Why I don’t want to lead like Ruben Amaro, Jr.

Philadelphia Phillies General Manager Ruben Amaro, Jr. was in the best possible spot at the start of his tenure. He inherited a World Series team. He wanted to continue the success, so he signed elite players to exorbitant contracts, went back to the World Series in 2009 and lost, when to the NLCS in 2010 and lost, won a franchise record of 102 games in 2011 and lost in the NLDS, in 2012 and 2013 and presumably 2014, the team did not make the playoffs. Are you seeing the trend here? Ruben Amaro, Jr. tried his best to repeat 2008’s success. The team bought talent, and traded away much of its farm system, and is now left with aging players with untradeable contracts. July 31 was the non-waiver trade deadline in baseball and for the second year in a row, the Phillies were definitively sellers, and a single trade they made not.

Amaro was waiting to trade the likes of Jonathan Papelbon, Cliff Lee, Ryan Howard, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, Marlon Byrd, Jimmy Rollins, and A.J. Burnett for what he deemed their actual value. It didn’t work. He sat on his assets hoping he would get a “fair deal.” It is inexcusable. Byrd is having a great year, Utley is as consistent as he usually is, Rollins just became the all-time hits leader, Papelbon is having nearly his best year, Cole Hamels is a top-10 lefty, Cliff Lee and A.J. Burnett have great reputations. He has great players, but because he didn’t get “great” value, we’re stuck in a worse position than we were last year at this time.

Apologists for the Phillies defended his inaction saying that the players could be traded after the non-waiver deadline, if they weren’t picked up when the team placed them on waivers. Fine. But the risk with that or off-season trading is simple: the old players with horrible contracts could get injuries that compromise their value.

That was true of Ryan Howard, the man who hit 58 homeruns in 2006, while winning both the homerun derby and the NL MVP award, when he suffered a season-ending (both because it was the final out in the 20011 NLDS and because it stopped him from playing for a large percentage of the 2012 season) injury. On the evening after the trade deadline, a big trade piece for the Phillies, Cliff Lee, reinjured his elbow which had already compromised his value and now his season is over and so is the prospect of trading him for any value at all in the winter.

While Ruben remained static, the rest of the MLB made all sorts of trade before the deadline. Ruben sat on his players, like a man who has bet too deep in a round of poker hoping that the river card makes his hand of nothing, something. He is a fool. And the worst part of it? He defended himself and blamed baseball’s other 29 GMs. He said:

“I’m more surprised that there wasn’t more aggressive action from the other end,” Amaro said before Thursday night’s 10-4 win over the Nats. “We have some pretty good baseball players here. Our goal all along was to try to improve the club and there really wasn’t a deal to be made that would help us do that.”

Ruben is stuck in what Janet O. Hagberg calls “stage three” leadership in her excellent book Real Power. She titles that stage “power by achievement.” People know you are powerful because of the success you’ve enjoyed, the title you have, the car you drive. You are envious, entitled, and blame others for your mistakes. Seldom do you take ownership, and you think your stuff is the best in town and can’t seem to make a deal that requires humility. It’s like the hundreds of prospectors in North Philly sitting on their buildings hoping they can cut a deal to some sap, meanwhile their neighborhood is blighted. They pray for gentrification and when their prayers aren’t answered, we all have to deal with their depreciating eyesores of buildings. If they are answered, we get pushed out of our ‘hood.

As you can tell, I’m fairly angry at Ruben’s ineptitude. His narcissism got in the way of being able to make a deal. He didn’t give us a good baseball team, or even the hopes of what, but here are some lessons he gave me.

  • The time to act is now. If you aren’t doing something, something’s wrong. That doesn’t mean you need to be impulsive, but you need to have a plan (and back up plans too). Making a deal that isn’t ideal is precisely the definition of the term. These players are depreciating in value, so he needed to get what he could for them. But he lacked the courage to do so and yet again, we have a team with increasingly bad players and a depleted farm system. Your options won’t be as pretty as you want, but it doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective.
  • Have a long-term plan. What was Ruben’s vision for the Phils? As far as I can tell it was win now (which for him meant signing people to ridiculous contracts), ask questions later. He ended up with an old, expensive team, and not one ring to show for it. The other sports leaders in Philly at least have a strategy. Chip Kelly is committed to building the fastest offense possibly. Sam Hinkie is trying to get the best deals he can in NBA drafts and hoping his injury-prone big men pay off. In both cases, at least there is a narrative that I can follow. All I see with Ruben is expensive players that used to be good, and great players that he overvalues, plus no real savior in the minors.
  • Do not surround yourself by people who won’t challenge you. Is Amaro delusional? Quite possibly. Is anyone telling him that? I’m not sure. I hope there is a great deal of conflict in the organization and I hope that as an incompetent general manager his job is actually threatened because of his inability to make a deal. I think good leaders and organizations need accountability and it seems like the Phillies have lacked that for a long time.

I still love the Phillies and will root for them, but Ruben’s making it harder and harder. His risks aren’t paying off and the cost is going to be the long-term success of the team. I hope he hears this message loud and clear and is ready to change.

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