Roy Halladay and won 97 games. The 2011 Phillies were the probably the best of the bunch, a 102-game winner with an awe-inspiring rotation of Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They got knocked out in the playoffs, largely because their once-potent lineup couldn’t score in the end.

Still, that’s a five-year span of goodness — a little luck, some big hitting, some great pitching. That was a superb baseball team. And it was a fun baseball renaissance in Philadelphia. A huge amount of credit for this must to go Amaro. He was involved as an assistant GM to Ed Wade and Pat Gillick when the team was being built. Then he became GM and he wheeled, he dealed, he signed, he gambled, he borrowed from the future to live in the moment. And, as happens so often, he was utterly unprepared for when the check came due.

The best comparison for this I can give involves the Kansas City Chiefs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That really was a great team. Between 1966 and ’71, the Chiefs played in two Super Bowls and won one of them. They were probably the best team in 1971, too, but they were knocked out of the playoffs on Christmas Day by Don Shula’s Dolphins in one of the greatest games ever played. That was a team loaded with Hall of Famers and various other greats — Len Dawson, Buck Buchanan, Wilie Lanier, Bobby Bell, Emmitt Thomas, Otis Taylor, Jan Stenerud and so on — and coached by a Hall of Famer, Hank Stram.

And Stram wanted to, in those defining words of John Keats or John Cougar Mellencamp (can’t remember which): Hold on to 16 as long as he could. He was deeply loyal to that core group of players. Loyalty can be a wonderful trait. Unfortunately, in sports and in “Game of Thrones,” loyalty can be crushing. In the end, the Chiefs seemed to instantly age like the guy who drank from the wrong goblet in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Hank Stram got booted, the Chiefs went into a death spin that was so bad there was even some talk of moving the Chiefs out of Kansas City.

Nobody’s moving the Phillies — they have to be the most depressing team in baseball right now, but they’re still on pace to draw 2 or 2.5 million people. Philadelphia is a good baseball town. Still, this isn’t good. The Phillies are awful. And the Phillies are so overloaded with bad contracts that it’s hard to see how exactly they will stop being awful anytime soon.

[CSN Philly: Hamels thrives despite rampant trade rumors  |  Sandberg praises lefty ace]

Here, according to the invaluable Cot’s Baseball Contracts page, are the players ALREADY on the Phillies 2015 payroll. We’ll deal with them individually in a moment.

  • Ryan Howard: $25 million (again in 2016, $10 million buyout in 2017)
  • Cliff Lee: $25 million (and 27.5 million or $12.5 million buyout in 2016)
  • Cole Hamels: $22.5 million (and three more years, plus $20 million club option or $6 million buyout in 2019)
  • Jonathan Papelbon: $13 million (and $13 million vesting option)
  • A.J. Burnett: $15 million mutual option or $7.5 million player option
  • Chase Utley: $10 million (plus $15 million vesting options in 2016-18)
  • Carlos Ruiz: $8.5 million (again in 2016, plus club option in 2017)
  • Marlon Byrd: $8 million
  • Miguel Gonzalez: $3.7 million
  • That is about $128 million, if you are scoring at home, and it is for nine players. Six of the nine will be older than 35. Two are in their early 30s. The only one younger than 30 is Gonzalez, and he’s a reliever in Class AA.

The Howard contract was the one that should have snapped Amaro out of whatever loyalty spell he was under. The second he offered that catastrophe of a deal, baseball writers all over the country wrote in all capital letters: “ARE THE PHILLIES OUT OF THEIR MINDS?” There was no other question.

This was way back in 2010, and it was utterly inexplicable — a $125 million deal that would not even begin for two years for a declining slugger? I believe it is the most inexplicable bad contract ever handed out. Sure, you could argue for other terrible that were more expensive and harmful — this Pujols deal could end up setting the standard — and there have been many smaller deals that are hard to explain, like the Twins giving Ricky Nolasco a four-year, $50 million deal.

But combine the situation (Howard still had TWO YEARS left on his deal), the age (he turned 32 before the contract even began) and an honest assessment of the player (a power hitter who couldn’t run, was a liability at first base, couldn’t hit lefties and was unlikely to age well) and I think you are talking about the most inexcusably bad contract in baseball history.

Then again … it was a loyalty contract. Howard was such an integral part of the Phillies rise, such an unexpected joy when, in his first full year, he hit 58 homers and led the league with 383 total bases. The Phillies wanted to keep him as a Philadelphia sports hero. Noble cause. It blinded them to the obvious: Howard’s best days were behind him.

Lee and Hamels are the leftovers from Amaro’s chase for a legendary pitching staff … that dream lasted just one year. That really was magical in 2011 when Halladay (2nd), Lee (3rd) and Hamels (5th) all finished Top 5 in the Cy Young voting.

