Amaro quickly learns to be patient
Despite Halladay clamoring, GM gives up lot less for Lee
John Schuerholz is the most successful general manager in baseball history. Now the Atlanta Braves president, Schuerholz was a genius when it came to pulling off a deal that would dramatically improve his team.
Schuerholz's moves were bold and aggressive, yet he seldom weakened the Braves system to complete a blockbuster. His record 14 consecutive division titles attest to that.
Ruben Amaro Jr., the Philadelphia Phillies' rookie GM, has a long way to go to reach that status, but he's certainly off to a fast start.
While fans were clamoring for the Phillies to deal for Toronto's Roy Halladay as Friday's Trade Deadline approached, Amaro kept a low profile, saying little. He refused to negotiate in the media. Ultimately, he rejected a trade that would have cost three of the organization's prized prospects.
Instead, he landed Cleveland left-hander Cliff Lee, the 2008 American League Cy Young Award winner, on Wednesday without parting with any of the players the Blue Jays demanded for Halladay -- pitchers J.A. Happ and Kyle Drabek and outfielder Dominic Brown.
To get Lee, who turns 31 on Aug. 30, the Phillies sent the Indians pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp, shortstop Jason Donald and catcher Lou Marson -- no one off their Major League roster.
I thought the Phillies, defending World Series champions, needed to pull out all the stops to get Halladay, the AL's best pitcher. Philadelphia's lineup, one of the most powerful in the Major Leagues, is in its prime. It might be on the downside when Drabek and others are ready for the Majors.
Why worry about the future when the addition of Halladay would have greatly increased the Phillies' chances of winning another title -- this year and next?
I would have made the deal even though the cost in prospects was almost outrageous. Go for it, I said.
For Amaro, the price was too steep. He stood fast.
That reminds me of a lesson the late Paul Owens, former Phillies GM, manager, scout -- you name it -- preached.
"Sometimes the best deal you make is the one you don't make," he'd say while poking me in the chest with a finger to make his point.
I believe that rings true for the Phillies. They've improved their suspect rotation with the second-best pitcher available and didn't make The Other Deal.
Sure, they could have had Halladay alone in October, but now they have both Lee and young Happ, who took a 7-1 record and 2.97 earned run average into Wednesday night's start against the Diamondbacks.
Plus, Drabek, whom San Diego GM Kevin Towers told me Sunday night is one of the best pitching prospects in baseball, waits in the wings for future seasons.
"I'd be hard-pressed to part with Drabek," said Towers, who mentioned Kyle's pedigree (his father was former Cy Young Award winner Doug Drabek).
Amaro refused to say if he entered negotiations for a front-line pitcher with certain players "untouchable."
"Some guys are less touchable than others," he said Wednesday night. "It sounds funny, but it's the truth. We're fortunate that we were in a position to be able to move quality young players, and yet at the end of the day, we feel like we have kept many quality young players in our system.
"We cannot work in a vacuum and be so parochial that all we concentrate on is today. My job as steward of the club is to make sure we're good now and, hopefully, give us a chance to be good beyond 2009.
"That's the goal. We felt like this was the right trade and yet we still have some quality down below we can call on in the future."
I should also point out that it was Amaro, at his first Winter Meetings, who landed All-Star outfielder Raul Ibanez, one of the best offseason free-agent signings.
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has been pleading for a right-handed-hitting bench player. Ben Francisco, who comes in the Lee deal, fills that. He's batting .250 with 10 homers, 33 runs batted in and 13 stolen bases.
I like Lee. He's 7-9 with a 3.14 ERA in 22 starts this season for a bad Cleveland team. He got little run support, but pitched at least seven innings in 14 of the 22 starts.
Last year he was 22-3 with a 2.54 ERA in 31 starts en route to his first Cy Young Award.
His career was hanging in the balance after a dreadful 2007, but determination helped him rebuild with stunning results.
During an interview last fall, Indians manager Eric Wedge told me how Lee turned his career around.
"It's a credit to Cliff Lee," said Wedge. "He committed to turn everything around during the offseason, from a physical and mental standpoint."
Wedge said Lee's impeccable fastball sets up his curveball, cutter, slider and changeup.
Lee's version: "I've focused more on when I start seeing things poorly. I've slowed the game down a little more. I try to take a deep breath, step back, and catch it before it even turns bad. As soon as I get in a 1-0 count, 2-0 count, or even 3-0, I've made a conscious effort to step off the mound, relax and slow the game down.
"When things are going good, I try to continue to work fast and let things roll. But when things are starting to turn, I've got to make sure to make the right pitch at the right time."
As last season ended with the Cy Young Award on the horizon, Wedge said that "he's been better physically, fundamentally and mentally. His concentration level and discipline level has been excellent."
Lee should welcome moving to the National League. He has a 12-2 record against NL teams and a 3.18 ERA. Batters are hitting just .245 against him.
In addition, the Phillies saved some money by not getting Halladay, who earns $14.25 million this year and $15.75 in 2010.
Lee, at $6 million this year, has a $9 million club option for next season. The money the Phillies save will give them more flexibility during next offseason.
Schuerholz once told me the impact deals at the July 31 Trade Deadline can only be made when there is an abundant pipeline of players in the Minor Leagues available for these kinds of negotiations.
"Without that pipeline, some of the big deals I've made wouldn't have been possible," he said. "Other teams are always looking for prospects. The key is to be able to keep certain players and at the same time make the deal you want."
And that's exactly what Amaro, who received some cheers from his players when he walked into their clubhouse Wednesday night, was able to do.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.