Was trading for Hunter Pence Ruben Amaro’s worst move as Phillies GM?

Was trading for Hunter Pence Ruben Amaro’s worst move as Phillies GM?
June 9, 2014, 5:02 pm
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Last Tuesday, Jon Singleton bashed a home run in his first Major League game. Over the weekend, he belted his first career grand slam.

Last Wednesday, Jarred Cosart held the opposing team to three runs or fewer in his eighth consecutive start. He’s posting a 2.96 earned run average over the current stretch.

Maybe you didn’t hear about either of them because they don’t play for the Philadelphia Phillies. But they could have.

 

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Ask any Phillies fan what’s the worst move Ruben Amaro Jr. has made as general manager of the Phillies. First of all, they’ll have no shortage of options to choose from, which is depressing considering Amaro has only held the post since 2009. That being said, two moves in particular are likely to appear at the top of almost every list:

The Ryan Howard contract and trading away Cliff Lee.

Those are easily the most universally despised decisions of Amaro’s tenure. In terms of results, it’s hard to argue with either choice as No. 1.

There is a third candidate, though, that doesn't often receive the attention of the others. No, it’s not the long-term contract extension for Jimmy Rollins. It’s not signing Jonathan Papelbon to an exorbitant deal. It’s not years of surrendering high draft picks while dipping into free agency pool to middling success time and time again.

It’s not years of unproductive drafts under Amaro’s watch. It’s not a complete inability to put together a decent bullpen or bench worth a damn—do these qualify as a move? Doesn’t matter, stack ‘em up.

But until everything is said and done, and the Phillies as we know them are almost completely dismantled and the full extent of how badly the franchise has been leveled by half a decade's worth of bad management is realized, there’s a very real chance the Hunter Pence trade will wind up being the worst.

Surprised? I won’t go so far as to say the Pence trade was universally celebrated, but the All-Star rightfielder arrived to much fanfare. He didn’t leave a bad taste in our mouths like so many of Ruben’s big acquisitions have, either. Pence played about as well as could be expected, he gave it his all and as a result he was genuinely liked.

All of which is beside the point. The Pence exchange epitomizes all of the gross over-compensating the Phillies did to try to wring every last win out of their run. It’s a symbol of throwing caution to the wind and writing checks without concern or thought for how each blockbuster move was actually crippling the organization over the long haul. It's the ultimate representation of the whimsical fantasy-baseball manner in which Amaro has operated the team, to not-so-surprising results.

And in very real, measurable terms, the Pence exchange might be the move that will have had the biggest impact on the Phillies’ inability to rebuild quickly should they continue down the road to becoming the perennial basement-dwellers we find ourselves imagining every time we tune in to a game or take a trip to the ballpark these days.

 

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The day was July 29, 2011. With a 50-30 record, the Phillies were already on pace to surpass 100 wins. They were comfortably in first place in the National League East with a 4.5-game lead. A fifth consecutive division championship was practically inevitable, or if things went terribly wrong, a wild-card berth at least.

That day, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. traded for Hunter Pence, a move that, in retrospect, seems like it might’ve been a tad unnecessary. Or complete overkill, depending on your perspective.

At the time, Domonic Brown was still an exciting prospect, and had actually been showing signs of improvement in right field, I might add. He still wasn’t hitting for any power mind you, but he had posted a .398 on-base percentage on the month. The club was getting along just fine with Brown as an everyday player.

Once Pence arrived, the Phillies didn’t bother keeping up the façade that Brown was going to help them anymore that season. The organization quietly kicked Dom back down to Triple A a short time later, which it’s debatable that was a positive experience for him at that point in his development.

Meanwhile, with Pence on board, the Fightins wound up finishing with 102 wins—one more than they were projected at the time of the deal (granted, they took their foot off the gas pedal down the stretch). Then the club was stunned by the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs, and what nobody knew for sure at the time, the greatest run in franchise history was over.

In short, the trade accomplished nothing. The club was likely on its way to 100 wins regardless. They certainly could’ve blown that series against the Cardinals without him. You could even make the case the extra wins Pence did bring to the table actually did more harm than good—if the Phillies had something to play for in September, maybe they would’ve carried some momentum into the postseason.

Then, barely more than a year after he had arrived, Pence was shipped away for pennies on the dollar.

Coincidentally, July 29 was the same day the Philadelphia Eagles signed free-agent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha to a five-year, $60 million contract he would never come close to living up to. How appropriate the Pence exchange will be forever tied to that monstrosity of a deal—one of the biggest free-agent busts certainly in franchise history, if not the entire NFL.

Yet Pence wasn’t an on-field disaster the way Asomugha was for the Birds. Quite the contrary, actually. In 155 games wearing red pinstripes—roughly one full season—Pence had a .357 on-base percentage with 28 home runs and 94 runs batted in. He posted better numbers in Philly than he has anywhere else in his career.

The Phillies got exactly the player they were hoping when they made the swap for Pence. Unfortunately, the minimal short-term gains the club saw as a result are vastly outweighed by the overwhelmingly negative long-term impact that we are only beginning to see come to fruition.

Amaro packaged four prospects in the trade for Pence. And unlike in the trades the organization made for Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and to a lesser extent Brad Lidge and Joe Blanton, this time the organization had to pony up with their best and brightest.