In 2012, Halladay got hurt and lost his groove. Lee and Hamels pitched well enough to make the Phillies a .500 team but that was all they could really do. Last year, Lee again pitched well, Hamels struggled early and then pitched very well his last 16 starts of the season. Anyway, the remnants of that dream pitching staff finished 14th in the National League in runs allowed and the team was lousy.

This year, the Phillies are desperately trying to dump Lee, who is 35 and has made only 12 starts. And they even talk about trading Hamels, though, according to Jon Heyman’s sources, they “want the world.” I’m not sure who is giving “the world” for a soon-to-be 31-year-old pitcher with $100 million left on his contract even if he is pitching very well this year.

Papelbon? That never made sense. He has pitched well as far as that goes, but there’s little more depressing or superfluous than an expensive closer on a bad team. The Burnett signing was pure desperation and it was destined for regret as soon as the ink dried.

And so on. Ruiz is a solid catcher who has had trouble staying healthy, Utley is a once-great player who is still at it after horrible injuries, Byrd is a traveling bat who can fill a spot in the lineup. All three have some value. To have $27 million invested in them is a lesson in money mismanagement. Then again, take all nine of these player together and they make almost $50 million more dollars than the entire Oakland Athletics roster — this without a shortstop, center fielder, third baseman, lead-off hitter or much of anything else.

Amaro wanted to hold on. It’s a natural instinct. And it’s a destructive one. It never fails to amaze how obtuse Major League general managers can be about things seemingly as obvious as aging.  Now, the Phillies are terrible, they are old, they have not developed a useful young player for themselves in about a decade, and Baseball America has ranked their minor league system 22nd, 23rd and 27th the last three years.

Rumors linger that they are prepared to do drastic things, like release Ryan Howard with $60 million left on the bill if they can’t trade him (which, I suspect, they can’t). Well, desperate measures might be the only hope. I could be wrong, but I can’t see anyone giving up real prospects for Hamels unless the Phillies eat a huge part of that salary. Beyond that, there really aren’t many moves left on the board. This is one of the harsh truth of baseball. It’s very hard to build a winner. It’s even harder to build a second winner after your first one grows old.

 

 

2017 World Series Preview: How the Astros and Dodgers match up

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The Dodgers are seeking their first World Series championship in 29 years. The Astros are seeking their first in the franchise’s 56-season history. Clayton Kershaw is making his first appearance on baseball’s biggest stage. Justin Verlander is making his third, but looking for his first ring. The Astros two aces are facing the Dodgers’ deep lineup. The Dodgers power throwing bullpen will face off against the Astros powerful lineup. For the first time in 47 years each team in the World Series won 100 games in the regular season.

Stars taking on stars. Power facing power. History, of one kind or another, somewhere between five and nine days from being made. It’s the Fall Classic, and it gets underway tonight. Here’s how it all breaks down:

 

THE ROTATIONS

It’s a bit of a shame that the rotations didn’t line up in order to give us a Verlander-Kershaw battle in Game 1, as it’s not every day you see two pitchers who each won an MVP Award face off. We’re still going to get some great matchups of staters here, however, as Kershaw — who still has something to prove as a big-game pitcher, his pennant-clinching Game 5 NLCS victory notwithstanding — meets 2015 Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel in tonight’s Game 1. Game 2 gives us Rich Hill, who has remade himself into one of baseball’s best in the latter stages of his career, against Verlander, who many though his best days were behind him. That was before his trade to Houston and his 9-0 run for the Astros that culminated in a couple of the most dominant postseason starts in recent memory.

The back end of the rotations, featuring Yu Darvish and Alex Wood for L.A. and Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers for Houston, are pretty evenly matched. At their best the Dodgers back two are probably better, but they have each been touched at times late in the season while both Morton and McCullers found a new gear in the ALCS. Whether driving at that gear has them low on gas at the moment is an open question. ADVANTAGE DODGERS.

 

THE LINEUPS

The Dodgers’ lineup has been top heavy in the postseason, but the top has been really, really heavy, so it’s been just fine. Chris Taylor, Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig have been nearly impossible to pitch to. Fill-in shortstop Charlie Culberson was a revelation in Corey Seager‘s injury absence, but Seager’s back is better and he will be back for the World Series. The bottom half of the lineup has not come through too often — Kiké Hernandez’s big NLCS Game 5 notwithstanding — with left field (Andre Ethier/Hernandez/Curtis Granderson) second base (Logan Forsythe/Chase Utley) and catcher (Austin Barnes, who has pushed Yasmani Grandal to the bench) struggling. The Dodgers can win it all if the top half of the lineup continues doing what it’s doing, but given how slumps can hit at any time, Dave Roberts would like to see a new postseason star emerge.

The Astros bats need no introduction, but they could use a bit more consistency in the postseason. Houston led the majors in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, were second in homers and struck out less than any team in baseball. The Yankees kept them quiet in the first five games of the ALCS but they roared back to life in Games 6 and 7. The attack will be keyed, as always, by possible AL MVP Jose Altuve, leadoff power source George Springer and shortstop Carlos Correa. As Houston showed all season, however, almost everyone in this lineup is dangerous.  ADVANTAGE ASTROS.

