By DENNIS DEITCH
ATLANTA – Ruben Amaro Jr. said Saturday that the first order of business for the Phillies upon conclusion of their most disappointing season in more than a decade was to get Ryne Sandberg’s coaching staff in order.
That process began with a significant, yet unsurprising decision to part way with pitching coach Rich Dubee after nine seasons, five of which resulted in postseason appearances, with one coming with a world championship.
The change hardly comes as a surprise, considering the Phillies have a new manager in Sandberg and are coming off a season where the pitching staff ranked 14th in the National League in ERA, with some of the decisions and lack of progress focused on the pitching coach.
Dubee was backed stridently by veteran pitchers like Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels. In Halladay’s case, it’s no wonder: Dubee was complicit in keeping Halladay’s back issues last season from view, and this year Dubee continued to give an overabundance of leeway to the right-hander as he pitched with a hurt shoulder and stomach problems. Halladay had four starts in the opening 32 days of the season where he was pummeled so badly the team had no shot to compete behind him. That deference showed a wiliness to put Halladay ahead of what was right for the pitching staff and the team, and even if the front office wrongly supported that decision, Dubee had the tenure and expertise to be the one to have the organization reconsider it.
Dubee’s other fatal flaw was his inability to get much out of the young relievers the Phillies banked on filling out their bullpen entering this season. Not one of the young relievers showed a great deal of promise during spring training, with hard-throwing right-hander Phillippe Aumont becoming completely unraveled in the process. By the time guys like Jake Diekman, Justin De Fratus and B.J. Rosenberg started to have their talents begin to pay dividends, the season was long lost.
Those are the reasons Dubee is out. However, he deserves credit for being there as Halladay won a Cy Young and finished second another year, Cliff Lee continued to thrive into his mid-30s, and Hamels remained one of the top left-handers in the game. He also took a mediocre starting rotation and unheralded bullpen in 2008 and helped it delivered a World Series title to the city.
A replacement for Dubee must be determined, but Rod Nichols, who had been a longtime and well-regarded minor-league pitching coach in the minors for the Phils, kept a low-profile as the bullpen coach for the Phils this season and will be under consideration for the gig.
While Dubee joined Charlie Manuel as a casualty of 2013 and there are certain to be more coaching changes in the coming weeks, the general manager is getting one more shot to correct a roster that he has allowed to go astray each of the last two winters.
Amaro is aware he has two strikes on him. And during a lengthy discussion at Turner Field, he said he accepts both the responsibility for his part in causing the mess and for making some quick corrections. After all, the signing of Chase Utley and retention of several other veterans were indicators that there won’t be a rebuilding just yet. The Phillies remain in reloading mode.
“I don’t listen to a lot of it,” Amaro said of the calls for his head. “But listen, I’m the G.M. of the club, so I fully expect to take heat for it. I’m the one who is making the decisions on player personnel. 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. I think we win as a team and lose as a team. The fact of the matter is that 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 and make better mojo overall.”
The Phillies finished 73-89, which landed them the No. 7 overall pick in the June 2014 Draft. By virtue of being in the top 10, Amaro can be aggressive on the free-agent market and sign a player without sacrificing a first-round pick. With starting pitchers like Ervin Santana, Matt Garza and Tim Lincecum likely hitting the market, that might be his best option for filling that need.
Another area in question in the outfield, where the Phillies again lagged well below the MLB average in production, despite Dom Brown coming into his own in the first half. Amaro said that Brown might switch back to right field from left, depending on how the team addresses the issues. As for Darin Ruf …
“Ruf is not a right fielder,” Amaro said. “I think he can fill in for us. I think he can fill in in certain areas, but I can’t sit here and tell you that he’s an everyday player for us … It’s hard to say that he’s an everyday player in the outfield. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice, because we just need to be better in the outfield defensively.”
The best outfielders on the market are Red Sox sparkplug Jacoby Ellsbury (.298 average, 52 SBs, 92 runs) and Reds on-base machine Shin-Soo Choo (.423 OBP, 21 HRs, 107 runs in 2013), both of whom are Scott Boras clients and are left-handed hitters. Neither of those aspects are appealing to the Phils, although Amaro seemed ready to completely tilt his team to the left side of the plate if needed.
“We might even have to go more left-handed,” he said. “If the quality of the player needs to be left-handed, and he’s a quality player who can play the outfield and play defense and play the way we need him to do, then we might have to go with a left-handed hitter.”
The quality drops hard after those two, so Amaro might have to get creative and bold with trade offers.
“As far as the free-agent market is concerned,” Amaro said, “it’s maybe a little bit better (than last winter). But we have our internal options that will be better. We have some guys who have grown up a little bit. They've had an opportunity to grow up. I won't anoint Cody Asche as the third baseman, but he is a viable option. I frankly hope there is a great competition in spring training between Maikel Franco and Cody. That can create a heck of a situation for us. They are both very, very good young players. A lot of it depends on how they handle it.”
The player decisions are destined to start with Carlos Ruiz, and a source said the organization has begun an attempt to preemptively get the veteran catcher off the market. After struggling with production at the plate until late July, Ruiz hit .281 with 17 extra-base hits, 28 RBIs and a .789 OPS in his final 46 games (41 starts). With top catching prospect Tommy Joseph’s progress stunted by concussion problems and Cameron Rupp at the moment a safer bet as a backup, the position is a priority.
Amaro also mentioned Roy Halladay as a “concern,” but it seems ridiculous to think that the fallen ace will have a team before January. Odds are strong teams will want to see the 36-year-old throw off a mound and see if his recovers both weight on his gaunt frame and velocity on his dying fastball.
“As far as monetizing his contract, I have no idea where to go there yet,” Amaro said of Halladay. “It's going to be something that is south of where he is now ($20 million) clearly, but the question is how far south do you go without embarrassing the player? How far south do you go risking what he will be for us? … But we have some time. It's not a pressing issue.”
As for the payroll, there wasn’t a team that spent as much to be as bad as the Phillies. So, while there will be a discussion about a possible increase of the $165 million Amaro spent in 2013, he doesn’t think it should be necessary to succeed.
“I really haven’t talked to David (Montgomery) about that,” Amaro said of the team president, who was in Atlanta last weekend with the team. “Obviously we had a lot less people coming to the ballpark this year. We have to be cognizant of that. We have been greatly supported – our payroll was, what, $165 million? That should be enough to put a contender on the field.
“We didn’t do it for a variety of reasons – some from the decisions that we made, some were because we just didn’t have the health that was necessary to have success. We have to make better decisions.”
And if that change in the tides hasn’t already started, it better soon.