- Posted: 12:10 PM, November 7, 2012
Historically, we don’t see many transactions executed at these meetings. It’s more a matter of groundwork laid for future moves. There are also the actual “meetings,” in which the GMs convene to discuss the state of the game and myriad rules changes. For instance, after the 2008 season, the teams did away with the coin flip to determine the host of the 163rd “play-in” game and decided that the club that won the season series should get the homefield advantage.
Here’s my scene-setting column.
I like to kick off the meetings by ranking the game’s top general managers. It’s a subjective exercise -- I don’t see how this can be, unless we’re just going to tally divisions, pennants, etc. -- one in which I consider a GM’s overall body of work but will put more weight on his most recent performance and how his team looks moving forward. You’ve got to keep up with the times, obviously. As a further note of clarification, I’m grading the GMs here rather than the teams; through reporting, for instance, we know that Brian Cashman had little to do with the decision to sign Alex Rodriguez to his 10-year, $275-million extension/albatross.
1.Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay. What the Rays have accomplished in the past five seasons -- three playoff appearances, a pennant and surpassing the 90-victory mark four times -- should be considered as the most impressive run in baseball history when you factor in the dollars spent. The Rays are still the proverbial David, spending about $64 million to finish five wins short of the Yankees ($200ish million) and three short of the Orioles ($81 million) and finishing 17 games ahead of the Blue Jays ($75 million) and 21 ahead of the Red Sox ( $173 million) in the AL East.
Friedman, who is technically the Rays’ executive vice president of baseball operations (the team doesn’t use the “GM” title), has built this empire by investing heavily in starting pitching and Evan Longoria, finding value in trades for the likes of Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce and saving his designated hitter and first base decisions for last. The team’s starting pitching stock is so deep that Friedman could trade James Shields or Jeremy Hellickson this winter to fill other needs, and Tampa Bay still would have the division’s best rotation. Friedman also manages to scrape together a strong bullpen year after year; if this year’s great find Fernando Rodney falters in 2013, the Rays will have a replacement closer ready to go.
2.Jon Daniels, Texas. It was at this hotel, seven years ago, when I first met Daniels; the Rangers had just hired him to run their baseball operations. He discussed the very basic principle -- “not proprietary information,” as he would say -- of running concurrently a one-year plan and five-year plan. Short-term and long-term.
The one-year plan took a hit in ’12 with the way the Rangers tumbled out of the AL West penthouse on the season’s last day and then lost the wild-card game to Baltimore, ending Texas’ streak of two straight AL pennants. Furthermore, this will be a crucial winter for Daniels and his crew, with Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli free agents and obvious holes to fill in the starting rotation and bullpen. Yet the Rangers are well-leveraged to handle this challenge because, as per their five-year plan, they have built up one of the game’s best farm systems and, by dramatically expanding their brand in the historically football-mad Dallas/Fort Worth area, their treasure chest is deep. They can compete with anyone on the free-agent market, if they choose to do so.
3.Brian Cashman, Yankees. I still don’t believe that a GM can control things enough that he can proactively build a team equipped to win in the postseason. Strange things happen in October. The Giants hit fewer than two homers in every three games for the regular season -- 103 homers in 162 games -- and then they went deep 14 times in 16 postseason contests, a considerably better ratio.
So, having written that, Cashman gets credit here for putting together teams almost always win 95-plus games annually. Yup, he gets the largest payroll and therefore more room for error than anyone else. Yet that gap has narrowed considerably, with clubs like the Phillies, Rangers and of course the Dodgers stepping up, and it’ll narrow more if the Yankees take their payroll south of $189 next year for 2014, as they continue to insist will be the case.
Can the Yankees sustain their excellence in the face of such a development? We know the Core Three is getting ancient and that a big call must be made within the next year on Robinson Cano. Nevertheless, I like their chances because, for one thing, Cashman has shown a knack for shopping in baseball’s bargain bin. This past season, the Yankees received substantial contributions from the likes of Eric Chavez, Raul Ibanez on offense and Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada on the pitching side. Not to mention one-year bargain Andy Pettitte, whose price undoubtedly will increase for 2013.
