Ruben Amaro Should Embrace Being Unpopular

The Phillies acted exactly the way Philadelphia wanted them to and look where it got us.

Last week’s trades of Shane Victorino, Hunter Pence and Joe Blanton had the distinct feel of an end of an era for the Phillies. Not only do Victorino and Blanton’s departures reduce the number of remaining players from the 2008 team to just five, but it was the Phils’ first time selling at the trade deadline since 2006.

That we’ve gotten to this point is sort of ironic. For years and years, including Ed Wade’s entire 1998-2005 tenure as general manager, Phillies fans demanded that the team spend more money, be more aggressive, and “do something” at the trade deadline each year, and were inevitably disappointed when the team failed to heed their advice.

In the Ruben Amaro era, the Phils have gone unbelievably far in the opposite direction. Just about everything fans wanted the team to do in the Wade era—and indeed, what fans of most teams want all the time—the Phillies have spent the last five years doing. They’ve spent money, they’ve always gone out and gotten the best player available and made the biggest splash in either the off-season or at the trade deadline. They haven’t been afraid to trade “untouchable” prospects, go over their stated budgets or break previous team guidelines on lengths of contracts for pitchers.

Just about all of those moves have been met with thunderous applause by the fans at the time they were made, and have resulted in sustained winning, as well as  five years of sellout crowds—until this week, that is.

Unfortunately, the bill has now come due.

A half-decade of running their team this way has resulted in an expensive, aging roster in which nearly every key Phillie is either on the downside of his career or approaching it. The Phillies have nine figures in salary committed to just a few players for 2013 and even worse, they have just about no reinforcements on the way.

The team would be in much better shape now if they had guys they could call up from the minors to play third base or center field or pitch out of the bullpen, make the rookie minimum salary while doing so, and give the team some hope for the future.

While doing all the things that give the fans instant gratification, the Phils have either ignored or failed at the sorts of things fans may not necessarily notice from day to day but are nevertheless important, especially player development and international scouting. The team also never seems to target and grab unheralded guys from other clubs—when they’ve made a trade, it’s been for the biggest superstar they could get.

I have no idea if Ruben Amaro listens to the sports radio talk shows or reads the blogs, or whether pleasing the fans is a major factor, or any factor at all, in his decision-making. I’m impressed with some of the moves he’s pulled off, the trade for Roy Halladay especially, and he did put together the club that had the best record in baseball just last year. No, I’m not calling for him to be fired.

But a GM shouldn’t be afraid to make unpopular moves with an eye toward the long term. Until this year, just about the only unpopular move Amaro has made was the trade of Cliff Lee in November of ’09, and he caught so much hell for that one that he undid it a year later.

There was something in between the Wade years and the Amaro era, both philosophically and chronologically: Pat Gillick’s tenure, which of course included the end of the team’s post-season drought in 2007 and the championship that followed the next year.

Think about that 2008 team—Howard, Utley and Hamels were young, homegrown players. The team had stuck with mainstays like Brett Myers and Pat Burrell, swung a gutsy trade for Brad Lidge and had players like Jayson Werth and Carlos Ruiz seemingly fall out of the sky and become key contributors. That team had no big-money free agents and the only veteran July deadline trade acquisition of any consequence was … Joe Blanton.

Look at Victorino: He was a Rule 5 draft pick from the Dodgers in 2004, was never a top prospect, and on the day he was acquired probably one percent of Phillies fans had ever heard of him. But he ended up being a regular for six years, a two-time All-Star, a starting player on a World Series-winning team and a significant fan favorite.

There’s more than one way to build a championship team. But the next time the Phillies have one, it probably won’t consist of many of the players on this year’s team, and it probably won’t have been built the way the 2012 Phils were, either.