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?

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.

 

***

 

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.

 

***

 

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.

 

***

 

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?

 

***

 

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?

 

***

 

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.

Vince Velasquez is subject of serious trade talks between Phillies, Rangers

Vince Velasquez is subject of serious trade talks between Phillies, Rangers

ATLANTA — Seven months after he was acquired from the Houston Astros and anointed a key piece in the Phillies’ rebuild, pitcher Vince Velasquez could be on the move again.

The Phillies and Texas Rangers are “pretty deep” in trade discussions involving Velasquez, a major league source told CSNPhilly.com on Friday night (see story).

The Rangers’ interest in Velasquez was reported by Jon Morosi of MLB Network earlier in the week and essentially confirmed when three Rangers scouts, including Scott Littlefield, one of that club’s top talent evaluators, showed up at Turner Field for Velasquez’s start against the Atlanta Braves on Friday night.

Velasquez delivered a solid but unspectacular performance in a 2-1 loss to the Braves, but he still has the qualities that attracted the Phillies to him last winter. He’s just 24 years old and has a power arm that has produced a 3.32 ERA in 18 starts. He has the upside to pitch at or near the top of a rotation if his development goes in the right direction and he stays healthy. That is a legitimate concern because he had Tommy John surgery as a young minor leaguer and spent time on the disabled list earlier this season with a biceps strain.

The question now is: where will Velasquez continue his development? Philadelphia? Texas? Somewhere else?

Clearly, the Phillies’ big wintertime acquisition is in play as Monday’s 4 p.m. trade deadline approaches.

Manager Pete Mackanin said he knows nothing of the front office’s trade plans, but he offered his opinion on trading a young pitcher like Velasquez.

“Our whole goal was to get young pitchers because they’re the most expensive commodity and if you can develop young pitchers like him and have four or five of those guys, then you’re ahead of the game,” Mackanin said. “But at the same time, at least as far as I’m concerned, I’ll listen to any offers. If you get three guys that are really good looking prospects because pitching is such a commodity, I’m sure you have to consider it.”

With the Rangers' scouts looking on, Velasquez pitched six innings and gave up seven hits and two runs. He walked two and struck out five. His fastball reached 96 mph, proving that his stuff is good. Mackanin, however, said he thought Velasquez relied too much on his off-speed stuff instead of his power fastball.

“It was unusual to me the way he pitched,” Mackanin said. “It was almost like a finesse pitcher instead of a power pitcher. I’m not arguing with it because he did a good job, but he made me a little nervous here and there. I like the 16 strikeouts.”

That, of course, was a reference to Velasquez’s 16-strikeout complete game win over the Padres on April 14. Could anyone have imagined that he'd be the subject of trade talks 3½ months later?

Velasquez said he was aware of the trade buzz surrounding him and unbothered by it. He’s been down this road before. He said he would not be disappointed if he were traded because he understands baseball is a business.

“At first when I got traded from the Astros it was kind of tough for me, but you have to move on and make the best of what you've got,” Velasquez said. “If things happen, just let it happen. If I go to another team, then I've got to make the best of what I've got there. There's a lot of things that are in the future. I don't know what to expect is what I'm saying. Again, all I can do is live in the present and live another day tomorrow. If something happens, something happens. I've got to make the best of what you've got today.

“It's just one of those things I can't control. I had to fight, had to battle for a spot here in Philadelphia and I'm very thankful for the opportunity and everything. Again, I've still got to keep working hard and make the best of what I've got.”

Any team looking to acquire Velasquez would have to pay a steep price. In addition to having talent and upside, he won’t be eligible for salary arbitration until after the 2018 season and free agency until after the 2021 season.

The Phillies have a good knowledge of Texas’ deep farm system having scouted it extensively — and plucked from it — in making the deal for Cole Hamels a year ago. Are the Phillies about to fuel their rebuild with more talent from the Texas system? Stay tuned.

Velasquez isn’t the only Phillies starter who could move. Several teams remain interested in Jeremy Hellickson (see story), who is scheduled to pitch against Atlanta on Saturday night. The Rangers, in fact, have some interest in Hellickson as a fallback option if they don’t get a pitcher elsewhere. Velasquez is not the only pitcher the Rangers have on their radar, but from a Phillies’ perspective, he is certainly the most interesting.

Best of MLB: Rougned Odor homers twice for Rangers in 8-3 win over Royals

Best of MLB: Rougned Odor homers twice for Rangers in 8-3 win over Royals

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Rougned Odor homered twice, A.J. Griffin pitched into the sixth inning and the Texas Rangers beat the Kansas City Royals 8-3 on Friday night.

