The Man Who (Kind of, Sort of, Maybe) Changed the Course of Baseball

When the 2015 Major League Baseball season ended Sunday, the Philadelphia Phillies got a win, barely avoiding triple-digit losses and finishing with a final record of 63-99. On the same day, the Kansas City Royals beat the Minnesota Twins 6-1 to secure the American League’s best record, finishing with a record of 95-67.

But the worst team in baseball and the best team in the American League are linked by more than just their polar finishes. Seven years ago, one man flipped between those franchises. And the two club’s fortunes changed.

In 2008, the Phillies beat the Tampa Bay Rays in a five-game World Series. Things seemed to be going well in Philly. Young ace Cole Hamels won series MVP; 28-year-old Ryan Howard played in every game that season while posting ML-leading numbers of 48 home runs and 146 RBI; homegrown talents Bretty Myers, Jimmy Rollins and Pat Burrell played key roles in the World Series win.

That year Kansas City finished 75-87, fourth-worst in the American League.

In the offseason, Baseball Hall of Fame General Manager Pat Gillick retired after three years with the Phillies. (Phillies fans got another blow when legendary broadcaster Harry Kalas died in the next season’s first month.) The Philly front office promoted 43-year-old Ruben Amaro Jr., whose story reads like folk lore. His first job with the team was in 1980, as a batboy. He then played in the big leagues and, in 1998 when he retired, was immediately hired as a Philadelphia assistant GM.

But Amaro Jr.’s success came at the expense of another Phillies’ assistant, Mike Arbucke. Arbuckle was an assistant GM himself, waiting in the wings since the 1990s. He was the scouting director who drafted Howard, betting on his power over swings-and-misses; who drafted Hamels and his broken arm in 2002; who drafted Phillies greats Rollins and Chase Utley. Arbuckle had already been passed over when the organization hired Gillick in 2006 so when Arbuckle didn’t get the job, he left the team and headed to Kansas City, near where he grew up. The Royals hired him as the senior adviser to the GM.

And the two teams haven’t been the same since.

In 2009, Amaro’s first season as GM of the Phillies, the team lost in the World Series. The next season, the Phillies lost in the National League Championship Series. In 2011, the team won 102 games but exited earlier than the season previous, after the Divisional Series. The Phillies won 21 fewer games in 2012, going 81-81. The next two seasons the team only won 73 games. This season, 63.

In 2009, Arbuckle got to Kansas City and the team won 67 games, two more than the year prior. Then the team started building. From 2009 to 2015, the Kansas City Royals improved every year, raising its win totals from 67 to 71 to 72 to 86 to 89 in 2014, the same year the team made a World Series appearance with a dominant bullpen and young star power. In this stretch of drastic improvement, the New York Times took notice of Arbuckle.

This season, Arbuckle’s Royals enter the postseason as the American League’s No. 1 team, guaranteed home field throughout the playoffs and with a blend of young and veteran talent.

Of course, Arbuckle is not solely deserving of credit. Royals GM Dayton Moore is the one who signed catcher Salvador Perez and pitcher Yordano Ventura; he drafted third baseman Mike Moustakas, designated hitter Billy Butler and pitcher Greg Holland; he made moves for pitchers James Shields and Wade Davis.

Arbuckle’s change in employment may have just been a coincidence, but even on that 2014 World Series team, Arbuckle’s fingerprints are there. On the roster, and pitching in high-leverage situations, was 2014 first-round pick Brandon Finnegan. On the roster were two more Arbuckle first-round picks, shortstop Christian Colon and pitcher Aaron Crow.

While the Royals success in 2014 may have been due to Moore more than Arbuckle, the Royals future success could rely on the transplant from Philly.

And the Phillies, in a golden age hangover, still has one more season of the bloated Howard contract. The team no longer has hometown heroes Rollins and Hamels, spun this season for cents on the dollar. The public disdain for Amaro is widely documented. 

Since 2009, Arbuckle’s and Amaro’s careers have gone in separate ways. Only one of them is a General Manager. And only one of them has a chance to touch a World Series trophy this fall.

Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at sam.fortier@yahoo.com. 

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