Ruben Amaro Jr. ponders a weighty decision

Ruben Amaro Jr. ponders a weighty decision
October 29, 2013, 11:30 am
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Ruben Amaro's top choice to fill the pitching coach void, Bryan Price, was hired as Cincinnati's manager. (AP)

A gaggle of Phillies officials -- from front-office personnel to scouts, managers and coaches (both at the big-league and minor-league level) -- have been in Clearwater since Sunday for four days of organization meetings.
 
One important person is missing.
 
The big-league pitching coach.
 
The Phillies’ dismal 2013 season has been over for a month and the team still has not named a replacement for Rich Dubee, whose contract was not renewed after a nine-year run that included a lot more highs than lows.
 
Now, not having a pitching coach in place at the end of October, or for fall organization meetings, is hardly a fatal blow to a team. The Phillies could name a new pitching coach any time in the coming weeks -- it could come this week -- and the new man would have plenty of time to learn his personnel and come to spring training ready to lead the staff.
 
But this methodical search for a pitching coach is interesting, nonetheless, because it offers a window into general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.’s mindset as he tries to turn this team around after two baseball-less Octobers and the team’s first losing season since 2002.
 
Amaro is clearly under pressure.
 
His painstaking search for a pitching coach -- and make no mistake, it’s his call -- is testament to that.
 
“I put myself under the gun,” Amaro said during the final weekend of the regular season in Atlanta. “I’m the one who is making the decisions. I’m accountable for the things that have happened. I have not had a very good year; our team did not have a very good year.
 
“We win as a team and lose as a team, but the fact of the matter is I should take a lot of heat. I need to be better, and our guys need to be better. We need to evaluate better, we need to make better decisions.”
 
Amaro made a significant decision when he fired Charlie Manuel late in the 2013 season and installed Ryne Sandberg as manager. It can be argued that the choice of pitching coach will be even more significant. First of all, the 2013 season was long foreseen as Manuel’s last and Sandberg was long viewed as the successor. The events that transpired with Manuel’s exit and Sandberg’s ascension in August and September were hardly shocking.
 
Amaro’s methodical search for a pitching coach suggests that he believes this hire is as important as who manages the club -- maybe even more. Average attendance at Citizens Bank Park dropped from a major-league high 44,000 in 2012 to 37,000 in 2013. Another poor season could result in another drop and that could spell doom for Amaro, who has two years left on his contract.
 
The general manager knows he needs to turn this thing around in a hurry. Changes in scouting and player development can have long-term impact for a franchise, but Amaro doesn’t have the luxury of time. He needs to see improvement now and pitching is an area that needs a quick boost. Some of that will have to come in Amaro’s work on the trade and free-agent markets this winter. (He needs a hitter as well as several arms.) But some has to come in-house.
 
In Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Jonathan Pettibone, Jake Diekman, B.J. Rosenberg, Justin De Fratus, Ethan Martin and talented-but-confused Phillippe Aumont, the Phillies have some raw pitching ingredients to complement proven talents Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Amaro knows he needs the right guy to get the most out of these young pitchers. That’s why he’s exercising such due diligence in his search for a pitching coach. The new guy could impact how long he stays around as GM.
 
Here’s what we know about the Phillies’ pitching coach search:
 
Amaro is looking for a top shelf-candidate. He has to because, deep down inside, he knows he got rid of a good one in Dubee, whose ultimate shortcoming was probably that he was too close to the previous manager as the team charted a new direction.
 
Bryan Price was the Phillies’ top choice for pitching coach, and they appeared to be waiting on him before he was named Cincinnati’s manager last week. The highly regarded Price worked for Amaro’s predecessor and adviser Pat Gillick in Seattle.
 
The list of people that the Phillies have spoken with includes in-house candidates Rod Nichols and Ray Burris, the team’s bullpen coach and Triple-A pitching coach, respectively. Team officials have spoken with Reid Cornelius, Neal Allen, Pete Vuckovich and Jim Benedict. Benedict, called the guru of Pittsburgh Pirates’ pitching, was impressive in his interview last week.
 
Amaro says that several excellent candidates have emerged in interviews.
 
But still no pitching coach.
 
Is this due diligence or desperation on Amaro’s part?
 
Hey, maybe he’s waiting for the World Series to end so he can speak with someone from the St. Louis Cardinals organization. No organization drafts and develops pitchers better. Maybe Amaro wants to speak with Cardinals’ bullpen coach Blaise Ilsley. Once upon a time, Ilsley pitched in the Phillies’ minor-league system. He spent five years as the Cardinals’ Triple-A pitching coach before moving to the big-league bullpen this season. He’d be a good guy to speak with, don’t you think?
 
Whatever the case, we’re a month into the offseason, organization meetings are going on in Clearwater, and the Phillies still don’t have a pitching coach.
 
Ruben Amaro Jr. is taking his time on this one because it could be a difference-making decision for his team.
 
And his future.