In the two weeks since free agency for the 2014 season opened, one question has developed as MLB teams, players, agents and executives make their moves and follow through on their offseason plans.
What the hell is Ruben Amaro Jr. doing?
The Phillies general manager has been aggressive since the free agent market opened, presumably getting a jump on the competition and quickly nabbing the players he wants. Yet Amaro has apparently outbid himself — paying more than is necessary — for the additions he's made thus far. Additionally, he's added older players to an aging roster that desperately needs to get younger.
Amaro first raised eyebrows throughout MLB when he signed outfielder Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million contract. That's not outrageous money. An $8 million annual salary is less than what Nelson Cruz might find on the open market, for example. Byrd also played in 147 games with the Mets and Pirates last season, which seemingly makes him a surer bet than someone like Michael Morse, who hasn't been able to stay healthy over the past two years.
This does fill a need for a right-handed hitting outfielder in the Phillies lineup. From that standpoint, Byrd is a good fit and perhaps not a terrible move by Amaro. The free agent market didn't offer many better alternatives, especially if the Phillies didn't want to sign Cruz to the five-year, $75 million (or four-year, $64 million) deal he's reportedly seeking.
However, Byrd is also 36 years old, which isn't the direction the Phillies should be moving in with their roster. He's coming off the best season of his career, batting .291 with an .847 OPS, 35 doubles, 24 home runs and 88 RBI. Yet Byrd's power also seemed to tail off in the 30 games (and 115 plate appearances) he played with Pittsburgh. Can he really sustain a high level of run production through a full season?
Byrd's revival also comes one year after it looked like he was finished as a major league ballplayer, appearing in only 47 games between the Cubs and Red Sox and batting .210 with a .488 OPS, one homer and nine RBI. And oh yes, he also tested positive for PEDs, resulting in a 50-game suspension. So was Byrd's 2013 season a fluke? Does that make him too risky for a two-year investment? Amaro obviously doesn't think so.
The Phillies GM continued to add age to his roster with his second free agent signing of the offseason, bringing back catcher Carlos Ruiz with a three-year, $26 million contract.
Ruiz will be 35 years old when spring training begins in February and has played fewer than 120 games in each of the past two seasons. In 2012, he was out for more than a month due to a partially torn tendon in his left foot. This past season, testing positive for a banned stimulant cost Ruiz a 25-game suspension. He was also sidelined for about a month because of a strained hamstring.
A three-year deal for a 35-year-old catcher looks dubious, to put it kindly. Amaro could have pursued someone like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who's 29 years old, has far less wear and tear on his body and capable of posting better offensive numbers at this stage of his career. Perhaps Saltalamacchia would've cost more per season, but that sort of market hasn't developed for him yet. Even so, he appeared to be a better bet for a three-year investment than Ruiz.
However, the Phillies apparently preferred the catcher with whom they were already familiar. (His popularity among Philadelphia fans may also have been a consideration.) Ruiz's knowledge of the Phillies' current pitching staff — with some young arms that need to develop — was apparently a big reason the team wanted him back. Ruiz allowed 23 passed balls and four wild pitches this past season, indicating that he's still agile behind the plate. He also threw out 25 percent (21-of-84) opposing basestealers, which is quite good considering that Phillies pitchers don't hold runners very well.
If the alternative was trading for the Blue Jays' J.P. Arencibia, perhaps it's understandable why the Phillies brought Ruiz back. Yet it's not re-signing Ruiz that people are questioning. He was one of the top free agent catchers available and a key part of the team for the past seven seasons.
But did Amaro need to sign Ruiz for three years, especially when the catcher couldn't find any other club willing to give him a contract of that length? The Rockies and Red Sox showed interest in Ruiz once free agency began, but neither wanted to go three years with him. (Colorado offered Ruiz a two-year, $15 million deal.) So was it necessary for the Phillies to do so? Their new contract with Ruiz even includes a $4.5 million club option for a fourth year.
What sorts of moves will Amaro make next? Will he continue to skew older, seemingly showing no regard for a lineup that featured only two everyday players under the age of 30?
For example, what might the Phillies do at third base? Amaro already traded for an aging player at that position when he acquired Michael Young. Should we look forward to Philadelphia bringing him or Placido Polanco back? Maybe they can a little bit younger and bring in Eric Chavez. (OK, 23-year-old Cody Asche is probably the favorite for that job. Maybe Maikel Franco, 20, will be in the mix too.)
Last week, there were brief rumors of the Phillies considering a trade built around sending Domonic Brown to the Blue Jays for Jose Bautista. Those rumors have since been debunked, but they initially had some heat because it seemed like the sort of deal Amaro would make. Bautista would certainly further fill the Phillies' need for right-handed hitting, giving the lineup an explosive power threat to bat between Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the middle of the batting order.
However, trading a 25-year-old outfielder for a 33-year-old slugger who's averaged 105 games during the past two seasons because of injuries would have been another questionable move for an aging Phillies team. Maybe it's smart to sell high on Brown, who finally broke out with the sort of season Philadelphia has been projecting for him. But if that's how he's viewed by the front office, wouldn't it be better for Amaro to deal Brown away for some prospects that could replenish a thin minor league system?
This is where Amaro's perception of his team seems to differ from how outsiders see it. The Phillies GM apparently believes that his club can contend in the NL East and wild-card races next year. But can the Phils really hang with the Braves and Nationals in their division? They finished 23 games out of first place and 13 behind the second-place Nats this year. In the wild-card race, Philly finished 17 games back with nine teams ahead in the standings. That's a lot of ground to make up, likely far more than adding a bat or two can cover.
But perhaps Amaro and the Phillies need to show their fanbase that they're still trying to contend and not looking to rebuild. The team drew three million fans to Citizens Bank Park this year, ranking eighth in MLB attendance. Granted, that's a drop from 2012, when Philadelphia led the majors in attendance with 3.5 million fans. Phillies fans likely see what's happening, and the team is afraid of losing even more at the gate. So Amaro needs to make some splashy moves to keep the fanbase interested.
However, splashy doesn't always equal smart. And by continuing to sign older players to expensive long-term deals, Amaro is handcuffing the future of his team. As WIP's Joe Giglio pointed out on Twitter, the Phillies now have nearly $56 million committed to four players — Ruiz, Byrd, Howard and Jonathan Papelbon — in 2015. This year, that figure would put Philadelphia among the bottom-five payrolls in MLB. (That doesn't include the $22.5 million going to Cole Hamels in 2015. But he'll be 31 with at least three years remaining on his contract.) There's not much wiggle room to work with, whether it's for Amaro or whomever succeeds him as Phillies GM.
Think about the future? Not in Philadelphia. At least not with Amaro calling the shots. While he's worried about his present (and near-future) in the Phillies' front office, the team's future looks increasingly bleak.