Rethinking the GM, Part II—American League Central

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You can read the basis of these postings and part I here.

Detroit Tigers

Mike Ilitch is the epitome of the “do the right thing” owner with all of his sports franchises. He hires people who are both perceived to know and do know what they’re doing and gives them the resources to be successful. With GM Dave Dombrowski, there’s none of the “look how smart I am” pretense in which he wants to win but more than winning, he wants credit for winning and being the architect of the franchise.

Dombrowski is the classic old-school baseball guy who worked his way up organically and didn’t trick anyone with an array of numbers and catchy business-themed buzzwords. Some owners want to hear that stuff and it’s usually either the ruthless corporate types who have no interest in anyone’s feelings and putting out a product that will be both practically successful and aesthetically likable; or a rich guy who didn’t work for his money and is interested in seeing his name in the papers, but doesn’t have the faintest concept into what running a sports franchise is all about and isn’t able to comprehend that you can’t run a baseball team like a corporation and expect it to work.

Ilitch knows and understands this and lets Dombrowski do his job. Dombrowski has built three different clubs to success with the Expos, Marlins and Tigers and had a hand in the early 1980s White Sox who rose to prominence under manager Tony LaRussa. For those who consider Dombrowski a product of Ilitch’s willingness to spend money and little else, it’s simply not true and is only presented as an excuse because he’s not a stat guy. He knows talent, spends money when necessary, but also has an old-school GM’s aggressiveness going after what he wants when others wouldn’t know what they’re getting as evidenced by his under-the-radar trade for Doug Fister. Most people in baseball barely knew who Fister was at the time the Tigers traded for him and the acquisition exemplified Dombrowski’s thinking and decisionmaking as he refused to take Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik saying “no” for an answer. The prospects Dombrowski gave up to get Fister haven’t done much for the Mariners and Fister is a solid mid-rotation starter at age 29.

Cleveland Indians

The Indians use the transfer of power approach when they name their GM. John Hart passed his job on to Mark Shapiro and Shapiro moved up to the team presidency and Chris Antonetti took over as GM. This is not a situation where the GM is actually running the whole show. Shapiro may have moved up to a more powerful position above the player personnel fray, but he still has significant input in the club’s construction.

In general when there’s a promotion of this kind, it’s done so that the team president doesn’t have to deal with the day-to-day minutiae that the GM has to deal with. I’m talking about press conferences, giving the final nod on the draft, listening to manager/player complaints and other redundant and tiresome exercises that make a GM want to get the promotion (or demotion) in the first place.

The Indians GM job and other front office positions are rarely if ever in jeopardy. It’s understood that there are payroll constraints and Shapiro and company have the freedom to teardown and rebuild as they see fit. This year is different because they hired a pricey name manager in Terry Francona and spent money on players Nick Swisher, Michael Bourn, Mark Reynolds and make a bold trade in sending Shin-Soo Choo to the Reds. Much of this is rumored to be due to owner Larry Dolan wanting to boost the product and attendance to increase the franchise’s sale value and then sell it.

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox are unique in that owner Jerry Reinsdorf trusts former GM and now Executive V.P. Ken Williams implicitly and lets him do what he wants even if that includes considering making Paul Konerko player/manager prior to hiring an unproven Robin Ventura who had no managerial experienced whatsoever.

Much like the Indians, Williams moved up to a higher executive perch and Rick Hahn took over as the day-to-day GM with Williams maintaining significant influence on the club’s construction. Outsiders rip Williams but he wants to win at the big league level every year and tends to ignore development. If contending is not in the cards, he reacts preemptively and blows it up. Another reason he’s so loathed by the stat person wing is because he scoffs at them with the reality that they haven’t the faintest idea as to what running a club entails, nor does he care about what they say.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins are insular and won’t bring in a new GM from the outside who’s going to want to clear out the house of former employees, marginalize longtime implementer of the “Twins way” Tom Kelly, and fire manager Ron Gardenhire. With that in mind, when they demoted Bill Smith from the GM position, they reached into the past for the GM of the club during their annual trips to the post-season, Terry Ryan.

