CLEARWATER, Fla. — Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. broke down Friday talking to the media about Jim Fregosi. The connections were too powerful, the memories too strong.
Back when Amaro was a major-league outfielder, Fregosi twice was his manager in Philadelphia. In Amaro’s first stint, the Phillies won the 1993 National League title. In his second, Fregosi helped revive and extend Amaro’s career.
Their bond, though, went back even farther.
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Fregosi had been a teammate of Amaro’s father with the Angels in 1969. Ruben Amaro Sr., a utility infielder, likes to tell the story about how Fregosi, then a star at shortstop, took one look at him and said, “I’m not taking any days off. This guy is too good at short.”
Put it all together, and it was understandable that Amaro grew emotional Friday after learning that the garrulous, beloved Fregosi had died at 71. But hours later, Amaro sat down to talk with me about his team, his decisions, his future.
Perhaps no general manager right now is more unpopular in his own city. The Phillies won three division titles in his first three seasons. But they fell to 81 wins in 2012 and 73 wins – their lowest total since 2000 – in ’13.
Fans see an old team that just keeps getting older. Amaro counters that most of the veterans, notably first baseman Ryan Howard, are now healthy. That Ryne Sandberg, beginning his first full season as manager, is creating a more structured environment. And that the Phillies’ rotation will be quite deep if the team completes its signing of right-hander A.J. Burnett, who agreed Wednesday to a one-year, $16 million contract, pending a physical.
Here is Amaro, unplugged:
Q: You’ve been telling me for a while that you like this team better than people on the outside like this team. Why is that?
A: Because I think we have talent. We have talent and experience. I believe right now we’re going into the spring as healthy as we’ve been in a while. It’s pretty obvious: When we get our core guys on the field, we win games. And when they’re not on the field, it makes it very, very tough.
The problem is getting them on the field consistently. But right now, Chooch (catcher Carlos Ruiz) is healthy. Howard is healthy. He doesn’t have any issues with his legs. (Second baseman) Chase (Utley’s) knees are doing well. (Shortstop) Jimmy (Rollins) is healthy.
(Left-hander) Cole (Hamels) is going to be a little bit behind (due to shoulder tendinitis). I think it (his setback) was a little bit blown out of proportion. But we’ve got Cole and Cliff (Lee) at the top of the rotation. Pap (closer Jonathan Papelbon) came into camp looking good and healthy. We’re getting good reports on (reliever Mike) Adams.
Hopefully, we’re going to be able to add to that starting pitching depth, in particular. If we can get it done (Burnett), it helps create a depth that we have not had in the last year or so . . . I think we’ve got the makings of a pretty darned good pitching staff. And it was not very good last year.
Q: The guys you mentioned, they’re all healthy, but they are older. The criticism of the team is that it’s too old. How do you respond to that?
A: I guess they’re a little older, but they’re not ancient. There are a lot of players out there who can be extraordinarily effective and be a little bit older. You can sit here and name a zillion of ’em.
We saw a team in Boston win the World Series last year, and their starting nine was not the youngest starting nine. They were experienced and they had the right mix and right makeup. They played the right way. And they won. I feel we can do the same.
I think it’s more a matter of getting them on the field and healthy than it is age. I know those things sometimes go hand in hand. But I honestly believe that if we can keep these guys on the field, they’ll be contending performers. As long as we can keep them on the field.
The other thing that has happened as a residual effect of what happened last year for us is that even though some of the young players who got a chance to play did not have great success, they still had a chance to get some experience. If for instance, ‘Howie’ goes down – which would be a big blow to us – Darin Ruf may be able to step in and play first base for us. We’re a little bit better armed to handle a misstep here or there.
Q: You know what Cole said over the winter: “You have to know when to start over.” He obviously was referring to rebuilding. What was your reaction to that?
A: You know, who knows the context. But I’ll be honest with you. Cole, I don’t think, would have stayed with us and signed with us if he had not thought we were going to try to continue to win (Hamels agreed to a six-year, $144 million extension on July 25, 2012).
I said, “Hey Cole, we’re trying to keep you and pay you this kind of money because we want to win.” If we wanted to (tear) it down, at that point we could have moved him and probably gotten a pretty good return. But why would you want to do that if you’re trying to win? Why would you sign a guy just for the eyewash?
We were signing Cole so we could extend our opportunity to win by having quality guys in the rotation. And by having those two left-handers – two of the better left-handers in the game – it gives us a chance to win.
Q: No GM is perfect. You guys all do good things, and all have things go bad that you thought would be good. When you look back on the thing you are criticized most for, the Howard contract, would you have done that differently? (Howard signed a five-year, $125 million extension on April 26, 2010, nearly two full seasons before he was eligible for free agency.)
A: You know, it’s funny. If Ryan Howard had continued on his path and did not blow out his Achilles (in the Phillies’ final game of the 2011 playoffs) . . . with the 10-year contracts that were being doled out at the time that he would have become a free agent, he would have been right there with them. He was the single most productive player in the game at the time just prior to that and when we were signing him. We felt like we should pay him accordingly.
