WORDS BY ANDY LINKER
Not so long ago in Philadelphia, the Phillies won the World Series.
Happened only nine years ago; barely a nanosecond in baseball time, considering the Phillies took 97 years to win their first World Series title in 1980.
After 2008, though, Philadelphia fans developed – and rather quickly – a sense of entitlement, especially after the Phillies returned to the World Series in 2009 with more trips to the National League playoffs in 2010 and ’11.
We suffer no more, the fans told Phillies management, so keep going with this winning stuff no matter the cost. So, the Phillies’ management paid the price. Big time, too, as they doled out more than $365 million in contracts to just five players – pitcher Cole Hamels, first baseman Ryan Howard, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley and catcher Carlos Ruiz. Handing out those contracts as if they were packs of M&Ms on Halloween was general manager Ruben Amaro, Jr.
Amaro agreed to the exorbitant contracts in part out of loyalty to the core of players that carried the Phillies to five straight National League East titles and back-to-back World Series appearances. He also paid, in part, to placate the team’s suddenly pampered fans who adored those players.
Naturally, the Phillies being the Phillies – and that being the team with the most losses in the history of pro sports – reverted to mediocrity, and worse, since the end of the 2011 season.
Just how that happened is easy to answer.
Each of the Phillies core five was on the wrong side of 30 when he was rewarded with a contract extension worth far greater than the market value of similar players at similar ages in similar stages of production and decline.
Some ended up spending too much time in the trainer’s room, as Howard did following a horrific Achilles-tendon tear suffered on the final play of the Phillies’ short-lived run in the 2011 National League playoffs.
Others, like Rollins, Utley and Ruiz, experienced a predictable drop in production that came with age.
By the time the Phillies stumbled to back-to-back finishes in 2014 and ’15, their faithful, and often equally fickle, fans blamed all of the team’s woes on Ruben Amaro, Jr.
Bad hitting? Blame Ruben. Lack of starting pitching? Ruben’s fault. Disintegrating bullpen? Ruben’s problem. Struggling at the gate to find fans to watch a team in sharp decline? See Ruben.
No sooner had the Phillies’ season ended in 2015, Amaro, Jr. was gone, fired.
Philadelphians rejoiced at the departure of the man they had come to refer to as “Rube.” And, now, less than two years later, the Phillies are putting together a young team full of promise.
While not quite ready to seriously contend in 2017, the Phillies could be stunningly good as early as next season. And when the Phillies finally do contend – the foundation already is in place – their faithful and, again, often fickle fans may find themselves thanking one person – Ruben Amaro, Jr.
You see, while the Phillies were struggling in the majors with declining production from the core that had won five-straight Eastern Division titles, Amaro, Jr. was busy figuring out how to maximize what now mostly had become minimal. He traded for prospects. Lots of them. He sent Hamels, still one of the game’s best pitchers, to Texas in the middle of the 2015 season for five of the Rangers’ upper-tier prospects.
Prior to that, Amaro, Jr. traded Rollins to the Los Angeles Dodgers and, just after shipping Hamels to Texas, flipped Utley to the Dodgers. He previously dispatched outfielder Marlon Byrd to Cincinnati and later peddled disgruntled closer Jonathan Papelbon to Washington. In return, he received even more prospects.
In all, the Phillies received six pitching prospects, what they hope will be their future catcher in Jorge Alfaro and a sporadically brilliant outfielder named Nick Williams. Two of those pitching prospects – Jerad Eickhoff and Zach Eflin – showed great promise last season in the Phillies’ starting rotation. Three other Amaro, Jr.-acquired pitchers – Jake Thompson, Ben Lively and Nick Pivetta – could join them at some point this season or next.
While he now is more than 18 months removed from the team, Amaro, Jr.’s imprint still can be seen on the Phillies.
His picks in the annual amateur draft – baseball’s version of a livestock auction – have produced emerging staff ace Aaron Nola, catchers Cameron Rupp and Andrew Knapp, future shortstop J.P. Crawford, second baseman Scott Kingery and outfielder Roman Quinn. Amaro, Jr. also plucked center fielder Odubel Herrera from Texas in the 2014 Rule V draft and, after his firing, watched from afar last summer as Herrera was named to the National League All-Star team.
Another one of Amaro, Jr.’s choices from the 2011 amateur draft – relief pitcher Ken Giles – was left for his successor at general manager, Matt Klentak, to trade after the 2015 season to the Houston Astros for another package of prospects that included current starter Vince Velasquez.
So while nearby Washington, Pittsburgh and Baltimore are expected to have varying degrees of success in 2017, Philadelphia most likely will miss the postseason for a sixth straight season.
Yet, Philadelphia may have a better season than the Nationals, Pirates and Orioles as the Phillies use this summer to continue morphing into something special. Thanks, in great part, to Ruben Amaro, Jr.