The Twins have a packed farm system and should be back contending in the next couple of years. Ryan is decidedly old-school, has a background in scouting and worked his way up like Dombrowski. He’s willing to listen and discuss his philosophy with the stat people at their conventions, but will continue to be a scouting and “feel” GM as he looks for players that fit into what he, Kelly and Gardenhire prefer rather than someone whose OPS jumps off the page but might not behave in the manner the Twins want their players to.

The Twins ownership is one of the wealthiest in sports but there’s a tradeoff with their manner of ownership: they don’t interfere with the baseball people, but they don’t give them any more money than is within the budget. They treat it like a business. There are probably more benefits to that than negatives since they’re willing to have a $100+ million payroll and aren’t asking Ryan to complete the very difficult task of winning with $60 million or less.

Kansas City Royals

What’s funny about Dayton Moore becoming a punching bag for the Royals horrific backwards streak in which they went from 17-10 to 22-30 is that none of his more vicious critics was saying much of anything when the team was playing well and it looked like Moore’s decision to trade a package led by Wil Myers to the Rays for a package led by James Shields was going to yield the desired result.

Moore learned as an assistant to John Schuerholz and played a significant role in the Braves having a fertile farm system through the 1990s and early 2000s, but might not be cut out to be a fulltime GM. He’s good at building a farm system and has trouble sprinkling in necessary ingredients to supplement the youngsters on the big league roster.

When Moore was making the rounds as a GM candidate, he almost seemed to be reluctant to take the job. He interviewed with the Red Sox in 2002 and withdrew from consideration after the first interview. He then took the Royals job at mid-season 2006. Perhaps he knew something that those who touted him as a GM candidate didn’t; maybe he was happy as an assistant and didn’t want the scrutiny that comes from being a GM and took it because he was expected to move up to the next level as a GM.

Whatever it was, I think of other GMs and former GMs who had certain attributes to do the job but weren’t cut out to be the guy at the top of the food chain because of the missing—and important—other aspects. Omar Minaya was like that. Minaya is a great judge of talent, can charm the reporters and fans, has a fantastic rapport with the Latin players and can be a convincing salesman. When he was introducing his new free agent signing or acquisition in a big trade, he was great with a big smile and nice suit as a handsome representative for the team. But when there was dirty work to be done like firing his manager, firing an assistant, or answering reporters’ questions regarding a controversy, his shakiness with the English language and propensity to be too nice came to the forefront and he couldn’t do the job effectively.

There’s nothing wrong with being a great assistant when the alternative is being a mediocre-to-bad GM and winding up right back where he or she started from.

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Off Season Losers In Retrospect

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Several days ago I listed the off season winners in retrospect discussing teams and the moves they made this past winter. Now it’s time for the losers.

New York Yankees

Acquired: Michael Pineda, Raul Ibanez, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, Jose Campos

Subtracted: Jorge Posada, A.J. Burnett, Jesus Montero, Hector Noesi

The YES Network website still hasn’t mentioned Jose Campos since he got hurt. For that matter, nor have they mentioned Manny Banuelos’s recent injury. Maybe they haven’t been informed yet. Yeah. That’s it.

The trade of Montero and Noesi for Pineda and Campos is an absolute and utter disaster—a fireable offense for GM Brian Cashman.

Kuroda’s been good and unlucky.

Pettitte’s unexpected return has been a bolt from the blue and Ibanez has contributed the power I expected.

It’s fine to talk about them “having” to get rid of Burnett, but they’re paying him; they got low minor leaguers for him; he’s pitching well for the Pirates; and the players the Yankees got haven’t played yet in 2012. Had Pettitte not returned I guarantee there would be people now lamenting the loss of Burnett.

Guarantee.

Boston Red Sox

Acquired: GM Ben Cherington, Manager Bobby Valentine, Andrew Bailey, Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, Kelly Shoppach, Mark Melancon, Nick Punto

Subtracted: GM Theo Epstein, Manager Terry Francona, Jonathan Papelbon, Marco Scutaro, Josh Reddick, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek

It’s only when you look at the list above all at once do you realize how rancid an off-season the Red Sox had. Never mind the exchange of GMs/managers. Had he stayed, Epstein probably would’ve had better success fending off the advancing power grab of Larry Lucchino but it would’ve taken a Herculean effort for Epstein to prevent the mediocrity that the Red Sox have become.

