By now, many of you may have heard the news: former Phillies closer Ryan Madson agreed to terms last night with the Cincinnati Reds – for 1 year and 8.5 million dollars. Many people around baseball are calling this the deal the best of the offseason, and I’d be hard pressed to argue. In my opinion, Madson was the best arm available in an extremely crowded closer market this winter; and that includes the Phils’ new $50 million man, Jonathan Papelbon.
While it’s true that Madson was unlikely to return here on a one year deal similar to the one he got from the Reds, I firmly believe that with the myriad of closing options available this offseason, that the Phillies should have waited for the market to develop. Instead they barreled ahead, signing the biggest name they could find, at an exorbitant cost in a buyer’s market. The next biggest deal for a free agent reliever this winter was for former Padre/Ranger Heath Bell, who signed with the Miami Marlins for 3 years and $27 million with a $9 million option for a fourth year. Aside from my belief that Bell is also a better reliever than Papelbon, even if he vests his option year his total deal will come to a total that is $14 million less than the Phils’ closer. Even though the Marlins went on an outrageous spending spree to sell tickets in their new stadium, they still got a better value than the Phillies.
“So what”, you say, “with 204 consecutive sellouts and counting, who cares what they’re paying the closer? They have plenty of money. Spend whatever it takes to win a(nother) championship.” This line of thinking always slays me. It’s the same thought process that had people griping when the Phils let the Giants “steal” Aaron Rowand with a monster deal a few years back. WIP host Glen Macnow even told me disgustedly “What do you care what he makes?” when I called in to say I was glad the Phils had let him walk for that price.
Yes, the Phillies are making money hand over fist. That doesn’t mean they no longer operate without a budget. The budget has rightfully risen dramatically over the last decade, but it still exists. Even the Yankees have a budget; while it’s higher than everyone else’s, it precluded them from spending big money on a desperately needed starter this winter. Having a budget means allocating the resources at your disposal; while you may have more resources available, they still need to be allocated wisely. So while many think it doesn’t matter that Jonathan Papelbon will make $12.5 million each of the next 4 seasons because the Phillies can afford it, that doesn’t change the fact that they no longer have that $12.5 million to allocate towards other areas of need. It’s no coincidence that Ruben Amaro went shopping in the bargain bin for the likes of Laynce Nix and Ty Wigginton after spending big money on a closer.
But this has been Amaro’s M.O. ever since taking over for Hall of Famer Pat Gillick after the Phillies won the 2008 World Series. He has consistently targeted the biggest names available and been aggressive in acquiring those targets, whether it be through trade or free agency. Amaro’s aggressiveness and willingness to pull the trigger is in stark contrast to former GM Ed Wade; it’s also a reason why the fans love Amaro and mock Wade. However, while some of Amaro’s moves have been unquestionably solid (acquiring the best pitcher in baseball Roy Halladay, acquiring Roy Oswalt to push Phils past Braves in 2010), his team has seen diminishing returns.
So while it’s fun to land every player we want, it was the reviled Wade and “Stand Pat” Gillick, whose biggest “name” move was acquiring Joe Blanton, that built the World Series champions. That team wasn’t built by trading all it’s assets in an all-in trade deadline deal, or landing a big money free agent. The foundation was laid by resisting the urge to trade the Ryan Howards and Chase Utleys coming through the system. It was carefully constructed with subtle moves, such as taking fliers on guys like Jayson Werth and Greg Dobbs, or claiming useful veterans like J.C. Romero and Matt Stairs. Now, instead of being the team that discovers Werth or Shane Victorino (a Rule 5 pick), the Phillies are the team signing or acquiring those players after they’ve established themselves. Instead of refusing to part with potential future stars, they’re handing them out like candy on Halloween.
I understand that most prospects don’t pan out, and that this team is built to win now. But why not maintain a proper balance so the Bank stays full, not just this year, but in the future? Instead of shipping the cream of your farm system for a good, but not great, player (Hunter Pence), why not target a Josh Willingham, a guy that may give you similar production for less cost in both dollars and prospects? Instead of blowing your wad on Jonathan Papelbon, why not take fliers on a couple veteran arms such as Joe Nathan, Matt Capps, and Octavio Dotel, allowing you the resources to pursue another desperately needed bat, such as Aramis Ramirez? This post is long enough so I won’t go into my position that closers are vastly overrated, but remember bullpen arms are notoriously unpredictable, and the Cardinals just won a World Series with bullpen depth, not dominance.
These examples don’t even include the unnecessary Ryan Howard extension that was awful the moment it was signed, or the bizarre trading of Cliff Lee for the worst prospect package any team received in return for Lee, followed by signing Lee off the open market for a higher price anyway.
I don’t think Ruben Amaro Jr is a bad GM. I love his aggressiveness and commitment to winning another World Series. I just wonder if he’s good enough to actually pull it off.