June 29, 2015
On Monday, the Phillies announced that veteran baseball executive Andy MacPhail will become president of the team following the conclusion of the 2015 season. In the meantime, he'll serve as a special assistant to the man he will succeed as president, Pat Gillick.
The hiring of MacPhail didn't come as much of a surprise, but the decision not to have him take over until after the season is a curious one for several reasons, least of which is the fate of general manager Ruben Amaro, who is in the final year of his contract.
“[Amaro's] going to be the general manager throughout the end of the season,”Gillick flatly told reporters.
What happens after that remains a mystery.
The team has several veteran players -- Cole Hamels, Jonathan Papelbon, pretty much anyone not named Franco -- that will be made available at the trade deadline, and it's interesting that ownership would rather have a lame-duck GM making those decisions than MacPhail, even if he has been away from the game for a few years.
Unless, of course, Amaro won't be the one making those decisions, despite the fact that his job description gives him that responsibility.
When asked specifically about how the decision-making process would go moving forward, Gillick had the following to say (via Jim Salisbury of CSN Philly):
“When it ultimately comes down to it, I’m going to make the call,” Gillick said. “I’m going to make the call on the deal. But usually, I don’t make that deal. Usually, that call is the general manager’s call. Andy and I are the presidents. The general manager will make recommendations to us on a trade and really it’s the general manager’s decision on movement of player personnel.”
MacPhail said he would observe the process and offer his opinions.
“Ruben is going to seek Andy’s opinion,” Gillick said. “But as far as making the ultimate decision, that lies with Ruben.”
But Gillick still has to sign off on it. [csnphilly.com]
So what is a GM to do when his decision-making power has been all but taken away a month before the trade deadline, when things are typically at their busiest?
Amaro could take the easy way out and resign, like former manager Ryne Sandberg did abruptly on Friday. He could wash his hands of all the bad moves made during his seven-year tenure. He could simply go away, begin looking for a new club with an opening in the front office.
At this point, that doesn't seem likely.
Amaro could take the rest of the summer off. Not physically -- he'd probably have to show his face every so often in order to keep getting paid -- but mentally. Knowing he likely won't be offered a new contract before his current one expires this fall, he could take a defeatist approach. He could simply throw his hands up and say, "What do I care? I'm not going to be here next year, so let someone else clean up this mess."
That scenario also seems unlikely.
But there is a third option, a more noble option. Amaro could just put his head down, tune out the noise and get back to work, perhaps with a newfound purpose -- even if that purpose is completely derived from fear. That's the path we all like to think we would take if we found ourselves in a similar situation to the one in which the 50-year-old GM now finds himself.
It also happens to be the only way -- as unlikely as it seems, there may still be a way -- for Amaro to keep his job.
"And as far as my status is concerned, I just need to go out and do my job and have our baseball department that I have a lot of confidence in to continue to do that,” Amaro said.
MacPhail said that he will spend the rest of the season "learning"* about the organization before making any big changes, leaving a glimmer of hope, a life-raft of sorts, for a drowning Amaro.
"I think it's way, way too premature to talk about personnel decisions," MacPhail said during his introductory press conference. "I'm not one of those guys who has to know all the people around me. And I don't have the track record that four people get fired as soon as I get hired. But then again, they're case-by-case decisions. Once you figure out the path the team needs to take to get to where you want to be, then you can make sure you have the right guy to do the job."
Whether or not Amaro is the right guy for the job depends on the answers to the following questions:
Those two things, more than anything, will determine the immediate future of the organization and, more specifically, what role, if any, Amaro will play in that future.
The answer to Question 1 could somewhat depend on the answer to Question 2.
But if Amaro is smart -- business smart, not baseball smart -- he will do everything he can to make sure it works the other way around. The moves he makes going forward need to be ones that would fall in line with MacPhail's overall baseball philosophy, whatever that turns out to be.
Although he seemed unfazed by the uncertainty of his future with the Phillies, Amaro definitely understands the precarious position in which he's been placed.