I’m sick of seeing Francona complaining about how he was treated in Boston. If it weren’t for the Red Sox, the hot chicks to whom he’s sending candid photos of himself wouldn’t know who he is; not to mention would he not have two World Series rings and respect as a “great” manager—which he’s not.

Bailey got hurt as Reddick is on his way to making the All Star team and has been the Athletics’ best player. Melancon is back in the minor leagues; Shoppach is on the trade block; Ross was playing well before he got hurt; Punto is Punto.

No one’s saying they should’ve overpaid to keep Papelbon, but giving Scutaro away for a journeyman righty Clayton Mortensen made no sense.

Detroit Tigers

Acquired: Prince Fielder, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Collin Balester

Subtracted: Wilson Betemit, Brad Penny, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Joel Zumaya

Fielder and Cabrera are doing their jobs at the plate and more. The porous defense created by the signing of Fielder and shifting of Cabrera to third base hasn’t been as catastrophic as expected. That’s unless the pitching staff has it in their heads that they have to strike out more hitters or pitch differently to prevent balls from being hit to the right or left sides of the infield—highly unlikely.

The Tigers are 5 games under .500 because their pitching has been bad. The off-season isn’t a failure because of the signing of Fielder, but 5 games under .500 wasn’t what Mike Ilitch had in mind when he paid all that money to sign a huge bat like Fielder to replace Victor Martinez and team him with Cabrera.

Minnesota Twins

Acquired: GM Terry Ryan, Josh Willingham, Jamey Carroll, Jason Marquis, Ryan Doumit, Joel Zumaya

Subtracted: GM Bill Smith, Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, Jason Kubel, Kevin Slowey

Terry Ryan was supposed to come back into the GM’s chair and start doing things the “Twins’ Way”. Well, that “way” is no longer working. The reason that vaunted “way” worked in the past was because they had talent on the roster and a club that was built for how Ron Gardenhire managed.

That’s no longer the case.

Marquis was released. Carroll hasn’t hit. Willingham’s been fantastic. The Zumaya signing was worth a shot I suppose, but he got hurt again. What he needs now is a friend—a real friend—to tell him that it’s over and he should retire before he damages himself permanently.

Maybe that’s what the Twins need too.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Acquired: GM Jerry Dipoto, Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Chris Iannetta, Jason Isringhausen, LaTroy Hawkins

Subtracted: GM Tony Reagins, Fernando Rodney, Jeff Mathis, Tyler Chatwood

Pujols has started hitting and the Angels will rise and fall on what he does, but the uncharacteristic decision on the part of the Angels to depart from the template they’ve adhered to for a decade has led to this disconnect between GM Dipoto, manager Mike Scioscia and the club.

Scioscia’s hitting coach, Mickey Hatcher, was fired against Scioscia’s wishes. They never took serious steps to bolster the bullpen and had too many players for too few lineup spots.

Owner Arte Moreno made maneuvers that were not team-related, but related to the TV deal he wanted to secure. And he did.

They did business like the 1980s Yankees and they’ve been playing and behaving like the 1980s Yankees. The one thing that will save them is the thing that was lacking in the 1980s: the Wild Cards.

Cincinnati Reds

Acquired: Mat Latos, Ryan Madson, Ryan Ludwick

Subtracted: Ramon Hernandez, Yonder Alonso, Yasmani Grandal, Edinson Volquez, Edgar Renteria, Francisco Cordero

The Reds are in first place and playing well no thanks to Latos (he’s been horrific); Madson (out for the year with Tommy John surgery); and Ludwick (.205/.290/.402 slash line with 6 homers in a homer-friendly home park).

It’s not as if they needed Alonso with Joey Votto ensconced at first base. They have a young catcher in Devin Mesoraco so they didn’t really need Grandal. And Volquez has been consistently inconsistent and injured since his great rookie year with the Reds.

