Learning From Your Enemies, Part 4: What Not To Do

In parts one through three of this trilogy, we looked at how Pat Gillick built the current Phillies from 2005 to 2007. We learned the lessons of locking down core talent and retaining flexibility by signing veterans to short-term deals in order to fill the remaining holes. Look at any breakdown of the free agent deals signed in any given offseason, and you see the folly in trying to build a team the expensive way.

But during the offseason in 2008, Pat Gillick retired and young Ruben Amaro, Jr. took over the reigns. There have been some significant signings under his short watch so far, and the reactions have been decidedly more mixed. Did the apprentice learn his master's teachings? Perhaps we can learn from the Phillie's phollies now that they have been bounced from the playoffs.

To make this a little quicker, we'll separate this into the good, the bad, and the meh - and we'll try to learn as we go.

The Good

1/18/09     Signed LHP Cole Hamels to a three-year contract
1/22/09     Signed OF Jayson Werth to a two-year contract.

Jayson Werth was worth $10 million over two years (see what I did there? SEE?!!), as Amaro bought out his last two arbitration years. Hamels' deal was worth another $100K more and didn't quite get to his final arbitration year, but it was a similar move. Cost certainty is worth something to both sides, and these two young players had projection left in them and the type of counting stats that an arbitrator would love.

Amaro also deserves credit for his work at the fringes. In the 2009 offseason, he let Chan Ho Park, Matt Stairs, Pedro Feliz, Paul Bako, MIguel Cairo, Pedro Martinez, and Brett Myers walk - and replaced them with Cody Ransom, Juan Castro, Placido Polanco, Brian Schneider and Jose Contreras. In many cases, the newer role players were cheaper, signed to shorter deals, and more effective then the men they replaced.

Here Amaro did manage to keep the costs down by managing to avoid overpaying for role players. For the Mets, this might be a warning sign when it comes to the second base position. Orlando Hudson has made enough GMs nervous that he hasn't been able to score a multi-year deal recently - the old regime might have plowed through those warning signs and signed him to, say, a four-year, $25 million deal. Let's hope the new regime feels differently.

The Bad

12/16/08     Signed OF Raul Ibanez to a a three-year contract.
4//27/10      Re-signed Ryan Howard five-year extension.

The first deal is pretty much an unequivocal mess. Sure, Ibanez gave the Phillies a great first year in that three-year, $31.5 million contract, when he reversed his declining defense for a year and also added a career-high 34 home runs to net the best year of his career (3.9 WAR). FanGraphs pegged his value at $17.5 million that year, and the team might even have taken the rest of his contract as a sunk cost given their success.

But this year, the Phillies have seen what can happen when you sign an aging corner outfielder with bad defense to a three-year contract at peak value. His defense dissipated back to his old poor levels, his isolated power returned to its previous mediocre levels, and he was even benched in the postseason. Add that up, and he was 'worth' about $7 million this year, making it a net loss for the Phillies with the threat of more sunk cost in the future.

This all also fails to mention that the Ibanez signing has now put them in a bad place when it comes to re-signing their younger corner outfielder who has much more power along with his better defense. That's right, an extra $10 million in the budget this year would certainly help them sign Jayson Werth.

A lot of energy has been expended talking about the five year, $125-million Ryan Howard deal, and denigrating it here might seem to fly in the face of a lesson we learned (lock up your core players to long-term deals). The thing is, even within the confines of the rule, you're not supposed to lock up your core players for those years that fall after their peak or are at market value unless the deal really makes sense for your team. At 31 years old next month, Howard is by most definitions on the wrong side of his peak. Whether the deal made sense for the Phils is still up for debate.

To recast the rule: Sign your core players to below-market pre-peak deals to lock in cost certainty and avoid enthusiastic arbitrators. This doesn't mean that the Mets should go out there and sign Jose Reyes at market prices into his post-peak years just because he came up with this team. It means that the team should consider locking in Ike Davis for his arbitration years and get an option on that first free agent year (or two) for their troubles.

The Meh

10/01/09     Traded SP Carlos Carrasco, RHP Jason Knapp, C Lou Marson, and SS Jason Donald to the Cleveland Indians for LHP Cliff Lee.
     Traded C Travis d'Arnaud, RHP Kyle Drabek and OF Michael Taylor to the Toronto Blue Jays for RHP Roy Halladay.
     Traded LHP Cliff Lee to the Seattle Mariners for RHP Phillippe Aumont, OF Tyson Gillies, and RHP Juan Ramirez.
    Traded LHP J.A. Happ, OF Anthony Gose, and SS Jonathan Villar to the Houston Astros for RHP Roy Oswalt..

Many might put these trades in with "the bad," and the impetus is understandable. There are a lot of prospects going the wrong way in these deals, and in particular trading for Cliff Lee and then trading him away a year later seems a little... frivolous. You might say the "upgrade" from Cliff Lee to Roy Halladay wasn't worth the downgrade in prospects - and Aumont is certainly no Drabek, nor Gillies a d'Arnaud.

But the "Meh" label applies, even if the ambivalence doesn't mean that the Mets should go out and try to trade for Zach Greinke. It just means that the Mets should consider how close they are to a championship before doing so. The Phillies were obviously yearly contenders. That allowed them some leeway when it came to spending prospects to acquire front-end starting pitching on the trade block.

The Mets are probably not in the same position as the 2009 Phillies. The Mets are more like the 2007 Phillies, as this series has held, and so therefore the next GM should work a little more like Pat Gillick than Ruben Amaro, Jr. It behooves them, for example, to try to find and develop their own Cliff Lee instead of paying for him or trading for a similar pitcher.

Now let's see who will be that general manager to lead the Mets out of the darkness and into the light.

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