Commentary

MLB's 'Big Two' have company: Philly

GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has the franchise positioned to stay with the Yankees and Red Sox

Originally Published: September 22, 2010
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

As it stands right now, Ruben Amaro Jr. could be the man who's responsible for both ruining and then saving the Phillies' 2010 season -- a mixed review that makes Philadelphia's second-year general manager look … well, what? Brilliant? Or crazy?

Big enough to admit a mistake or lucky enough to have the resources to fix the error? Ingenious enough to pull off baseball's three biggest trades in the past year, landing pitching aces Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay and Roy Oswalt? Or foolish enough to author the game's most head-scratching deal, too: trading Lee away in a December shocker on the same day he was prying Halladay out of Toronto>

[+] EnlargeRuben Amaro Jr.
AP Photo/ Joseph KaczmarekThe way Ruben Amaro Jr. handles the Phillies roster might be risky business, but it works.

All Lee did was go 4-0 with a 1.46 ERA for the Phillies in the '09 playoffs, winning the only two games the defending champions took in their six-game World Series loss to the Yankees. The Phillies players were so excited when their rookie GM landed Lee at the trade deadline last season that they gave Amaro a standing ovation when he entered the clubhouse the next day.

"Aw, that was embarrassing," Amaro says.

In Lee, Halladay and Cole Hamels, the Phillies could have had the scariest rotation the National League has seen since Atlanta could run out Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. But Amaro flipped Lee to Seattle for three prospects. As that Great Main Line poet Allen Iverson himself might say, That's right, people. We're talkin' about prospects!

Beefing up the farm system while you're striving for your third trip to the World Series in three years would be a hard sell anywhere. But it was an especially tough sell in Philadelphia, where the Phillies always carry the psychological baggage of their infamous '64 collapse along with the knowledge that they've lost more games than any franchise in baseball history. When current manager Charlie Manuel took over the team in 2004, he told the front office it had to do something to lift the oppressive cloud hovering over the club -- and Manuel grew up in hardscrabble Appalachia, for cripe's sakes.

Amaro knew all that. His father is Ruben Amaro Sr., who played on that '64 Phillies team. Ruben Jr. later worked as a bat boy for the Phillies and finished his own big league career in Philadelphia before moving into the front office in 2003. He knows that booing and pessimism are local traditions.

But since moving into Citizens Bank Park and starting to win, the Phillies also have the financial wherewithal now to not only barge their way into the same World Series-or-bust penthouse the Yankees and Red Sox have occupied for forever but to stay there, too. And that's Amaro's goal. "Sustainable success," he calls it.

The Phillies have been raking in rising TV and advertising revenues. They've played before 119 straight sellout home crowds heading into Wednesday night's series finale against Atlanta; they won the first two games of the showdown to stretch their NL East lead to five games, marking a 12-game swing since Amaro won a three-team sweepstakes and traded for Oswalt in July.

Amaro's motto since becoming GM could be described this way: Have muscle, will use it.

Especially if a little thing like risk is the only thing standing in his way.

Amaro says, "We just try to make sure they're calculated risks. After that? You just have to realize you are going to make mistakes in this job sometimes."

Was trading Lee a mistake?

[+] EnlargeRuben Amaro Jr. and Roy Halladay
Drew Hallowell/Getty ImagesIn one fell swoop in December, Amaro signed Roy Halladay and traded Cliff Lee. Could he see Roy Oswalt out there on the horizon back then?

"I believe what I've said since is it was 'questionable,'" Amaro says with a laugh.

For all his bravura dealing, Amaro doesn't come off as freewheeling in conversation. He talks more like your typical big league ballplayer who never gloats because he knows the game will humble everyone sooner or later.

He's a Stanford grad, too, and he cobbled together his philosophy on how to run a team while learning for three years at the knee of rent-a-genius Pat Gillick, taking over when Gillick left the GM job after the Phillies won the 2008 World Series. Amaro worked seven years before that for Ed Wade, the former Phillies GM who drafted current stars Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Hamels.

Now that Amaro, 45, is running his own show, he has this ambitious idea that you really can have it all, that you can have a great farm system and a team that contends for a World Series every year. You can have a reputation for being fiscally responsible and have a $140 million payroll that ranks in the top three or four in baseball. You can watch your peers rush by in a thundering herd to embrace the latest "Moneyball" sabermetrics or algorithm of the moment and use some of that but also say, "If we're going to err on one side or the other, we're more scout-oriented."

"Stats continue to be important," he says, "but I think people are starting to drift back to real old-time scouting. Here, we believe in scouting heart and head and using our eyes and ears and baseball sense to analyze players. Maybe more than most."

Amaro also believes the Phillies can be big-game hunters when it comes to free-agent signings or trades, yet "do deals on our terms."

That's really what the Lee, Halladay and Oswalt acquisitions were about for Amaro.

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
AP Photo/Matt SlocumCliff Lee was unbeatable for the Phillies in the playoffs and World Series last year. If all the pieces fall into place, he could pitch against them in this year's Series.

Amaro says he was "very uncomfortable" that the Phillies would be able to re-sign Lee at a palatable price when the left-hander's contract expires after this season, which would have left them again searching for an ace to pair with Hamels. So he went out and won a pitched, weeks-long competition for Halladay -- a better pitcher, even by Lee's admission. Amaro got him for the same price this season as Lee is being paid because Toronto is accounting for $6 million of Halladay's $15.85 million salary. The bonus is that Halladay signed a three-year, $60 million extension, so the Phils have him under control through 2013.

Amaro says the three prospects he got for Lee restocked a farm system that had lost seven of its top-10-rated players in the past two years.

Of course, those prospects might never develop. And Amaro couldn't have known for sure that he could land Oswalt when he traded Lee.

But so far, it's working. The Phillies are again the team to beat in the National League. They ride a nine-game winning streak into Wednesday night. They also have the league's best record (35-14) since the All-Star break, and they are 17-3 in September.

Whoever plays the Phillies in the playoffs is going to have to beat the three-ace gauntlet of Halladay, Oswalt and Hamels. If the Phillies win the pennant again and face the playoff-bound Texas Rangers in the World Series, they'll have a reunion with Lee -- who ended up in Texas after being traded at the deadline yet again, by Seattle.

If that happens, Amaro will be loudly reminded -- again -- that he's the GM who both nearly ruined and then saved the Phillies' season.

But when you're living on the edge the way he is, you're comfortable with that.

"Do your best, then try not to look back," he says.

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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