Jurickson Profar also went deep for the Rangers, and scored three runs.

Odor hit a solo homer in the first that put AL West-leading Texas up 3-0 against Edinson Volquez (8-9). That 443-foot drive into the second deck of seats in right field came a night after Odor's 465-footer that is the longest in his career. He had another solo shot in the seventh, his 21st of the season barely clearing the 8-foot wall in right.

Eric Hosmer homered for the defending World Series champion Royals, who dropped to 10 games behind Cleveland in the AL Central.

Griffin (4-1) had his longest outing in seven starts in just over a month since coming off the disabled list because of right shoulder stiffness. The right-hander struck out one and walked two while throwing 66 of 98 pitches for strikes in 5 2-3 innings (see full recap)

Chatwood, Gonzalez lead Rockies over Mets for 4th win in row
NEW YORK -- Tyler Chatwood kept winning on the road, Carlos Gonzalez homered and drove in four runs and the Colorado Rockies defeated the New York Mets 6-1 Friday night for their fourth straight victory.

Mark Reynolds also homered for the surging Rockies, who are 11-4 since the All-Star break and have moved within four games of Miami for the second NL wild-card spot.

Chatwood (10-6) improved to 6-0 with a 1.30 ERA away from Coors Field this season. The 26-year-old is 4-6 with a 5.69 ERA at home.

Gonzalez matched a season-high hitting streak of 11 games with an RBI double in the first. He hit a 448-foot, three-run drive in the ninth for his 21st homer.

Steven Matz (8-7) gave up two runs and 10 hits in six innings (see full recap)

Lester recovers from rut of bad starts, Cubs rout Mariners
CHICAGO -- Jon Lester recovered from a rut of bad starts, pitching six shutout innings that led the Chicago Cubs over the Seattle Mariners 12-1 Friday for their third straight win.

Jason Heyward and David Ross homered as the NL Central leaders improved to 9-5 since the All-Star break following a 1-9 slump. Seattle lost in its first trip to Wrigley Field since 2007.

Lester (11-4) had lasted just 16 innings over his previous four starts, going 1-1 with a 10.13 ERA. That skid came after he had gone 9-3 with a 2.03 ERA in his first 16 starts.

Lester gave up four hits, struck out seven and walked two. He was already done when there was a 74-minute rain delay in the seventh.

Mike Montgomery, traded last week from Seattle to the Cubs, pitched the final two innings. He gave up a single to Shawn O'Malley in the ninth for the Mariners' run.

Hisashi Iwakuma (11-7) had won his last five starts, but gave up five runs and eight hits in three innings (see full recap).

Source: Phillies, Rangers in 'pretty deep' trade talks about Vince Velasquez

Source: Phillies, Rangers in 'pretty deep' trade talks about Vince Velasquez

BOX SCORE

ATLANTA — The Phillies lost, 2-1, to the Atlanta Braves on Friday night.

The big news from this game, however, was that Vince Velasquez might have made his last start with the Phillies. A major league source told CSNPhilly.com that the Phillies and Texas Rangers are “pretty deep” in trade discussions involving Velasquez. The Rangers, the source said, also have some interest in Jeremy Hellickson, who pitches for the Phillies on Saturday night, but he appears to be a secondary target (see story).

It would take top talent to get Velasquez, a 24-year-old right-hander with a power arm. The Phillies acquired him over the winter from Houston as the centerpiece in the deal that sent Ken Giles to the Astros.

The Rangers had several scouts at the game, including Scott Littlefield, one of their top talent evaluators.

The Rangers’ interest in Velasquez was reported earlier in the week by Jon Morosi of MLB Network.

Apparently there’s more than just interest (see story). Stay tuned as Monday’s trade deadline approaches.

Starting pitching report
Velasquez scattered seven hits and two runs over six innings. He walked two and struck out five. Velasquez battled some command issues and needed 91 pitches to complete the six innings.

He is 8-3 with a 3.32 ERA in 18 starts. He has a 2.75 ERA in six starts since a brief stint on the disabled list with a right biceps strain.

Braves right-hander Tyrell Jenkins gave up just one unearned run over six innings.

Bullpen report
Both bullpens pitched scoreless ball.

At the plate
Phillies leadoff man Cesar Hernandez reached base in his first three at-bats and scored the Phillies’ only run on an error in the third inning. 

The Braves scored two runs in the third inning on three singles, a sacrifice bunt and a walk against Velasquez. Gordon Beckham and Nick Markakis drove in the runs with base hits.

Up next
Hellickson (7-7, 3.65) makes perhaps his final start with the Phillies on Saturday night. He will face Braves right-hander Julio Teheran (3-8, 2.71).