 

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Amaro sent Singleton, Cosart, Josh Zeid and a player to be named later—Domingo Santana—to the Houston Astros for Pence. All four could probably help the Phillies, if not right now, over the next year or two as they slowly and painfully transition into a young, rebuilding team.

The thinking was Singleton, a first baseman, was blocked by Howard. This is The Big Piece before The Big Rupture of his Achilles tendon, of course. Still, if Singleton had to be dealt, getting more than a rental would’ve been nice at least. The Astros organization thinks so highly of the 22-year-old, they handed him a contract worth $10 million guaranteed before he even had an at bat in the Majors.

The Phils are stuck with Howard at $25 million for two more years after this. In all honesty though, it would totally be worth eating almost every cent of his remaining contract if only the club could go with Singleton next season instead. So much for that option.

Cosart arrived in the big leagues last year, throwing eight innings of two-hit, shutout ball in his debut. Since then, he’s had his ups and downs, but posted 14 quality starts in 22 appearances thus far. Without even checking, there’s no doubt in my mind that’s better than Kyle Kendrick or Roberto Hernandez over their last 22. The 24-year-old right-hander could be in the Phillies’ rotation right now.

Zeid is in the minors at the moment, though he’s had a couple cups of coffee with the big club. The 27-year-old right-hander owns a 3.89 ERA in 32 career appearances. Maybe this is the one piece of the trade that really isn’t a huge loss. Then again, he could probably help the Phillies bullpen.

Then there is Santana, who’s been the source of some controversy of late when a Houston Chronicle report indicated his inclusion in this deal was a clerical error. Amaro has since denied any mistake was made, and that Santana was meant to be included on the list of throw-ins the Astros had to choose from for a player to be named later.

Of course, that explanation is actually far worse, because it means the Phillies gave away a legit prospect as a throw-in. Santana hasn’t reached the bigs yet, but he will soon enough. The 21-year-old outfielder is batting .291 with nine home runs, 38 RBIs and a .366 OBP in 63 games at Triple A. He could be taking over for somebody in the Phillies outfield next season. Instead, that will likely happen in Houston.

All together, that’s called a haul.

Imagine the Phillies are 11 games under .500 right now—it shouldn’t be very difficult, because they are. Imagine they are about to embark on a long overdue rebuilding process.

Now imagine they were starting that process with these prospects in their system. Wouldn’t the future feel just a tad brighter?

 

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When Amaro shipped Pence out of town at the trade deadline one short year after his arrival, the Phillies received Nate Schierholtz, Seth Rosin and Tommy Joseph back in return from the San Francisco Giants. Considering what was surrendered to land Pence, this feels like some kind of sick, tasteless joke.

For some largely unexplained reason, the Phillies non-tendered Schierholtz at season’s end, allowing him to become a free agent. As a general rule, this is stupid behavior. The guy was never going to become a star or anything, but he did post a .470 slugging percentage for the Chicago Cubs in 2013. The Phillies have put far worse on their bench.

A right-handed starter turned reliever, Rosin has been particularly underwhelming, as evidenced by the fact that the Phillies haven’t bothered to give him a shot in their awful bullpen. He’s got a 6.86 ERA in 16 appearances with Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2014, and seemingly little to no Major League future.

Joseph was supposed to be the prize piece in the deal. Labeled a close-to-big-league-ready right-handed catcher with decent power numbers, at the very least it seemed the franchise might wind up with Carlos Ruiz’s eventual replacement out of all of this.

Unfortunately, Joseph’s tenure with the organization has been a tumultuous one. A series of concussions not only reduced him to just 36 games in 2013—a lost season, if you will—the injuries actually threatened his very career behind the plate. In fact, he’s out of action as we speak. Joseph hasn’t played a game at Double A since May 9.

Joseph is only 22, so it’s too early to rule him out as an eventual Major Leaguer. However, the path hasn’t been easy, and you couldn’t honestly blame anybody for writing him off as a catching prospect. They can’t possibly keep sticking a guy back there who is getting head injuries at that rate, and if Joseph isn’t a catcher, suddenly he looks like a pretty average prospect at best.

There’s a very real chance that the Phillies got nothing of value in return for their investment in Pence. They tossed Schierholtz away like garbage, Rosin has shown no evidence he’s got big-league stuff and Joseph is constantly on the shelf and likely won’t be a catcher going forward. How could it get any worse than that?

 

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No single move has been more damaging to the Phillies' long-term success than the Hunter Pence trade. Not the Ryan Howard contract. Not any expensive contract awarded to an aging veteran. Not trading Cliff Lee, either—although that last one may have cost them a second World Series championship.

Dabbling in free agency every year cost the Phillies several high draft picks, yet no one signing was as detrimental as trading for Pence. No failed bench or bullpen acquisition could sting this much. I’m not entirely sure if we combined every pick the organization surrendered for signing free agents in recent years that the end result was worse than this one trade.

Would the Phillies be contenders right now with Singleton, Cosart, Zeid and Santana? No. Would the Phillies not be faced with a massive rebuild with those prospects in tow? No. One move alone did not destroy a franchise. The rot runs deeper than that.

But as bad moves go, this was certainly the worst. Nothing else produced so little at a steeper cost. Howard and Lee almost seem like minor missteps by comparison.

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