Did we expect some dropoff later on? Sure. But can we gauge that the man was going to blow out his Achilles? No. That was a big blow to us. And it was a big blow to us because of the nature of the injury. It was a fluke injury. There’s nothing you can do about it. Guys blow out. It happens. We had no reason to think it would happen.
When you have multiyear contracts and you want to keep your players, and you want to keep the best players in the game, you take a risk. When they get hurt, they get hurt. And you pay for it. And you can’t do anything about it. It’s not like the NFL or some other sports where you can release a guy and not have to pay him his salary in some cases.
People ask me about the Pat Burrell contract – it was a six-year, $50 million contract (Amaro was assistant GM when Burrell agreed to the deal in Feb. 2003). The first year he had a horrendous year. He gradually had better and better years. But we ended up winning a World Series with Pat Burrell (in 2008). So absolutely, I’m very, very happy with that contract. And I expect to be very happy with Ryan’s contract. I expect him to come out and be a productive player again.
Q: How about the Papelbon contract? Do you look at it the same way as Howard’s? (The Phillies signed Papelbon to a four-year, $50 million free-agent contract after the 2011 season.)
A: I do. Listen, there were a set of closers out there that year. We negotiated with several of them. We signed the best one. That’s what we wanted – the best guy to go along with what we thought was one of the best rotations. So far we haven’t won as many games as we could have. But I don’t have any regrets. We wanted the player. We paid for him.
A healthy Ryan Howard is a good thing for the Phillies.
Q: A lot of players think closers shouldn’t get that kind of money. You buy that?
A: I guess there are different theories about that, whether you can develop closers, whether you can just get lucky with them. I happen to believe, and my staff and advisors believe, in having as good a closer as you possibly can to close games and win championships. I don’t know of too many teams in the past 25 to 30 years that haven’t had a great closer or a very good quality closer to win a World Series. Pap has made the last pitch of the season. He knows what it’s like. And that’s an important element when you’re trying to be a contender every year.
Q: The path you have gone down, once you’re in, winning and spending heavily, it seems like you can’t really stop.
A: The expectations get high. You create a fan base that expects greatness, and they should. The ownership group has been supportive of an extraordinarily high payroll to try to keep the ball rolling and put us in contention. It’s up to me and the people who work with me to try to make the right decisions to be a contender every year. I’m given the opportunity to do a lot of things. A friend of mine used to say, “More money, more problems.” But that’s how it works.
Q: You’ve taken a lot of heat in Philly. What has that been like for you? How difficult has it been?
A: (Amaro laughs.) It’s harder on my mom and brother than anybody else, and maybe my fiancée. I told my two daughters (Andrea, 15, and Sophia, 11) when I took this job, “Girls, this is what’s going to happen. They’re going to love your dad for a little while. And then if we start losing, if we have a couple of tough seasons, they’re not going to like your dad very much. Just prepare yourself for it. That’s how it works in Philadelphia. If things don’t go well and you don’t win, you’re going to take a lot of heat. And if you win in Philadelphia, you’re going to get a lot of praise.”
I believe this: You’re never as good as people think you are and never as bad. I believe in our organization. I believe in the baseball people around me. We’ve had a tough go the last couple of years. But I believe in some of the decisions we made. You’ve got to hope the players go out and perform. But it’s an occupational hazard here in Philadelphia (he laughs again).
Q: Some other GMs think, just by their conversations with you, knowing you, that you’re aware you’re under pressure. Do you feel you’re under pressure, in a different way than when things were good?
A: I kind of put pressure on myself all the time. I expect excellence from our players. I expect excellence from our staff. But more importantly, I expect excellence from myself. I probably put more pressure on myself than the pressure that I could feel from the fans or anyone else. I don’t know. I guess I’m kind of used to it. I’m not surprised by the fact that people are clamoring for us to be a contender again. That’s just the nature of the business.
Q: But these jobs don’t last forever. There is a pressure that comes with that.
A: We used to joke around all the time, all the executives and managers: We’re all hired to be fired. But the fact of the matter is, I believe in my ability, I believe in our staff’s ability, I believe in our players. And when we stop believing in our players, that’s when we’ll have to make some changes.
We’ll monitor that. This is an important year because of the age of the core. It’s important for us to win. The fan base deserves it. Our ownership group has been incredibly supportive, beyond supportive. It’s my job to put a quality product on the field, a contending product on the field. That’s the goal. To contend every year.
Q: Do you have to prepare yourself mentally for the day you no longer will do this job?
A: I believe I’m a baseball lifer. I’m going to stay in the game in one capacity or another. I love the game too much. I try not to think about (getting fired). What I do believe is that I’m fortunate to have this opportunity and to continue to work in baseball and to be in this position. I don’t ever take it for granted. I don’t think any of the GMs do.
There are 30 of these jobs. Most of us are very humbled by having the opportunity to do it. But if something were to happen where I wasn’t doing this particular job, I think I’d be doing something else in baseball. That’s what I know and what I love.