“I believe in being a Philadelphia Phillie for my life,” Amaro told reporters. “I've bled Phillies red for a long, long time. My goal is to work with Andy and Pat and to get our organization back to the level that it's been. I've been part of a rebuild in the past, as an assistant GM. I've been part of building a championship-caliber club. And I am looking forward to trying to do what I can to do that and continue to do that.
"I can't worry about what decisions Andy and Pat are going to be making as far as my personal status is concerned. My goal is to try to get us back to where we need to be. And as far as my status is concerned, I just need to go out and do my job and have our baseball department that I have a lot of confidence in to continue to do that.”
Amaro will need to do quite a bit more than maintain the status quo; the work he's done to this point has resulted in the complete dismantling of a team that won the World Series the year before he took over.
It's ugly. Really, really ugly. And all of that makes the idea of Amaro keeping his job seem laughable, yet the team feels confident enough with him going forward that it will allow him to be the face of franchise when the rival GMs call about acquiring Hamels or Papelbon or any of the other players the team plans to deal in the next month.
Is it's that big of a jump to imagine a scenario in which Amaro returns next season? Perhaps. But by not giving a definitive answer one way or the other -- no one really expected that they would -- there's still a chance, albeit a slim one, that Amaro could get a new deal and be back in the same role next season.
It won't be easy, and will require some serious work on Amaro's end -- at least the parts of it he can control -- but here are four things he can do over the next three months in an effort* to keep his job.
*Remember, this would in no way guarantee a new contract for Amaro. In this writer's opinion, nothing short of a miracle -- something on the level of the Cliff Lee #MysteryTeam signing -- will save the GM's job.
Or as I like to call it, The Blueprint...
Amaro could start winning MacPhail's support almost immediately by getting top-tier prospects at the deadline. He has the assets to deal, but would need to haul in a hell of a crop of young talent in the next month. No matter what "path" MacPhail decides is the best for the Phillies, it likely starts with ridding the team of aging players who carry cumbersome contracts.
If, for example, Amaro is able to find someone willing to take Ryan Howard (and a chunk of $25 million* he is guaranteed next season) off the Phillies' hands, even if the return isn't great, it will at least show that he understands what the future looks like and how to get this franchise there.
More importantly, he'll need to absolutely crush the Hamels trade. There have been various reports that the Phillies' asking price has been too steep, and it's likely that Amaro will continue to ask for top prospects in return for the 31-year-old lefty. The problem now becomes that others around the league are aware of his predicament, and they could use that against him at the bargaining table. It's never good to be negotiating from a position of weakness, and even worse when those you hope to best know it.
Needless to say, this step won't be easy -- none of them really are. But if he botches this one, he mind as well pack up his things and head to the shore while he still has some summer left.
He has already proven that he can sign big-name players, a la Cliff Lee, but what Amaro has a chance to do now is prove a skill even more valuable to a team in a rebuild: find value in unexpected places.
If Amaro is able to move guys like Aaron Harang and Jeff Francoeur, low-risk free agents he signed this past winter, and get high-upside prospects in return, it will show that he has the ability to better his team through free agency ... without breaking the bank.
That has to count for something, right?
And don't be afraid to call up some prospects. If Maikel Franco has taught us anything since his full-time promotion last month, it's that the Phillies sometimes get it right.
This is what Amaro had to say during 2012 spring training about the idea of using advanced stats and analytics to evaluate talent:
"There are times when I think maybe we should use it some more, but, frankly, I have a great deal of confidence in the people that we have hired to help us make some of the scouting and personnel decisions. I err on that side probably because I believe in our people." [...]
"I believe you can break down and analyze statistics any way you really want, but when it comes to scouting heart and head, you can't do it with sabermetrics," the general manager said. "In our current situation, I feel like talent and production is very important, but I want a player who has a championship-caliber outlook on how to go about his business." [...]
