Some baseball teams are disappointing by strange twists of fate. Some are disappointing by design. Not because they’re designed to perform poorly (although that happens, too), but because they’re given expectations contrary to reality, and when reality diverges from expectations, they continue to cling to the expectations.
The 2013 Phillies are a team modestly below .500. Given a preseason forecast of a basically .500 team, this shouldn’t be a terrible shock—baseball is a game filled with randomness, after all. But to view the Phillies as a real disappointment requires you to compare them to their run of excellence from 2007 through 2011, rather than the team they are now. General manager Ruben Amaro’s expectations, then, seem weirdly out of date, in more ways than one. When asked about the player who will most likely define Amaro’s career as a GM, he responded succinctly:
"If Ryan Howard is now relegated to being a platoon player, he's a very expensive platoon player and he needs to be better," Amaro said. "I think he knows it. I know he's struggling, I know he's not happy with his performance—neither are we. I think he's going to be better, but right now, he's just not doing the job."
It’s always wise to be cautious with how one interprets statements from front office personnel. Their job is not to be brutally honest with the media, but to win baseball games. And sometimes that means you put your relationship with a player ahead of being totally forthright with the media.
So let’s concede that Amaro’s private views may not be entirely these. We have no way of knowing for sure. The views expressed here are troubling, though, not just for what they say about how Amaro still views Howard, but for what they say about how Amaro views Amaro.
The issue here really isn’t platoon splits; as Steven Goldman points out, Howard has always had large platoon splits. The issue really isn’t his declining production overall—that’s what most if not all hitters do as they age. And it’s not even the boat anchor of a contract Howard was signed to two years in advance of any actual need to sign him to a new contract. (Although that’s a hell of a list of things to not be the issue.) Ryan Howard is what he is, and his contract is what it is.
The real issue is that Amaro seems to be unwilling to concede the reality of the situation. Amaro signed Howard to a deal based on Amaro’s future expectation of Howard’s value. And even with the benefit of regular old sight, much less hindsight, that expectation was woefully incongruous with the reality of Ryan Howard. But that mistake is in the past. The real issue is that Amaro says Howard “needs to be better,” rather than considering that Amaro needs to do things to cope with the fact that he isn’t and won’t be.
This isn’t an isolated incident, either. When asked last year about his team:
Asked last week what grade he would give Manuel for the 2012 debacle, Amaro replied, "Incomplete."
Amaro's logic: Missing Ryan Howard and Chase Utley for the first 3 months, combined with Roy Halladay's 6-week shoulder vacation, means the team's performance cannot accurately be judged. Not until all of Charlie's "horses" — Amaro's word — return.
Presumably, at full strength.
In a 15-minute question-and-answer session with reporters, Amaro said that he still does not know what to expect out of the roster he has built, that it deserves a grade of "incomplete" because of the absences of some of his key players, from catcher Carlos Ruiz, who could return from a hamstring injury as soon as Tuesday, to second baseman Chase Utley, who could be back from an oblique strain before the end of the week, to starter Roy Halladay, who is hoping to return from shoulder surgery at some point in the final two months of the season. But Amaro might be in the minority in his assessment. Over the last week, starting pitchers Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels have both vented some frustration into the public sphere, and on Monday Charlie Manuel suggested that the Phillies might actually be overachieving given the talent level of the players who have seen regular playing time.
When asked about the divergence between the way things have gone and the way he expected them to go, Amaro seems to continually lay the blame on reality, rather than his own planning. If for two seasons your mid-season lament is about the same players not being on the field, you have not been beset by injuries, you have been beset by unreasonable expectations for your players and inadequate planning for backups for them.
So the Phillies have an aging core, and some contracts that handcuff them. It’s a tough spot to be in, to be sure. And 2013 is littered with teams who went all in over the offseason only to have results far underwhelm expectations. But staying the course and hoping that the shores will move themselves into the path of the currents you’re in is lunacy.
Ryan Howard and his money and his platoon splits are a sunk cost. Playing him against tough lefties and building your team and lineup around the idea that Howard is going to return to form is going to the ATM in the casino so you can win back the money you lost at the slot machines.
The Phillies are going to be stuck with Amaro’s biggest mistakes for the near future. What’s worse is that they’re going to be stuck with a general manager who hasn’t learned from his mistakes, and seems not to realize that they’re mistakes at all. Teams have survived bigger mistakes than the contract given to Ryan Howard. But the Phillies may well not survive the sort of man who makes them.