THE GENERAL manager who has failed to produce a winning season since 2011 insisted he has a realistic sense of the market value of the players. It is the general managers who are actually in contention for the playoffs whose valuations are misguided. This is the world according to Ruben Amaro Jr., a place where fundamental economic principles do not apply.
The real world? That's a different place. In the real world, market value is whatever the market says it is. And the market doesn't give a damn what you think about its judgments.
While that might make you shudder, it shouldn't come as a surprise. The Phillies' GM has always given the impression of operating in a vacuum, deciding for himself what a player is worth and then acting without regard for the other 29 suckers in the room. Four years ago, he stood behind a podium in San Francisco and explained his rationale for tacking on 5 years and $125 million to the 2 years that still remained on Ryan Howard's contract. "He kind of set the market for himself with his performance," Amaro said.
It's that kind of rationale that led him to hand Jonathan Papelbon a 4-year, $50 million contract less than 2 weeks into the 2011 free-agent signing period. The Phillies needed a closer, Papelbon was the best available, and, Amaro said at the time, "Sometimes you've got to go the extra mile to do that."
And there's the problem. It's twofold, really. First, the market is what determines whether you have to go the extra mile, and in order to accurately gauge what the market determines, you either have to accurately project the market, or you have to let the market unfold. The Phillies have rarely allowed the latter scenario to occur, and their reluctant arrival to the world of analytics has hampered their ability to do the former. Second, while there are times when doing "that" necessitates going the extra mile, there are also times the necessity of going the extra mile should preclude doing "that." There are times when "that" isn't worth doing, because there are a lot of "thats" that a general manager needs to do in order to build a deep, balanced, competitive roster capable of sustaining the grind of a 162-game season and all of the unforeseen pratfalls that occur within.
The Phillies have rarely seemed to grasp the concept of opportunity cost, that basic tenet of economics that holds that, in an environment in which resources are limited, the cost of allocating X-amount of those resources ($12.5 million per year) to commodity Y (a pitcher who logs 60 innings a year) is the inability to allocate those dollars to commodity Z (three relievers, a rightfielder, another starting pitcher, etc.). In layman's terms: if you spend $12.5 million on a closer, you have 12.5 million fewer dollars to spend elsewhere. And if you don't have a core of cheap, talented players who are likely to remain healthy for an entire season, then you end up relying on players like Delmon Young and Kevin Frandsen and Ben Francisco and B.J. Rosenberg and Freddy Galvis. One only needs to look at the current Phillies clubhouse, where a team with the third-highest payroll in the majors has Andres Blanco and Reid Brignac and Phillippe Aumont and Roberto Hernandez in uniform.
Amaro and team president David Montgomery would likely argue that bad luck has been a significant contributor to their franchise's demise. But while it is true that those in the front office cannot predict specific injuries, they can predict that injuries in general will occur, and they can figure out the probability of them occurring, and they can factor such knowledge into their decision-making, and use it to limit their exposure to risk. They can avoid concentrating the bulk of their resources in players whose age increases their risk for injury. They can trade healthy players before they have a chance to injure themselves.
The Red Sox helped limit their exposure to risk in John Lackey's 5-year, $82 million contract with a clause that called for a $500,000 club option for 2015 if he missed significant time with an elbow injury in 2010-14. Yesterday, they traded him for two young major leaguers who will be under their control for a total of nine seasons.
All of this requires a front office that possesses a keen grasp of both the short- and long-term ramifications of every move it makes. It requires the ability to look 2 and 3 and 4 years ahead, to forecast market trends, to assign value. It requires a plan. Too often, the Phillies seem to operate on sentiment alone. For 4 years, they have stumbled blindly into the future, operating on a move-to-move basis, with little coherent long-term strategy. They traded Cliff Lee, which led them to trade for Roy Oswalt, which led them to ignore rightfield, which led them to trade for Hunter Pence, all of which led to a depleted farm system to go with their burgeoning payroll, which led them to trade away Pence, which led them to sign Marlon Byrd, which led them to yesterday, when, you would think, some sort of realization would have set in, that somewhere along the line they miscalculated, because nobody was willing to meet their asking price the way they themselves so often had.
"We have some pretty good baseball players here," Amaro said.
And then those players took the field, 14 games under .500, outscored by 68 runs, their general manager assuring everybody that he still had a plan.