December 18, 2008

I'll have the Ruben to go

The second most-anticipated administration in America is finally in power. Ruben Amaro Jr. has (essentially) completed his first offseason as general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, and it was a success.

This is not a universally agreed-upon opinion. For starters, much has been made of the switch from Pat Burrell to Raul Ibanez. And I must admit, there will be times when the team will miss Pat's patience at the plate, his commitment to Philadelphia and his right-handed bat. However, every report on Ibanez describes him as a wonderful teammate, a hard-working athlete and a dedicated student of hitting. Greg Dobbs himself stated that if a transition in left field had to be made, Ibanez is the perfect type of guy to move on to.

The Phillies will certainly suffer an embarrassing loss or two, or a half-dozen, to left-handed pitchers like Johan Santana before the year is out, but they will also positively crush right-handers. They are wagering that Ibanez will continue to hit at a steady clip, and they are also wagering that Jayson Werth will continue to develop as a rising star in right field. Both assumptions, in my opinion, have some merit to them. While the logic behind not offering arbitration to Pat Burrell still escapes me, this is a move that guarantees a level of offensive production out of left field.

Of course, offense gets all the headlines, but as the Phillies proved last season, pitching wins championships. And in resigning Jamie Moyer and Scott Eyre while adding Chan Ho Park to the bullpen, the Phillies maintained a commitment to pitching. While Moyer may not recapture last year's truly astounding numbers, he's been the model of consistency ever since coming to Philadelphia. Every other prediction concerning a dropoff in his effectiveness has been proven incorrect, and his style does indicate the kind of pitcher who can survive without a great deal of wear and tear on his arm. Meanwhile, what ended up being the greatest strength of last year's team - the bullpen - seems deep enough to survive a regression-to-the-norm that some of its key pieces are likely to endure. These are good things.

This might read as a Phillies press release, but I prefer to think of it as rational logic from a fan who finally accepts and understands how this team operates. You see, to view Ruben's offseason correctly, you HAVE to look at it through Phillies-colored glasses. As much as fans would like to see them make a big splash with a Derek Lowe or a Manny Ramirez, that just isn't going to happen. The Phillies operate under a budget - a budget that seems to have increased, as it should, after a World Series victory, but a budget nonetheless. This means that their margin of error is slim.

When an Adam Eaton or a Geoff Jenkins is signed to a lengthy contract and does not perform up to par, the team does not have the flexibility to treat the contracts given to them as dead money (unless, of course, you're as God-awful as Adam Eaton and force this notoriously thrifty team's hand). This is why Pat Gillick proved so useful - he was adept at the little moves, and the only way this team was ever going to win the World Series is if they got lucky (or smart) when cheaply plugging the holes. A few Moyers, Werths, Durbins and Dobbses later, we have a ring.

So Ruben Amaro didn't pull out his checkbook, but he did make moves that appear, at the very least, to be safe. Ibanez isn't a spring chicken, but there's no denying that a) he does a lot of things well, b) he has been consistent, even into his golden years, and c) his contract is not that outrageous. Ditto for Moyer. Park is on a low risk, one-year deal, as is Eyre. Jason Jaramillo and Greg Golson were lost causes in Philadelphia, but Ronny Paulino and John Mayberry Jr. come with a bit of potential.

And then there's arbitration. An underrated subplot for this offseason is that, in the days before World Series championships, the Phillies probably could not afford to bring every arbitration-eligible player back. At the very least, another ultimately failed season could provide a reasonable excuse to trade certain expensive players (cough cough Ryan Howard cough cough) away for 80 cents on the dollar. But now, there's no going back. Everyone knows their wallets are more than a little thicker, and everyone knows that each arbitration-eligible player had a whole lot to do with the parade we had just a few months ago. They can't afford the PR hit, and they CAN afford to shell out some cash. So, Werth will get his multi-year deal, Madson, Hamels and Howard will get big raises, and the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies will look a lot like the 2007 Philadelphia Phillies.

This is not the optimal solution (upgrading is always nice), but it's not bad. We still have arguably the best bullpen in baseball, we still have a top-five lineup and opening the season with Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ sure beats Adam Eaton and Kyle Kendrick. Does this insure a World Series repeat? No. Should we be more frightened of the Mets, who have acquired two important pieces for their bullpen? Yes. But JJ Putz and K-Rod are right-handed pitchers, and you know that Raul Ibanez is sitting in his hyperbaric chamber right now, salivating at the thought of teeing off on them in the late innings. Because we are World Fucking Champions, and, so far, Ruben Amaro Jr. has worked, to the best of his ability, to keep us that way.

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