Ruben Amaro Jr. is in the minority, and that goes beyond his Latin American heritage. The new Phillies‘ general manager is one of just three former major league players to currently hold that position in baseball. The others are the White Sox‘s Ken Williams and the Athletics‘ Billy Beane.
It was once common for former players to be GMs, as talent evaluation skills were what owners looked for when hiring someone to oversee baseball operations, but with the financial component of the game becoming more important each year and statistical evaluation of players now the norm, the modern-day GM tends to be someone who has a business background. Furthermore, few current players aspire to becoming GMs; the all-encompassing job consists of long hours with little time off, and most GMs make less money than the majority of players on their roster.
Amaro admits that he didn’t give any consideration to being a GM during his eight-year career as a reserve outfielder with the Angels (1991), Phillies (1992-93, 1996-98), and Indians (1994-95). “I tried to extend my playing career as long as I could, because I loved the game and really enjoyed playing,” Amaro said. “When it became apparent I didn’t have much longer as a player, I started thinking about staying in the game, but it was always as a coach or a manager. Being a GM is just not something I thought about. Sometimes though, things have a funny way of working out.”
During spring training of 1998, Phillies GM Ed Wade asked Amaro if he would like to become an assistant GM at season’s end. Amaro had played baseball at Stanford while earning a degree in human biology from the prestigious university. Wade felt that he was the perfect player to transition into a front-office job. “Ed and I talked one day in spring training, and he told me he had not worked with an assistant and asked if I would be interested in being an assistant,” Amaro recalled. “My jaw had to drop to the floor. It totally caught me off guard, I never expected anything like that. I wanted to keep playing, but I had a bad year and Ed and I talked quite a bit that season about what my responsibilities would be if I decided to retire and take the job. I talked to my family and we decided it was the best route to go, because a door like that wasn’t going to be open very long. Accepting Ed’s offer and deciding to attend Stanford are the two best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Amaro was retained by the organization when Pat Gillick replaced Wade prior to the 2005 season. The 71-year-old Gillick stepped down when his three-year contract expired at the end of last season, which happened to coincide with the Phillies’ first World Series title since 1980, and just the second in their 126-year history. President Dave Montgomery promoted Amaro to the GM job five days after the Phillies’ victory over the Reds, choosing him over Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies’ other assistant GM.
“The most difficult part is I have such a tough act to follow, because Pat Gillick is one of the greatest GMs in the history of the game,” said Amaro, mindful that Gillick had spent 32 years in that role with the Blue Jays, Orioles, Mariners, and Phillies. “At the same time, I feel very prepared to be in this job, because I worked with two outstanding general managers in Ed Wade and Pat. I learned so much from both of them, and both left such a positive impact on the franchise. Ed did a great job of putting the core of our team together and Pat made some great moves to add the finishing touches, and it all culminated with a World Series victory.”
Montgomery had no qualms about hiring Amaro. “Not only is he well-prepared, but he is also well-qualified, as he has shown by making great contributions in his role over the past 10 seasons,” Montgomery said. “I feel very comfortable in having Ruben take over.”
Teams usually change GMs when major changes are in order, but Amaro only needs to make a few tweaks to the Phillies roster this winter. The club has a core group that includes left-hander Cole Hamels and right-handers Brett Myers and Joe Blanton in the starting rotation, closer Brad Lidge heading the bullpen, and a lineup that includes such stars as first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, and shortstop Jimmy Rollins.
Amaro’s biggest move since the World Series ended was his decision to allow left fielder Pat Burrell leave as a free agent, replacing him by signing free-agent Raul Ibanez to a three-year, $31.5 million contract. The move raised some eyebrows; while both had .296 EqAs last season, the 36-year-old Ibanez is four years older than Burrell and bats left-handed, and he’ll be joining a lineup that already leans heavily in that direction. Amaro has also brought back left-hander Jamie Moyer on a two-year contract as a free agent after he put up 5.0 SNLVAR last season, second on the Phillies to Hamels’ 7.2. The Phillies have a one-year deal in place with free-agent pitcher Chan Ho Park, who had 16.8 VORP in a swingman role with the Dodgers last season. “We’re not a team that needs a total overhaul by any means, and that makes my job easier,” said Amaro. “However, we’re not going to just stand pat because we won a World Series. You’re always looking to get better, and we realize we’re going to have to be better next season than we were this year if we want to continue to have success.”
