Amaro Feels the Heat, Talks Future
Ruben Amaro Jr. settled into one of the blue seats a few rows from the field Saturday afternoon at Turner Field. He munched on sunflower seeds as Scott Proefrock, one of his assistant general managers, sat in the row behind him.
The Phillies had two games remaining in their disappointing 2013 season, their first losing season since 2002, but it seemed as good a time as any to look back at the team’s misfortunes and discuss ways they can improve the future. In a wide-ranging interview with the team’s traveling beat writers, Amaro discussed everything from the heat he is feeling from fans, increasing the organization’s use of analytics in player evaluation, finding an everyday right fielder, payroll and making sure they do not enter next season crossing their fingers and hoping a multitude of things go perfectly to have a chance to win.
“I always feel under the gun,” Amaro said. “I put myself under the gun. I don’t listen to a lot of it. But listen, I’m the GM of the club, so I fully expect to take heat for it. I’m the one making the decisions on player personnel. I’m accountable for the things that have happened. I didn’t have a very good year; our team didn’t have a very good year. I think we win as a team and lose as a team. The fact of the matter is that I should take a lot of heat for it. I need to be better, and our guys need to be better. We need to evaluate better, we need to make better decisions and try to create a little better mojo overall.”
The front office has missed in its player evaluations in recent seasons. Once Jayson Werth left as a free agent in 2010, the Phillies entered subsequent seasons counting on Ben Francisco, John Mayberry Jr. and Delmon Young to be productive right-handed bats in the outfield.
Since they signed relievers Chan Ho Park and Jose Contreras to one-year contracts before the 2009 and 2010 seasons, respectively, free-agent relievers Danys Baez, Chad Qualls, Chad Durbin and Mike Adams haven’t panned out. The Phillies signed Jonathan Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million contract a couple years ago, but they found no takers before the July 31 Trade Deadline as his velocity and performance have dipped.
In the midst of that, the Phillies released reliever Jason Grilli from Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2011. He has been a force in the Pirates bullpen the past three seasons.
“We’re going to make some changes,” Amaro said. “I think we’re doing some stuff analytically to change the way do some evaluations. Look, we are going to continue to be a scouting organization. That said, I think we owe it to ourselves to look at some other ways to evaluate. We’re going to build more analytics into it. Is it going to change dramatically the way we go about our business? No, but we owe it to ourselves to at least explore other avenues. We may bring someone in from the outside, but we have not decided that yet.”
As far as the rest of the front office and scouting department, Amaro said, “If we have any changes at all, they will be pretty minor.”
The Phillies open the offseason needing starting and relief pitching, a starting catcher, an everyday outfielder and at least one right-handed bat. It is a lengthy list, but most of the principal players will be back: Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Papelbon, Domonic Brown, Ben Revere and Kyle Kendrick to name a few.
The Phillies entered the year believing if Roy Halladay, Utley and Howard were healthy they could bounce back. But Halladay and Howard were not healthy and many other things went wrong. With much of the core returning could the Phillies enter next season hoping for the same things: near perfect health and performance from an aging core?
“I think we have to be careful about that,” Amaro said. “We have to try to be creative, maybe a little more creative if we can. Can we go into the season and hope that our health holds up? We could. Is that the right thing to do? It may not be. We have to get better. We have to get better in a lot of areas. We need pitching. We need depth in the rotation. We have to be better with our bullpen.”
They need a right fielder, preferably one that hits right-handed.
“Our outfield defense, not very good,” Amaro said. “It needs to be better. … In right field, we don’t know what we’ve got. That’s a hole for us.”
Amaro said Darin Ruf cannot be considered their everyday right fielder.
“I think he can fill in for us,” he said, “but I can’t sit here and tell you that he’s an everyday player for us. He’s going to have to fight for a job in some way, shape or form. Can he add some depth to our bench, to our club overall? Call he play a little left, can he play a little right, can he play a little first and give Howard a blow? He can become valuable in that regard. But I don’t know he’s an everyday player yet. It’s hard to say that he’s an everyday player in the outfield. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice, because we just need to be better in the outfield defensively.”
Amaro hinted the Phillies could get creative, find a center fielder and possibly move Revere into left and Brown into right. That could be an option because the pickings are slim for free-agent, right-handed-hitting corner outfielders. The top of the list includes Nelson Cruz, who just served a 50-game suspension for using a performance enhancing substance; Corey Hart, who missed the entire season following surgeries on both knees; and Carlos Beltran, the switch-hitter who turns 37 in April.
The Phillies certainly will try to acquire Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, but so will every other team in baseball if he becomes available.
“One just got tied up, unfortunately, in Hunter (Pence),” Amaro said one of possibility. “There aren’t a lot of them. There are some guys out there, but there may be someone we can acquire. We may have to go even more left-handed. If the quality of the player to get needs to be left-handed, and he’s a quality player who can play the outfield and play defense and do the things we need him to do, then we have to go with a left-handed hitter.”
That could be scary. The Phillies ranked 22nd against left-handers with a .679 OPS, and they already could have as many as five left-handers in next season’s lineup: Howard, Utley, Brown, Revere and Cody Asche. Rollins is a switch-hitter, but he has just a .623 OPS against left-handers the past three seasons.
That is why the Phillies have made resigning right-handed Carlos Ruiz a priority.
But how much money can the Phillies spend? Could they take another monstrous, franchise-player type of contract?
“I really haven’t talked to David (Montgomery) that much about where we are,” Amaro said. “Obviously we had a lot less people coming to the ballpark this year. We have to be cognizant of that. We have been greatly supported by the owners. Our payroll was, what, $165 million? That should be enough to put a contender out on the field. We didn’t do it for a variety of reasons – some from the decisions that we made, some were because we just didn’t have the health that was necessary for us to have success. We have to make better decisions.”
But first things first: finalizing manager Ryne Sandberg’s coaching staff, bringing back Ruiz and mulling their interest in Halladay.
“Honestly, I would love to bring Roy back,” Amaro said. “But Roy’s situation is such that he would like to come back to a contender. As far as monetizing his contract, I have no idea where to go there yet. I have to talk to our guys about it. It’s going to be something that is south of where he is now clearly but the question is how far south do you go without embarrassing the player? How far south do you go risking what he will be for us? We talked about the shared risk and that is something that will have to happen. But we have some time. It’s not a pressing issue. Shoot, Doc might want to wait and see what kind of things he can do and see if we’re truly a contender. I believe that we will be. That’s our goal. But we have some holes to fill. We have some things to do.”