"It's just too difficult to really project what the numbers will say," Amaro said. "I lived it myself. I was a great minor-league player but a terrible major-league player. If you looked at my OPS and my on-base percentage, it was ridiculous. But I wasn't a good major-league player because I couldn't hit a breaking ball. That's something that the scout will find out and see and then you can exploit that area on a guy." [philly.com]
The Phillies haven't done much to embrace analytics since then, ranking dead last (out of 122 professional sports teams) in ESPN's list of which franchises best use advanced stats.
That all changed on Monday, as part owner John Middleton announced that the Phillies have been working on building their own SABR system, which should be ready this fall.
Then MacPhail spoke at length about the ways in which he believes sabermetrics can be beneficial to a team:
"I can assure you, as you probably already know, sabermetrics is something of intense interest to ownership," he said. "When it comes to that sort of thing, I believe you look at everything, absolutely everything. Why would you exclude any information? You're gonna try to do every piece of homework you can to push the odds of being successful in your favor — every stat, every formula.
"I am hardly the guy that is a sabermetric genius, so you go out and hire people. You have the young kids come in an explain to you why it's important and then you make the judgment how much weight you're going to put on it. And the more experience you have with it, the more sense you have of which formulas really are predictors of performance and which ones aren't."
That's already a far cry from what the Phillies have been saying in recent years. And then MacPhail went on to say something that makes a lot of sense, something that has been missing from the Human vs. Computer debate: neither side is perfect, but if you combine both types of analysis, you get close.
"I think it's absolutely essential that you marry [sabermetrics] with the best human intelligence you can," he said. "Bodies change, weaknesses get exposed and then they get exploited. People make adjustments. Maybe they can hit a curveball that they couldn't a year ago. You need to look at every single facet when you're making player evaluations. No stone goes unturned."
Amaro may not have enough time to learn all the intricacies of SABR between now and the end of the season, but it wouldn't hurt if his new boss saw him carrying around a copy of Money Ball.
There is an important relationship between the baseball and business sides of the organization. In their most basic and simple form, they are dependent on one another; a winning team generates more attendance, more attendance increases revenue, more revenue means more to spend on players (and facilities), more to spend (usually) helps you land better players, better players tend win more games, repeat.
And in the center of that cycle is the fan, without which teams wouldn't be able to ink lucrative TV deals worth billions.
Amaro had one of his worst public moments earlier this season when he said the following about the fans' desire to see young players -- Aaron Nola in this instance -- brought up through the farm system more quickly:
“They don’t understand the game. They don’t understand the process. There’s a process. And then they bitch and complain because we don’t have a plan. There’s a plan in place and we’re sticking with the plan. We can’t do what’s best for the fan. We have to do what’s best for the organization so the fan can reap the benefit of it later on. That’s the truth.”
Amaro went on to apologize for saying that. It would be wise for him to avoid such slip ups in the future. After all, his new (future?) boss has the trump card.
Imagine how much fan loyalty MacPhail would buy himself if his first move as president of the team was to fire Amaro?
Perhaps that's the real reason Ruben hasn't been fired yet. It would be an exquisitely shrewd, even if transparent, move. Let the season play out -- it's not going to end well regardless of what Amaro does in the next month -- and then have your new leader immediately fire the man responsible. It would be the sports equivalent to parading through the streets while dragging the body an overthrown ruler from your horse.
Or maybe it's because Gillick and David Montgomery, the man he's filling in for, feel a loyalty to Amaro and prefer passively allowing his contract to expire over publicly firing him.
Maybe there's no plan at all. Maybe the Phillies are giving him one final shot to audition for his own job, an up-close look at the GM in action for the new boss, and they'll make a decision at the end of the year.
Any way you break it down, all signs point to this being the twilight of the Amaro era. I know it. You know it. Pretty much everyone knows it.
The only person who doesn't seems to be Amaro. That's because no matter how much of a foregone conclusion it appears to be, he is still -- at least for now -- the general manager of the Phillies.
If he hopes to keep that job beyond this year, he'll have to do more than just follow The Blueprint; he'll also have to pray.