But the winter moves are what’s relevant here and if they’d held onto the players they traded for Latos (and I’m not retrospectively ripping the deal since I thought it was good for both sides), they could’ve gotten mid-season help rather than an in-season nightmare.

Milwaukee Brewers

Acquired: Aramis Ramirez, Alex Gonzalez, Norichika Aoki, Jose Veras, Brooks Conrad

Subtracted: Prince Fielder, Yuniesky Betancourt, Casey McGehee

Ramirez is starting to hit and will hit put up numbers by the end of the season. We’ll never know whether the improved defense and pop from Alex Gonzalez and a full season from Mat Gamel would’ve made up for the loss of Fielder because both blew out their knees within days of each other.

It’s not really anyone’s fault. They did the best they could under their financial and practical circumstances.

St. Louis Cardinals

Acquired: Manager Mike Matheny, Carlos Beltran, pitching coach Derek Lilliquist

Subtracted: Manager Tony LaRussa, pitching coach Dave Duncan, Albert Pujols, Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Gerald Laird, Nick Punto.

So wait…now that the Cardinals are at .500 and freefalling it’s been miraculously discovered that the transition from a Hall of Fame manager/pitching coach combination to a manager who’s never managed before anywhere wasn’t going to go as smoothly as it did when they got off to a hot start?

That replacing Pujols wasn’t as simple as signing Beltran and moving the now-injured 36-year-old Lance Berkman to first base?

Shocking.

Colorado Rockies

Acquired: Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez, Jeremy Guthrie, Tyler Chatwood, Tyler Colvin, Jamie Moyer

Subtracted: Chris Iannetta, Jason Hammel, Matt Lindstrom, Ian Stewart, Seth Smith

The starting pitching has killed them.

They loaded up on starters, but it hasn’t been enough as Drew Pomeranz got hurt and they gave Moyer 10 starts. It hasn’t helped that Hammel has been very good for the Orioles while Guthrie has been terrible for the Rockies.

Cuddyer has been everything advertised. Scutaro and Hernandez haven’t.

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The Twins As League Tomato Can

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First it was the Red Sox and now it’s the Angels. Two teams with high preseason expectations and off to atrocious and scrutiny-laced starts are righting their flagging ships by beating up on the Twins.

For a franchise that had grown accustomed to winning and garnering a playoff spot as if by divine right (and being in a bad division), the Twins have rapidly become the league punching bag.

It’s going to last all season.

The return of former GM Terry Ryan was greeted with much fanfare and expectations of improvement. In the winter, he made a series of old-school “Twins” moves by signing the underrated Jamey Carroll; the innings-eating Jason Marquis; declining the contract option and re-signing veteran reliever Matt Capps; signing Josh Willingham and the competent backup catcher/first baseman/outfielder Ryan Doumit.

He also brought in an array of arms for the bullpen in the hopes that a few of them would be cheap, useful cogs in the machine.

But none of that addressed the fundamental problems that led to the 99-loss disaster of 2011.

The starting rotation is still contact-based and the pitchers are eerily similar to one another; the bullpen is serviceable but nowhere near what it was when manager Ron Gardenhire had durable veterans who knew their roles and were backed up by an All-Star closer, Joe Nathan; the lineup has black spots and no replacements on the horizon.

Already 6-17, Ryan doesn’t even have the option to clear out the house and build for the future because there are few players that any other team would be willing to give up a ton to get. Justin Morneau is a shell of what he was after concussions and their aftereffects. He might be worth a shot if he wasn’t due $28 million for 2012-2013. Perhaps they could eat some of the money to get back better young players in a deal.

Denard Span would bring back value, but he’s signed cheaply (a guaranteed $14.75 million with an option for 2015 at $9 million) and, with it so difficult to find a competent centerfielder, it makes no sense to move him unless they’re bowled over with an offer.

