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Hey, Rube: Phillies pay dearly for Amaro’s misguided loyalty

Jul 30, 2014, 11:07 AM EDT

Some years ago, I named particularly terrible baseball contracts “Ricciardis” after former Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, who seemed particularly skilled at giving them out. However, in retrospect, I may have been unduly harsh toward Ricciardi. What Ruben Amaro has done in Philadelphia deserves its own place in the Bad Contract Hall of Fame.

Now, let’s make one thing clear: EVERY long, break-the-bank contract is terrible. Every single one.  Well, the 10-year Derek Jeter contract signed back in 2001 worked out well. So every generation or so there will be an exception.

But of the 10 richest contract going in baseball today, the only ones that don’t already look like a complete disasters are the ones that have not had the TIME to become complete disasters. They have either just started or, improbably, will not start for a couple more years.

Don’t believe me: Look.

1. Alex Rodriguez — $275 million from 2008-17

– Disaster doesn’t begin to cover it.

2. Miguel Cabrera — $248 million from 2016-23

– This time bomb is the one that doesn’t start for two years.

3. Albert Pujols — $240 million from 2012-21

– Ugh, there are still SEVEN YEARS on this after this season?

4. Robinson Cano — $240 million from 2014-23

– Fine player. Power already down. Nine more years to go.

[MORE: Phillies set high trade price for Hamels  |  Byrd nurses foot injury]

5. Joey Votto — $225 million from 2014-23

– There are not many bigger Votto fans out there than me but, um, yeah 44 homers the last three years, fall-off-the-cliff decline this year, injuries, and nine more years. The panic button isn’t far away.

6. Clayton Kershaw, $215 million, 2014-20

– Just beginning. He’s the modern day Koufax, and he’s much younger (26) than most beginning these huge contracts. Then, it might be worth remembering that Koufax retired at 30. Always scary with pitchers (see Verlander, Justin).

7. Prince Fielder, $214 million, 2012-20

– Um … help?

8. Joe Mauer, $184 million, 2011-18

– Began the contract as a Gold Glove catcher who won three batting titles and began showing signs of power. Now, he’s an oft-injured first baseman with two home runs. This game does not respect its elders.

9. Mark Teixeira, $180 million (2009-16)

– Well, there are only two years left.

10. Justin Verlander, $180 million (2013-19)

– This one looked like one of the safer bets; Verlander was widely viewed as the best right-handed pitcher in baseball. But then, almost overnight, he lost a bunch off his fastball and lost the feel for his change-up and suddenly this looks like a very, very long deal.

The only deals on that list you would even CONSIDER taking on now are the Kershaw deal, which just started, maybe the Cano deal, which just started, and the Miggy deal, which doesn’t begin for two years. Those haven’t gone kaboom yet. I’m pretty sure in two years or three years, all of these deals (with the possible exception of Kershaw) will already have revealed themselves are fiascos.

You will note that none of these deals are Phillies deals … Amaro’s fiascos are more subtle.

In 2007 and ’08, the Phillies reached the playoffs in large part because the New York Mets collapsed down the stretch. The ’07 collapse is more famous — the Mets blew a seven game lead with 17 games to play — but 2008 wasn’t far off. The Mets had a 3 1/2-game lead with 17 games to play, won just seven of those last 17, and a hot Phillies team breezed by. That Phillies team was so hot, it went on to win the World Series.

The 2009 Phillies led the league in runs and went back to the World Series, where they lost to the Yankees. The 2010 Phillies added Roy Halladay and won 97 games. The 2011 Phillies were the probably the best of the bunch, a 102-game winner with an awe-inspiring rotation of Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. They got knocked out in the playoffs, largely because their once-potent lineup couldn’t score in the end.

Still, that’s a five-year span of goodness — a little luck, some big hitting, some great pitching. That was a superb baseball team. And it was a fun baseball renaissance in Philadelphia. A huge amount of credit for this must to go Amaro. He was involved as an assistant GM to Ed Wade and Pat Gillick when the team was being built. Then he became GM and he wheeled, he dealed, he signed, he gambled, he borrowed from the future to live in the moment. And, as happens so often, he was utterly unprepared for when the check came due.

The best comparison for this I can give involves the Kansas City Chiefs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. That really was a great team. Between 1966 and ’71, the Chiefs played in two Super Bowls and won one of them. They were probably the best team in 1971, too, but they were knocked out of the playoffs on Christmas Day by Don Shula’s Dolphins in one of the greatest games ever played. That was a team loaded with Hall of Famers and various other greats — Len Dawson, Buck Buchanan, Wilie Lanier, Bobby Bell, Emmitt Thomas, Otis Taylor, Jan Stenerud and so on — and coached by a Hall of Famer, Hank Stram.

And Stram wanted to, in those defining words of John Keats or John Cougar Mellencamp (can’t remember which): Hold on to 16 as long as he could. He was deeply loyal to that core group of players. Loyalty can be a wonderful trait. Unfortunately, in sports and in “Game of Thrones,” loyalty can be crushing. In the end, the Chiefs seemed to instantly age like the guy who drank from the wrong goblet in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” Hank Stram got booted, the Chiefs went into a death spin that was so bad there was even some talk of moving the Chiefs out of Kansas City.