Amaro, whose father Ruben Sr. was an infielder for the Phillies from 1959-65 and then served as a major league coach and minor league instructor in the organization, knows all about what baseball success means in Philadelphia. He grew up in the city and was a 15-year-old batboy on the Phillies’ previous World Series winner in 1980. “That 1980 season was when I decided I wanted to make professional baseball my career,” Amaro said. “I didn’t necessarily think about becoming a GM back then, but it’s pretty neat how it’s all worked out.”
Closer Francisco Rodriguez was talking tough earlier this month after signing a three-year, $37 million contract with the Mets. Rodriguez said that the Mets were the team to beat in the National League East in 2009, despite blowing sizeable September leads and finishing second to the Phillies in the past two seasons.
Mets GM Omar Minaya, who has also traded with the Mariners for closer J.J. Putz this offseason, has taken a more diplomatic approach, and gives the defending champions their due. He believes the Phillies should be favored to win the division again in ’09. “We’re not better than them, no,” Minaya said. “Right now, they’re world champions. The only way you get to be better than them is to beat them. You’ve got to go out there and get it done. You don’t win championships on paper. I’ve never believed in that. Do I think we’ve improved? Yes. But the bottom line is the Phillies have won the World Series and won the division twice. They have a good team and the experience of being in the playoffs and World Series. That is huge. So we have a lot of work to do to catch up with the Phillies.”
Hamels called the Mets “choke artists” during an interview earlier this month with WFAN-AM in New York, the flagship station of the Mets’ radio network, but Minaya would not be drawn into a battle of hyperbole with the lefty. “The kid is an excellent young pitcher, but with that being said, I’m not going to get into it,” said Minaya. “I was taught to focus on my team and try to stay away from commenting on another organization. I have all the respect in the world for what [the Phillies] did, and I would hope our players would continue to show the class of not commenting on other organizations.”
Mets COO Jeff Wilpon had said at the conclusion of last season that the team could become better by addition through subtraction. That could indeed be the case; they have revamped their bullpen not only by signing Rodriguez away from the Angels and trading for Putz, but also by dealing right-hander Aaron Heilman to the Mariners and left-hander Scott Schoeneweis to the Diamondbacks. In the last two seasons against the Phillies, they combined for a 1-5 record and went 0-for-4 in save opportunities.
The Tigers‘ Jim Leyland and the Nationals‘ Manny Acta are in the unenviable position of heading into the season in the last year of their contracts. The two had very different reactions when asked about their status as lame-duck managers.
Leyland became somewhat testy, giving credence to whispers that there may be tension between him and Tigers president and GM Dave Dombrowski. The Tigers finished last in the American League Central with a 74-88 record last season despite their $137 million payroll, third-highest in the major leagues behind the Yankees ($209 million) and Mets ($138 million). “I’m not even going to discuss it one time,” said Leyland. “That’s not an issue. People can speculate all year long if they want. They can write what they want all year long, but I’m not going to discuss that one time. No matter where you are or what your contract is, if you do well, you stay. If you don’t, at some point you go.”
Acta, meanwhile, is coming off of a 59-102 season in which the Nationals had the worst record in the major leagues. “I feel grateful with the economy the way it is right now, and with the unemployment percentage in the United States, that I have a job for 2009,” Acta said. “I think it would be very selfish of me to be worrying about 2010 and years to come. I was hired three years ago to do a job, and they hired me, so obviously it’s on their side whether they thought that three years was enough or it’s not enough. I don’t really worry, because if ends tomorrow, I’m going to have a job somewhere, whether it’s at Bellingham, Washington in the rookie leagues, or somewhere in the big leagues.”
AL Rumors and Rumblings: Indications are that the Yankees’ interest in free-agent outfielder Manny Ramirez is primarily wishful thinking on the part of the slugger, and that they have not made an offer yet and may refrain from doing so. … The Angels are expected to make a priority of signing free-agent closer Brian Fuentes now that they have retracted their offer of eight years and $160 million to free-agent first baseman Mark Teixeira. … The Blue Jays are considering making an offer to free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson, who began his career in Toronto. … The Mariners are considering making a run at free-agent Jerry Hairston Jr. to play second base, allowing them to move Jose Lopez to first base. They’re also leaning toward making catcher Jeff Clement their primary designated hitter next season.
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Nationals have reportedly increased their offer to Teixeira to $184 million over eight years, and there is a real possibility they may go as high as $200 million in the bidding which is expected to end by Christmas Eve. … The Brewers appear to be the frontrunners to sign free-agent starter Braden Looper, who is also a target of the Orioles. … The Brewers are also following free-agent left-hander Mark Mulder‘s rehabilitation from shoulder surgery, while the Reds and Padres have interest as well.