Joe Mauer is hitting again, but with Mauer, the residue of the failed tenure of demoted GM Bill Smith remains. Had the Twins held onto Wilson Ramos instead of trading him to the Nationals for Capps, they’d have a big league ready catcher who would free them to move Mauer to another position at least part time. In much the same way the Yankees are proving now with the burgeoning nightmare trade of Jesus Montero to the Mariners, if you’re trading a top prospect who can catch and hit, you’d better get something useful and proven in return.

The Twins will get low level prospects for pending free agent Carl Pavano (trade him to the Yankees!) and probably less for fellow free agent Francisco Liriano.

The organization had been the dominant force in the AL Central for a decade, but now they’re relegated to the equivalent of a found opponent that the managers and promoters of rising boxers use to fatten up their charge’s knockout record.

If I were a Twins’ fan, I’d get used to the abuse because it’s not going to stop anytime soon.

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Terry Ryan’s Back

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If there had been any doubt as to the new direction of the Minnesota Twins under new/old GM Terry Ryan, that was dispatched with his signings of under-the-radar, inexpensive and useful free agents Jamey Carroll and Ryan Doumit.

Under fired GM Bill Smith, the Twins signed Tsuyoshi Nishioka to a 3-year, $9.25 million deal to play shortstop not knowing how the Japanese import would react and transition to the North American game. He didn’t transition very well. In fact, he was awful in every single aspect of the game. He couldn’t field or hit. It was a terrible signing in theory and, predictably, in practice.

With Ryan in command, they’re paying less money to the long-underrated Carroll to a 2-year, $6.5 million contract and will know they’re getting an experienced and versatile veteran who can hit, field, get on base and steal a few bases.

Doumit was signed to a 1-year, $3 million deal. With Doumit, the only question about him is whether he can stay healthy. Has he overcome his concussion problems? Is his shoulder is in good enough shape to throw acceptably from behind the plate so teams won’t go crazy when he’s catching? Doumit’s a switch-hitter with some pop; he can play first base and the outfield in addition to catching and that’s precisely what the Twins—with the frequent injuries to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau—need. They couldn’t go into the 2012 season with Drew Butera or some similar no-hit journeyman functioning as Mauer’s backup. If Doumit can catch, that frees Mauer from having to catch 20-30 games while still keeping the star’s bat in the lineup. Doumit could be another player who blossoms when he’s released from the Pirates’ purgatory and is in a venue with more structure and positivity.

Now the Twins are on the lookout for a closer and you can bet Ryan’s not going to revisit the insipid Smith idea of trading Denard Span to the Nationals for Drew Storen.

Ryan doesn’t function that way.

He’s either going to bring back Matt Capps; look for a cheaper arm on the market that’s been a closer previously; or he’ll find a pitcher that another team might be willing to trade—Luke Gregerson, Bobby Parnell, Michael Stutes, Santiago Casilla—who could conceivably close if given the opportunity.

This is Ryan’s way and it’s better than the desperate staggering around in the dark the Twins have been doing since he retired.

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The Twins Lost Their “Way”

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And General Manager Bill Smith was fired because of it.

You can read about the Smith gaffes everywhere—how he shunned the Twins reliance on trusted bullpen arms; spent terribly on Tsuyoshi Nishioka; traded a needed backup catcher and top prospect Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps.

The Twins retreated from the template that made them an admired organization who functioned under a system and a budget by spending money badly and executing poorly conceived, desperation trades.

A change had to be made.

Former GM Terry Ryan is taking over on an “interim” basis that some don’t believe is all that interim.

If he’s taking the job, he should just take the job and say he’s taking the job.

Don’t think that Ryan is going to walk back into the GM chair and fix the 99-loss Twins immediately. Already they’re said to be cutting the payroll from an un-Twins-like $113 million in 2011; he has to address the backup catcher situation and decide exactly how many games Joe Mauer will catch and how many will be spent DHing or playing first base; they’re losing Michael Cuddyer and possibly Jason Kubel and Joe Nathan; Justin Morneau‘s playing status is in limbo after repeated concussions and other injuries; Nishioka is a disaster; the starting rotation is mediocre at best and the bullpen is in shambles.

