The Phillies finally designated Delmon Young for assignment on Friday, months (if not years) after most of the Delaware Valley realized that he was not only useless in the short term, but was also hurting the club’s long-term prospects by delaying the audition of players that may actually matter to the future of this team, like Darin Ruf.
Three days before that, it was Laynce Nix that was jettisoned from the roster, only 20 months after the Phillies curiously gave the journeyman outfielder a two-year contract. Nix was a reasonable addition at the time – he was coming off three straight seasons of .700+ OPS as a lefty bat off the bench – but inking a career bench player to a two-year deal in December, regardless of the player, screamed impatience and, to a certain extent, irresponsibility.
The implication here is something David Murphy of the Daily News effectively tackled yesterday: that many of these moves have failed in an unsurprising fashion. That is, that Young performed like Young was projected to perform and that Nix’s premature exit from Philly simply exemplified why middling bench players don’t typically get two-year deals. It is this notion that is perhaps the most damning evidence that Ruben Amaro Jr.’s tenure as general manager of the Phillies has taken a turn towards disaster. And it is painfully clear that Young and Nix represent only the most recent examples.
A month before Amaro inked Nix, he gave Jonathan Papelbon a four-year deal worth more than $50 million, more than anyone had ever given a closer. With a gaping hole in left field and a struggling offense that was to be without Ryan Howard, Amaro tied up a ridiculous amount of payroll at one of baseball’s most overvalued and unpredictable positions, forfeiting a first round pick in the process. The reactions to the signing were mixed, albeit with a negative tilt – while most agreed the money was overwhelming, advocates pointed to Papelbon’s track record as evidence that if any closer was worth it, it was Papelbon.
Almost two years later, Papelbon’s numbers in Philadelphia have been respectable despite a decline in his velocity. His ERA of 2.57 and WHIP of 1.05 are only slightly worse than his stellar career marks (2.38 and 1.03) and he’s blown only 14.7 percent of his save opportunities (10 of 68) compared to 13.2 percent during his career in Boston (29 of 219). That the Phillies still got next to no sniffs on him leading up to July 31 is testament to the prevailing stance on closers around major league baseball (which Amaro ignored): with 24 other roster spots to fill, making a sizeable financial commitment to someone who pitches only 60 innings per season is almost never worth it.
That brings us to Amaro’s most egregious move to date: the signing of Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract that was consummated almost two full seasons before he was scheduled to be a free agent (and didn’t kick in until 2012). While this atrocity hardly needs more negative coverage, it is important to note that it was a laugher from the start – not only was Howard’s body a walking red flag, but the first baseman’s production was already declining. At the very least, Amaro could have waited another season (preferably two) before he considered committing nine figures to a player already on the wrong side of 30. Yes, the Achilles tear was the worst-case scenario, but it was also exactly why pulling the trigger two seasons in advance on anyone, much less a big-bodied first baseman, was so foolish.
Barring a monumental turnaround by Howard, his contract ($85 million left through 2016) may just have the Phillies’ offense stuck in the mud for the foreseeable future. Consider this: the Phillies offense ranks 23rd in baseball in runs, and it is very possible that their 2014 opening day lineup is already on this team (with the emergence of Ruf and signing of Utley, where can they add an impact player?). I am optimistic on Ruf and Cody Asche (but less so than Ruf) and liked what I saw once Ben Revere got going, but is a full season of that trio plus Howard going to propel their offense from 24th into the top half of baseball? I don’t see it. Such is life with a $25 million albatross at first base.
The common thread here, as Murphy established in his story, is that the Phillies seem to be operating absent any form of conventional baseball wisdom, and it is no longer only obvious to those that prefer advanced statistics to traditional scouting. They are being lapped by their rivals – the Mets have passed them, for now and probably for the future. Even the best front offices make mistakes – see Upton, B.J. – but making avoidable ones has derailed this Phillies team. The trade that sent Cliff Lee to Seattle, while disastrous on all accounts, was more of an error in judgement (and a fixable one, it turned out) than a blatant failure to recognize some of the more established-for-a-reason principles in today’s game. The Young, Nix, Papelbon and Howard scenarios, while varied in impact, were far more egregious in theory considering the writing on the wall at the time.
It is important to note these predictable failures because the Phillies are again mired in a situation where everything is pointing in one direction and they are motoring along in the other. They are in a free fall – only the Giants, Cubs, White Sox, Marlins, Astros and Brewers are worse by record – yet they sold off no assets before the trade deadline and just inked their 34-year-old second baseman to an extension (which was actually reasonable, but still counterintuitive considering their roster). On top of his revealing Young-centric quotes from Murphy’s piece, Amaro said over the weekend that he expects Howard’s performance in 2014, when he will be 34, to more resemble that of 2010 Howard (then 30, pre Achilles tear) than 2012 Howard (32, post Achilles tear). Some of that is undoubtedly lip service, but it is nevertheless concerning. The Phillies have an imposing mountain to climb to get back to respectability. It is impossible to believe they can scale it, particularly when they refuse to learn from the self-inflicted mistakes that put it there in the first place.