 

THE BULLPENS

This is probably the biggest separator between the clubs, with the Dodgers sporting a big advantage. Unlike in postseasons past, Dave Roberts has not had to use Clayton Kershaw or his other starters as relievers. This is due in part to the Dodgers taking care of their business quickly, sweeping the Dbacks in the NLDS and beating the Cubs in five in the NLCS. It’s mostly, though, due to the uncharacteristic depth and power of L.A’s relief corps. They didn’t allow a run against the Cubs in 17 innings of work in the NLCS.

Kenley Jansen needs no introduction. He continues to be one of the best if not the best closer in the game. Roberts will not hesitate to use him for multiple innings if need be. Has retired 24 of the 28 batters he has faced in the playoffs. He’s yet to be challenged. Hard throwing Brandon Morrow looks like an ace closer this postseason. Kenta Maeda has been a revelation as a setup man who can go multiple innings if need be. Tony Cingrani, Tony Watson and Josh Fields have not been used heavily, but each provides Roberts with an embarrassment of matchup possibilities.

Houston has talent in their pen, but it’s been somewhat shaky in the postseason. Chris Devenski, Will Harris and Joe Musgrove were all gotten to by Yankees hitters in the ALCS. Ken Giles has been OK, but not dominant, and A.J. Hinch has leaned a bit heavier than usual on him at times. More tellingly, Hinch has leaned on starters in relief, using Justin Verlander in that role in the ALDS against the Red Sox and using McCullers for four innings of relief in Game 7 of the ALCS. Hinch’s best hope is that he gets a lot of innings from Keuchel and Verlander in Games 1 and 2 and then has everyone in the pen well-rested for he middle games of the Series. If not, he’s going to be doing a lot of shuffling and, yes, we may see a lot of short rest work from starters in relief roles. ADVANTAGE DODGERS.

 

THE MANAGERS

Dave Roberts is the reigning NL Manager of the Year and both he and A.J. Hinch has a good shot of winning the award this year. Neither man has been second guessed very often in this postseason, as Roberts has not had to gamble at all and Hinch’s gambles have largely paid off. Unlike in some years, there are few dramatic storylines and little philosophical tension at play here. Both of these guys played the game, both work well with analytically-minded front offices yet both have shown that they have a free hand to use their instincts to make changes on the fly and manage the game on the field rather than simply carry out a game plan. If either of these two guys make themselves into a big story in this series it’ll be pretty surprising. EVEN.

 

THE BENCHES

The Dodgers lineup is a bit more fluid than Houston’s, with Roberts subbing in different guys at left field and second base in various postseason games. As such, if they’re not starting they may be a bit more game-ready than your usual benchwarmer. Houston tends to roll with the same lineup most nights, but Hinch has some flexibility at catcher where Evan Gattis and Brian McCann are both options and at DH in the home games, where either of them or Carlos Beltran can see action. ADVANTAGE DODGERS.

 

X-FACTOR

We don’t put much stock in intangibles, history or dramatic storylines when it comes to the World Series. We’ll leave that to the producers at Fox. Buy we will throw one wild card into the mix: home field advantage.

It’s not often the most important thing going in baseball, but it’s been an usually big boost in the 2017 postseason. Home teams are 23-8 (.742) this October, which is the best mark since the playoffs expanded to include Wild Card teams. So far the Astros are 6-0 in Houston and the Dodgers are 4-0 in Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers, likewise, had the best home record in all of baseball in the regular season. L.A. hasn’t yet had to bring a playoff series back home after it began, but the chance to host four home games in a best of seven may loom a bit larger this year than most. Oh, and keep an eye on guys’ stamina levels in Games 1 and 2. It’s gonna be close to 100 degrees at Dodger Stadium at game time for each of those tiltsADVANTAGE DODGERS.

 

PREDICTION

This is the matchup many of us were hoping for as early as late July. The Dodgers swooned in late August and early September, but the fact that they still won 104 games tells you just how dominant a club they were in 2017. While the Indians had the AL’s best record thanks to their late season winning streak, the Astros were, in our view, the best team in the American League all season long. This is the first matchup of 100-win teams in the Fall Classic in 47 years. It is, quite simply, the best on-paper World Series matchup we’ve had in many, many years. It’s sad someone has to lose this thing, but that’s how it goes.

Los Angeles hasn’t had to come back to Dodger Stadium to finish off a series yet. We don’t think they’ll be that lucky this time around, but we do think that their bullpen gives them a clear advantage and will work to neutralize those dangerous Astros bats in the final 3-4 innings of every game. That’s enough daylight for us to say that, in our view it’ll be . . .

DODGERS IN SIX