With the defending division champion Tigers; the high-priced White Sox; and the rising Royals and Indians in the AL Central, it’s going to be next-to-impossible for the Twins to contend in 2012.

It’s not as if Ryan oversaw a quick-fix the first time he took charge as GM in late 1994 replacing Andy MacPhail.

The Twins were mostly terrible from 1995 through 2000; only in 2001—Tom Kelly‘s final season as manager—did the team finish over .500 and this was after threats of contraction and haplessness surrounded the franchise.

From 2002 onward, the Twins have been a case study in frugal and gutsy free agent signings and trades; Ryan adhered to the designated limits on payroll and weeding out players who didn’t behave off the field and execute fundamentally on the field.

His top-level drafts were shaky, but he did find some late-round sleepers who were integrated into that “Twins way”. He served the organization’s best interests in drafting Mauer over Mark Prior in spite of the insistence of armchair experts that they should’ve taken Prior; he selected functional late-rounders in Kubel, Danny Valencia and Pat Neshek; his picks of Denard Span, Jesse Crain, Scott Baker, Brian Duensing and Kevin Slowey yielded useful big leaguers who fit into roles; his trades for Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano and Nathan were strokes of genius.

Now he’s looking at a club not dissimilar to that which he took over in 1994. Rife with bloated mediocrity at the big league level, there are some young players with promise—Chris Parmelee and Joe Benson among them. Both make it less of an issue to let Cuddyer walk and to field offers for Span.

That’s what the Twins have to do.

Ryan’s first order of business will be to consider dealing Liriano and Span now or wait until the season is underway—the Twins must infuse the club with young, high-level and cheaper talent. That’s the way he built the club that dominated their division for most of the past decade.

It’s not something that can be done on an interim basis.

If he’s not in it for the long haul—loyalty to the organization or not—then he shouldn’t be entrusted with the all-important deals that can make or break a franchise.

He’s done it before.

Ryan has a lot of work to do and he needs to be all-in to do it properly.

Is he?

He and the Twins have to make that determination quickly and act boldly; and if he’s not, the Twins need to hire someone who is. Someone who knows and understands The Twins Way.

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A Closer Who Fits With The Mets

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The Twins declined their $12.5 million, 2012 option on closer Joe Nathan and will pay him a $2 million buyout. Twins GM Bill Smith has said that the Twins want Nathan back.

But not so fast.

While in some cases, the teams who have declined an option or traded a player would indeed be “interested” in bringing said player back (see Roy Oswalt and the Phillies or Carlos Beltran with the Mets), it’s highly unlikely that they’re going to pay the amount of money required to get them; so said interest is similar to me saying I’d like to travel into space—technically I could do it, but I don’t have the money to spare nor the intense desire to do so.

The Twins would have the cash available to bring Nathan back and are desperately in need of a closer with both Nathan and Matt Capps on the free agent market, but since they’ve already declined the option, Nathan will be in heavy demand as a moderate risk, massive reward for a short term 1-2-year deal.

The Mets need a veteran closer (they’re not going into the season with uncertainty at multiple positions again) and Nathan grew up on Long Island; went to Stony Brook University; and was a Mets fan growing up.

Nathan’s about to turn 37 and got off to a poor start in 2011 after missing all of 2010 with Tommy John surgery; he wound up back on the disabled list twice with a strained right flexor tendon related to his recovery, but as the summer wore on and he regained the closer’s role from the struggling Capps, he also regained some semblance of the form that made him one of baseball’s top short relievers for many years.

From July on he was mostly reliable and his strikeout numbers were solid (about 1 per inning); his velocity was consistently around 92 all season; and while he’s not what he was in his heyday, he’s a veteran who wouldn’t be intimidated by pitching in New York.

He couldn’t pitch on back-to-back days in 2010, so the Mets would likely have to have someone else capable of doing the job at least part of the time—they can have a spring training competition between Bobby Parnell and Manny Acosta and scour the market for pitchers who’ve been non-tendered; but with Nathan two years out from surgery, he’s a worthwhile gamble on an incentive laden deal to make a comeback at home with the Mets.

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