Nobody’s moving the Phillies — they have to be the most depressing team in baseball right now, but they’re still on pace to draw 2 or 2.5 million people. Philadelphia is a good baseball town. Still, this isn’t good. The Phillies are awful. And the Phillies are so overloaded with bad contracts that it’s hard to see how exactly they will stop being awful anytime soon.

[CSN Philly: Hamels thrives despite rampant trade rumors  |  Sandberg praises lefty ace]

Here, according to the invaluable Cot’s Baseball Contracts page, are the players ALREADY on the Phillies 2015 payroll. We’ll deal with them individually in a moment.

  • Ryan Howard: $25 million (again in 2016, $10 million buyout in 2017)
  • Cliff Lee: $25 million (and 27.5 million or $12.5 million buyout in 2016)
  • Cole Hamels: $22.5 million (and three more years, plus $20 million club option or $6 million buyout in 2019)
  • Jonathan Papelbon: $13 million (and $13 million vesting option)
  • A.J. Burnett: $15 million mutual option or $7.5 million player option
  • Chase Utley: $10 million (plus $15 million vesting options in 2016-18)
  • Carlos Ruiz: $8.5 million (again in 2016, plus club option in 2017)
  • Marlon Byrd: $8 million
  • Miguel Gonzalez: $3.7 million
  • That is about $128 million, if you are scoring at home, and it is for nine players. Six of the nine will be older than 35. Two are in their early 30s. The only one younger than 30 is Gonzalez, and he’s a reliever in Class AA.

The Howard contract was the one that should have snapped Amaro out of whatever loyalty spell he was under. The second he offered that catastrophe of a deal, baseball writers all over the country wrote in all capital letters: “ARE THE PHILLIES OUT OF THEIR MINDS?” There was no other question.

This was way back in 2010, and it was utterly inexplicable — a $125 million deal that would not even begin for two years for a declining slugger? I believe it is the most inexplicable bad contract ever handed out. Sure, you could argue for other terrible that were more expensive and harmful — this Pujols deal could end up setting the standard — and there have been many smaller deals that are hard to explain, like the Twins giving Ricky Nolasco a four-year, $50 million deal.

But combine the situation (Howard still had TWO YEARS left on his deal), the age (he turned 32 before the contract even began) and an honest assessment of the player (a power hitter who couldn’t run, was a liability at first base, couldn’t hit lefties and was unlikely to age well) and I think you are talking about the most inexcusably bad contract in baseball history.

Then again … it was a loyalty contract. Howard was such an integral part of the Phillies rise, such an unexpected joy when, in his first full year, he hit 58 homers and led the league with 383 total bases. The Phillies wanted to keep him as a Philadelphia sports hero. Noble cause. It blinded them to the obvious: Howard’s best days were behind him.

Lee and Hamels are the leftovers from Amaro’s chase for a legendary pitching staff … that dream lasted just one year. That really was magical in 2011 when Halladay (2nd), Lee (3rd) and Hamels (5th) all finished Top 5 in the Cy Young voting.

In 2012, Halladay got hurt and lost his groove. Lee and Hamels pitched well enough to make the Phillies a .500 team but that was all they could really do. Last year, Lee again pitched well, Hamels struggled early and then pitched very well his last 16 starts of the season. Anyway, the remnants of that dream pitching staff finished 14th in the National League in runs allowed and the team was lousy.

This year, the Phillies are desperately trying to dump Lee, who is 35 and has made only 12 starts. And they even talk about trading Hamels, though, according to Jon Heyman’s sources, they “want the world.” I’m not sure who is giving “the world” for a soon-to-be 31-year-old pitcher with $100 million left on his contract even if he is pitching very well this year.

Papelbon? That never made sense. He has pitched well as far as that goes, but there’s little more depressing or superfluous than an expensive closer on a bad team. The Burnett signing was pure desperation and it was destined for regret as soon as the ink dried.

And so on. Ruiz is a solid catcher who has had trouble staying healthy, Utley is a once-great player who is still at it after horrible injuries, Byrd is a traveling bat who can fill a spot in the lineup. All three have some value. To have $27 million invested in them is a lesson in money mismanagement. Then again, take all nine of these player together and they make almost $50 million more dollars than the entire Oakland Athletics roster — this without a shortstop, center fielder, third baseman, lead-off hitter or much of anything else.

Amaro wanted to hold on. It’s a natural instinct. And it’s a destructive one. It never fails to amaze how obtuse Major League general managers can be about things seemingly as obvious as aging.  Now, the Phillies are terrible, they are old, they have not developed a useful young player for themselves in about a decade, and Baseball America has ranked their minor league system 22nd, 23rd and 27th the last three years.

Rumors linger that they are prepared to do drastic things, like release Ryan Howard with $60 million left on the bill if they can’t trade him (which, I suspect, they can’t). Well, desperate measures might be the only hope. I could be wrong, but I can’t see anyone giving up real prospects for Hamels unless the Phillies eat a huge part of that salary. Beyond that, there really aren’t many moves left on the board. This is one of the harsh truth of baseball. It’s very hard to build a winner. It’s even harder to build a second winner after your first one grows old.

 

 

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