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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Amway Sponsors Sports Teams Other Than The Mets

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You may recognize the logo below. It’s one of the most respected sports franchises in the world with an owner who is universally known for being a nice, generous man and committed sports owner.

The Red Wings are the team and Mike Ilitch is the owner. The Amway logo is on the team’s practice jerseys.

How about the gentleman below?

A case study in perseverance; deeply religious; involved in noble causes; a three-time Super Bowl participant, two-time NFL MVP and probable Hall of Famer, Kurt Warner works for Amway promoting their nutrition products.

One of the founders of Amway, Richard DeVos, is the well-liked and philanthropic owner of the Orlando Magic, a consistently successful NBA franchise.

The Mets have reached agreement for Amway to be a sponsor. Yet because it’s the Mets and the media took Amway’s business model as a “pyramid” scheme, the perception became a reality. It was repeatedly said, therefore it must be true. None other than Mike Francesa, in his customary flying off half-cocked without knowing what he’s talking about, doled out authoritative advice based on nothing and said the Mets should consider advertisers like Disney.

Walt Disney was affiliated with American interest groups in the 1940s that were considered anti-Semitic. How would that play out today and is that better or worse than Amway?

How about, for some context, we look at the beacon-like franchises in sports today and list some of their sponsors, searching for signs of wrongdoing, real or not.

The New England Patriots and New York Yankees have Bank of America as a sponsor. In many ways what Bank of America has done in the interest of their shareholders and amassing cash was worse than anything the Wilpon family is accused of doing with the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme.

Manchester United has Nike as a sponsor. Nike has long been accused of using child labor to make their products.

The point isn’t to perform a rudimentary websearch to find examples of other teams whose business dealings could be put under scrutiny and presented as an example of wrongdoing. All companies can have their inner workings scrutinized specifically to find evidence of moral repugnance and used to cast them as “evil.” But facts shine a light on reality. The Mets are not doing anything wrong by going into business with Amway. The current positives with the franchise—Zack Wheeler, Matt Harvey, David Wright, Travis d’Arnaud—are referenced with a caveat implying, “but it’s the Mets, so they’ll screw something up. Oh, and they’re in business with Amway. AMWAY!!!!

It’s a manufactured controversy by the ignorant and those with an agenda.

Perhaps after the smoke clears and the media finds a story that they think is even more salacious, this truth will be pointed out as an “oh, yeah,” mention in the lower corner of a newspaper or website, but it’s the splash that’s remembered and not the droplets in its aftermath. The Mets’ image of cluelessly evil like a buffoonish villain from Austin Powers sells, therefore it will continue as long as it remains useful to the narrative whether it’s accurate or not.

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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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Prince Fielder Cannonballs Into Detroit

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All the interpretations and projections are meaningless. What the Tigers defense is going to look like with Prince Fielder at first base and Miguel Cabrera at third, the speculation of how they’ll be declining by 2015, and the overwrought aghast at Fielder’s 9-year, $214 million contract—all are secondary and below to a simple analysis of the Tigers’ decision to pay Fielder: Owner Mike Ilitch has the money to spend, the Tigers have the need for a bat, Fielder was available and the Tigers purchased him.

Nothing else really matters.

Yes, he was the biggest player—literally and figuratively—left on the market and will create buzz.

Yes, there’s a legacy issue because it was in Detroit that Prince’s father Cecil Fielder returned from Japan and became a star.

Yes, the Tigers took an on-paper leap past the other teams in the AL Central.

Facts, numbers and contract details are not what Tigers fans want to hear now, nor are they of great concern to Ilitch, manager Jim Leyland or the veterans on the roster who want to win.

Fielder does create something of a redundancy with Cabrera. They’ll have to figure out who goes where when Victor Martinez returns either in late 2012 or by 2013.

Prince and Cecil are not on the best of terms, so this wasn’t due to sentimentality—the Tigers paid and Prince signed.

Ilitch and Leyland are not worried about 2015.

While the afterglow and shock are wearing off and the Eric Ortiz lust piece about last season’s Red Sox is edited by Detroit propagandists to insert the word “Tigers” instead of “Red Sox”, remember that dream teams rarely fulfill those expectations and this signing doesn’t automatically hand the Tigers the division title or a playoff spot.

But they’re better. The owner has a lot of money and he spent it.

If and when the predicted doomsday scenario comes to pass, the Tigers will likely have a new manager replacing Leyland; the owner will be extremely old; and Justin Verlander will have three more years of wear on his arm.

This is a now move by an owner who wants a baseball championship sooner rather than later and building for 2016 isn’t going to do him or Leyland much good.

With Martinez out for all or most of the season, the Tigers 2012 was in jeopardy before February. The contract they gave Fielder rectified the situation now. And in its immediate aftermath, no one’s worried about 2015, least of all the 82-year-old owner who realizes that in spite of all his money, he can’t take it with him.

Money is fleeting. A championship lasts forever. That’s what Ilitch wants and he’s willing to pay to get it.

And pay he did.

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The Tigers Quick Trigger On Contract Extensions

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The Tigers extended the contracts of GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland. Dombrowski’s goes through 2015; Leyland’s through 2012.

I wouldn’t read anything into the shorter-term nature of Leyland’s contract; he’s not young and presumably doesn’t know how much longer he’s going to manage.

This is a curious maneuver considering that it was only a few weeks ago when owner Mike Ilitch implied there would be changes if this Tigers team didn’t make the post-season. It was a quick turnaround from that to keeping the GM for three more years.

Dombrowski and Leyland are good baseball men and the contract security eclipses a concern that I expressed when there was talk of the club gutting the farm system for veteran help at the trading deadline—that concern centered around a manager and executive whose short-term needs precluded rational thinking for the future.

That’s no longer an issue because whatever problems arise from a trade, they’ll fall on the desk of the GM and manager.

The Tigers have had a tendency to be reactionary in these cases. For example, they doled out contract extensions on Gary Sheffield, Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis among others when it wasn’t necessary to do so and all turned out to be costly mistakes.

Because they’ve played better after an inconsistent start and have taken some semblance of control over the AL Central, the Tigers look like a pretty good bet for the playoffs—something that wasn’t the case when Ilitch made his cryptic statement.

They could’ve waited to extend the contracts, but it’s not a glaring mistake to do it now.

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