Ruben Amaro Jr., Philadelphia’s rookie general manager, earned the National League executive-of-the-year award Wednesday.
Amaro acquired a top-end starter without having to meet the heavy price set by the extortionists from Toronto. Amaro made a move that helps the Phillies now without harming their future.
The Phillies, defending World Series champions, passed on Toronto ace right-hander Roy Halladay and acquired Cleveland left-hander Cliff Lee as the centerpiece in a six-player deal. The move establishes the Phillies, suddenly rich in pitching, as the top club in the NL.
To appreciate what Amaro accomplished, the deal must be put into context.
Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi, scrambling to keep his job, aimed high and asked for the most advanced young players in the Phillies organization: left-hander J.A. Happ, who is in the major-league rotation; minor-league right-hander Kyle Drabek, getting closer to being major-league ready with each start; and an outfielder — Dominic Brown or Michael Taylor.
For unknown reasons, Ricciardi surprisingly did not ask for a piece of the cheesesteaks concession in Philadelphia.
The Blue Jays counted on Amaro being willing to overpay out of an eagerness to prove himself as a worthy successor to Pat Gillick. Amaro kept a Gillick-like cool and found a better deal than what Toronto offered.
Amaro made the trade without touching the core pieces of the organization. The Phillies kept Happ, Drabek and the outfielders and gave up right-hander Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp, infielder Jason Donald and catcher Lou Marson.
None figured in the Phillies’ short-term future. For Cleveland, Knapp is the key to the deal. Knapp has unharnessed power, but he is also 18 years old and in the low Class A South Atlantic League. Many potential pitfalls await in his development.
The prized Drabek has already recovered form a major surgery (Tommy John tendon-transplant) and worked his way up to Double-A. He could work his way into the rotation next season, at age 22.
For the moment, the deal will be judged on how Lee and Halladay perform. Is Lee the equal of Halladay? No, but the gap is slender.
Each has a Cy Young Award — Lee from last season and Halladay from 2003.
Halladay this season is fourth in the AL for ERA at 2.68. Lee is seventh at 3.14. Take away the clunkers in his first two games, and Lee has a 2.66 ERA for his last 20 starts.
Lee does not dominate hitters as Halladay does. Lee is up from last season in all the revealing ratios, including baserunners per nine innings at 11.7. Halladay has allowed an AL-low 9.45 baserunners per nine innings.
Lee also does not finish games as often as Halladay does. Each has made 52 starts since opening day 2008. Halladay has 13 complete games in that span, six more than Lee.
With the Phillies, Lee does not have to be perfect. The offense gives him a margin of error that he never had with the Indians this season.
The Phillies began Wednesday’s play leading the NL in scoring at 5.48 runs per game. Cleveland was fourth in the AL at 5.14 runs per game, but the Indians had produced three runs or fewer in 12 of Lee’s 22 starts. He was 2-6 with a 2.93 ERA in the low-support games.
No. 1 starter Cole Hamels, finally shrugging off the year-after hangover, is 3-0 with a 3.00 ERA in his last five starts. Joe Blanton, who has been a one-man gang in the rotation, is 5-1 with a 2.31 ERA in his last 11 starts.
Happ is 5-1 as a starter with a 2.97 ERA. Retread Rodrigo Lopez has been a lifesaver. The Phillies are 4-0 in his starts, with three of the wins coming after a team loss.
And veteran right-hander Pedro Martinez is getting close to returning to the majors. The Phillies have gone from strapped for pitching to an abundance of arms.
All is not peace and love for the Phillies. The Lee deal carries two potential drawbacks.
First, adding Lee makes the rotation tilt heavily to the left side. The Phillies now have four left-handed starters in Jamie Moyer, Hamels, Happ and Lee.
That could become significant if the Phillies face the Los Angeles Dodgers or St. Louis in the playoffs. The Dodgers are 18-11 when the opponent starts a left-hander. St. Louis has recently added two powerful right-handed bats: Mark DeRosa and Matt Holliday.
Second, Lee is a fly-ball pitcher heading to a new home park — Citizens Bank Park — that turns fly balls into homers. In 52 games this season, the park has given up a league-high 149 homers by the Phillies and their opponents.
Lee has never pitched in his new home, but he has pitched frequently in a similar bandbox: Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park. He is 2-2 with a 4.91 ERA and seven homers allowed in 29 1/3 innings at that park.
Home runs are not a problem with Halladay. Few items are. Had the Phillies met Ricciardi’s demands, they would have been secure for the next 1 ½ seasons and uncertain beyond that. With Cliff Lee, the Phillies have a promising present and a promising future. That makes this a sharp move by Ruben Amaro Jr.