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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The Mets “Teach” Valdespin, But Who Teaches The Mets?

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Because the current Mets are so unrelentingly dull on the nights Matt Harvey isn’t pitching we’re getting stories created out of thin air like a Hollywood public relations expert deciding that it would be good idea to tamp down Calista Flockhart anorexia rumors by having her “caught” on camera at a ballgame munching on a hot dog. A few weeks ago it was Zack Wheeler complaining about the light air in Las Vegas affecting his pitching; now it’s Jordany Valdespin and the hit by pitch “controversy” from over the weekend against the Pirates. For a nothing story, this certainly has legs and it’s due in large part to there being only so much to write about Rick Ankiel and the days between Harvey’s starts.

Is this worth all the attention? Is Valdespin worth all this attention? And do these Mets from manager Terry Collins on down have the moral high ground to be dictating to anyone what it takes not just to act like a big leaguer, but to win in the big leagues?

No.

No.

And definitely no.

For all the irritating, high-handed condescension based on public relations and a crafted image than any actual reality, the Yankees are in a position to dictate to players, “This is how it’s done.” “This is how you behave when you win.” For Derek Jeter to scold a teammate (or to order his enforcer Jorge Posada to do it years ago), there’s a basis for him to tell them they’re not acting appropriately. When the Yankees got rid of Ian Kennedy in large part because of Kennedy’s mouth, they can accept the fact that he blossomed for the Diamondbacks into becoming what they promoted him to be as the most “polished” of the three “future stars” with Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain.

Only die-hard Yankee-lovers want to hear and believe Michael Kay’s tiresome, wide-eyed storytelling about impressive rookie reliever Preston Claiborne’s dad telling his son while they attended a Yankees-Rangers game in Texas that, “This is how to conduct yourself like a classy professional,” or some other paraphrased nonsense, but there’s a foundation of fact in a team that’s had extended success like the Yankees, Cardinals, Rangers and Phillies to publicly scold a misbehaving youngster. The Twins have had two consecutive atrocious years, but the structure of the organization with Terry Ryan, Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire implementing the code of conduct and “Twins Way” has given them the freedom to tell young players to act with a certain comportment or they’re not going to be with the Twins for much longer whether they’re winning or not.

For the Mets? As likable a player as John Buck is, he’s been on one winning team in his entire Major League career in 2010 with the Blue Jays and that team was an 85-win also-ran. Can he give a treatise on winning?

Ike Davis is the bastion of absence of accountability with his annual horrific start and usage of popularity in the clubhouse as a shield from the consequences that befell Lucas Duda when he was demoted last summer and Valdespin now. It’s almost as if Davis has accepted the lost months in the spring as a “just the way it is” addendum making it okay. It’s not okay.

Collins? Fired twice due to in-house mutinies and presiding over teams that appeared to quit late in the season in his two Mets seasons, does he really want to get into this type of teaching method from the old-school?

Valdespin is a talented and immature player and person who clearly needs to learn the proper way to act. The things that are seeping out about him now are, in my experience, a small fraction of what’s gone on with him. With any player if there are ten stories reported, there are 50 others that haven’t gotten out yet. But that doesn’t matter. The way the Mets are trying to “teach” him with the open lambasting, stony silence in answering questions without answering them, and making the situation worse by tossing him into a spotlight he can’t handle will serve to damage him further. The majority of these Mets—including the manager—are not in a position to take a young player with ability and say, “Get him outta here; he can’t help us win,” because most don’t have the faintest idea of what winning looks like to begin with.

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Round and Round the Majors, 5.10.2012

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Not enough people are paying attention to Nick Swisher’s terrific throw to the plate on B.J Upton’s sacrifice fly to tie the game. Swisher nearly cut Sean Rodriguez down at the plate. It would’ve ended the game.

The focus, naturally, has been on David Robertson blowing the game in the ninth inning. It was his second save chance since replacing Mariano Rivera and the second time in a row in which he’s gotten into immediate trouble. He got through the first one, not so the second.

Robertson was pulled after allowing a 3-run homer to Matt Joyce in the Rays’ eventual 4-1 win. Some fans at Yankee Stadium booed while others showed patience.

Robertson has time to get himself right and comfortable, but that time is finite. The fans, media and organization will give him breathing room, but eventually he has to get the job done.

What I didn’t like was Robertson’s body language. It was as if he was shrugging; a “tra la la, I’ll just do the best I can and if I fail, so be it” reaction as he was removed. If he doesn’t have a sense of urgency, he’d better get one and he’d better get it quick.

After the years of consistency he posted, did anyone really believe that a non-PED case like Adam Dunn had just lost it all in one year?

The combination of the new league, a failing and fractured team and raving maniac for a manager appeared to put Dunn out of sorts in 2011. That’s not defending someone who was paid $12 million for a .569 OPS, but it’s a reason.

With Ozzie Guillen gone and the expectations for the White Sox as a whole tamped down and for Dunn non-existent, he’s again doing what he does.

He’s striking out—a major league leading 47.

He’s walking—an AL leading 25.

He’s homering—10.

And he’s slugging—a .970 OPS.

This is the guy the White Sox thought they were getting.

  • The Twins’ stability is in question.

That anyone would even speculate on the job security of Twins’ manager Ron Gardenhire is madness.

GM Terry Ryan is a different story because he’s still got the “interim” tag attached to his name and, at his age and having come back from an early retirement, he might not have the stomach to do what needs to be done to this current group that’s well on the way to losing 105 games.

It was silly to think that Ryan’s mere presence in the big chair was going to fix what ails the Twins—no starting pitching; a mediocre bullpen; black spots in the lineup; and a compromised former MVP, Justin Morneau.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the Twins were considered a netherworld that “couldn’t” win under their self-imposed payroll constraints. They were completely hopeless from 1993-2000. There was no “Twins Way” of operating like there was from 2002-2010.

Their cycle has passed and they need to start over, but you can’t credit Gardenhire as a stabilizing force and natural heir apparent to two-time World Series winner Tom Kelly, then blame him when things go wrong.

Gardenhire is exactly the type of disciplined, no-nonsense, “you’ll perform the proper fundamentals or you won’t play”-type of manager a team like the Twins needs to reboot.

As for a GM, Ryan either has to take the job and commit or let them hire someone else.

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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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GMs The Second Time Around

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With two big general managing jobs open—the Angels and the Cubs—let’s take a look at recognizable title-winning GMs and how they’ve fared in second and third jobs.

John Schuerholz

Schuerholz won the World Series with the 1985 Royals and moved on to the Braves after the 1990 season because Bobby Cox had gone down on the field and handled both jobs after firing Russ Nixon. It was Cox who drafted Chipper Jones (because Todd Van Poppel insisted he was going to college, then didn’t—he probably should’ve); Kent Mercker; Mike Stanton; Steve Avery; Mark Wohlers; and Ryan Klesko. He also traded Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz.

Schuerholz made the fill-in moves like acquiring Charlie Leibrandt, Rafael Belliard, Otis Nixon, Alejandro Pena and Juan Berenguer; in later years, he signed Greg Maddux and traded for Fred McGriff.

It was, in fact, the predecessor to Cox—John Mullen—who drafted Ron Gant, Mark Lemke, Dave Justice and Tom Glavine.

The idea that Schuerholz “built” the Braves of the 1990s isn’t true. It’s never been true.

Andy MacPhail

MacPhail was never comfortable with spending a load of money. When he was with the Twins, that was the way they did business and he excelled at it building teams on the cheap with a template of the way the Twins played and a manager, Tom Kelly, to implement that.

He put together the Twins 1987 and 1991 championship clubs. MacPhail became the Cubs CEO in 1994 and stayed until 2006. The Cubs made it to the playoffs twice in MacPhail’s tenure and came close to winning that elusive pennant in 2003.

MacPhail’s legacy running the Cubs—fairly or not—is that he was in charge while Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were pushed very, very hard as young pitchers trying to win that championship.

It was a vicious circle. If the Cubs didn’t let them pitch, they wouldn’t have made the playoffs; and since they let them endure heavy workloads at a young age, they flamed out.

MacPhail went to the Orioles in 2007 and the team didn’t improve despite MacPhail seeming to prevail on owner Peter Angelos that his spending on shot veterans wasn’t working; MacPhail’s power was usurped when Buck Showalter was hired to be the manager and his future is uncertain.

Sandy Alderson

Credited as the “father” of Moneyball, he was a run-of-the-mill GM who won when he had money to spend, a brilliant manager in Tony LaRussa, and an all-world pitching coach Dave Duncan. When the well dried up, the A’s stopped contending and he was relegated to signing veteran players who had nowhere else to go (sort of like Moneyball), but couldn’t play (unlike Moneyball).

Alderson drafted Jason Giambi and Tim Hudson among a couple of others who contributed to the Athletics renaissance and the Billy Beane “genius”.

Moving on to the Padres as CEO in 2005, Alderson created factions in the front office between the stat people and scouting people and appeared more interested in accumulating legitimate, on-the-record credit for himself as a cut of the Moneyball pie than in building a winning team by any means necessary within the budget.

He joined the Mets as GM a year ago. Grade pending.

Pat Gillick

Gillick is in the Hall of Fame. He built the Blue Jays from the ground up, culminating in back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993.

He’s retired and un-retired multiple times, ran the Orioles under Angelos and spent a ton of money and came close, but continually lost out to the Yankees.

He took over the Mariners and built a powerhouse with Lou Piniella; they came close…but couldn’t get by the Yankees.

He went to the Phillies, built upon the foundation that had been laid by the disrespected former GM Ed Wade and scouting guru Mike Arbuckle and got credit for the 2008 championship.

He says he’s retired, but I’m not buying it even at age 74. The Mariners are the job I’d see him taking if it’s offered and with another bad year from Jack Zduriencik’s crew in 2012, it just might be.

Walt Jocketty

Jocketty won the 2006 World Series and, along with LaRussa, built the Cardinals into an annual contender. He was forced out in a power-struggle between those in the Cardinals from office that wanted to go the Moneyball route and Jocketty’s people that didn’t. One year after the World Series win, he was fired.

At mid-season 2008, he was hired by the Reds and was given credit for the 2010 NL Central championship, but that credit was a bit shaky.

Wayne Krivsky was the GM before Jocketty and traded for Brandon Phillips and Bronson Arroyo.

Dan O’Brien Jr. preceded Krivsky and drafted Jay Bruce and signed Johnny Cueto.

And it was Jim Bowden who drafted Joey Votto.

The common denominator with the names above and the levels of success or failure they achieved had to do with the groundwork that had been placed and, in part, what they did after their arrival.

The Cubs and Angels are both well-stocked for their choices to look very smart, very quickly; but the hiring of a “name” GM doesn’t automatically imply that the success from the prior stop is going to be repeated and that has to be considered with whomever the two teams decide to hire.

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