4.Billy Beane, Oakland. 2012 was a year of vindication and rehabilitation for Beane, whose star had fallen in recent years as the A’s failed to finish over .500 from 2007 through 2011. In the “Moneyball” tradition, Beane found a new market inefficiency, as I first saw expressed here by Tyler Kepner: The value of players, particularly pitchers, under control for multiple years. He traded Andrew Bailey to Boston, Trevor Cahill to Arizona and Gio Gonzalez to Washington, and the returns fueled the A’s shocking run to the AL West title.
Moving forward, the A’s are positioned well, with considerable young talent, yet the club’s future continues to be dominated by a situation above Beane’s pay grade. The A’s badly need a new ballpark in order to compete financially with the rest of baseball (as do the Rays, for that matter). Baseball higher-ups continue to try to find a deal with the Giants, who control the lucrative San Jose area where the A’s would like to move.
5.Dave Dombrowski, Detroit. He is one of the most aggressive GMs in the game, and his owner Mike Ilitch is even more so. Ilitch is the one who pushed to give Prince Fielder his nine-year, $214-million contract after Victor Martinez went down with a left knee injury. Dombrowski, however, is the one who is still reaping the benefits -- and will for the considerable future -- of the deal that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees. His trade of top prospect Jacob Turner to Miami paid off well when Anibal Sanchez, an impending free agent, and Omar Infante helped the Tigers reach their second World Series in seven years.
Detroit has rediscovered its baseball soul under Ilitch and Dombrowski, and the aggressive approach works here because if Dombrowski develops the trade chips like Turner, Ilitch will pay to replenish the roster with higher-priced veterans.
6.John Mozeliak, St. Louis. The Cardinals’ moment of truth arrived last winter when franchise icon Albert Pujols reached free agency, and Mozeliak couldn’t have played it much better. He and owner Bill DeWitt continually stated their desire to keep Pujols, they made him an offer (reportedly nine years and about $200 million) that came off as fair, given the Cardinals’ small-market existence. When Pujols left anyway for the Angels, Mozeliak landed Carlos Beltran on a two-year contract -- and meanwhile hired newbie Mike Matheny to replace legendary manager Tony La Russa -- and relied otherwise on internal improvements to get it done.
The Cardinals got it done, going all the way to NLCS Game 7, thanks largely to a farm system. That’s why the club looks good moving forward. Mozeliak, now five years in on the job, has shown himself to be versatile in his approaches; just as he reacted on the fly when Pujols headed to Southern California, he worked proactively to sign Yadier Molina to a five-year, $75-million contract this past spring training that looks pretty darn good at this moment.
7.Brian Sabean, San Francisco. No one on this list has anything approaching a perfect track record, and if you were to lodge a primary criticism against Sabean, it’s that he has displayed an affinity for veterans that very often hasn’t paid off -- primarily during Barry Bonds’ final years, when the Giants tried and failed to field competitive teams around Bonds. Slowly, however, the Giants seem to be entrusting younger players, more, and while we wrote above in the Cashman entry that GMs can’t prepare expressly for the postseason, the Giants’ two World Series titles in three years obviously deserve recognition.
Sabean brought aboard pitching guru Dick Tidrow, who has displayed a knack for finding good arms both at the amateur and professional level. He also hired manager Bruce Bochy, whose professionalism permeates the clubhouse and who knows what he’s doing during a game, too. These are not small things.
8.Kevin Towers, Arizona. He’s an old-school type who revels in the “gunslinger” moniker that former Padres and Diamondbacks executive (and former agent, prior to that) Jeff Moorad slapped on him when dismissing him from San Diego. Towers emphasizes scouting and clubhouse dynamics when putting together a club, and those principles -- along with a knack for constructing strong bullpens -- have served him quite well, reaching the playoffs five times (four with San Diego, once with Arizona) in his years on the job.
The Diamondbacks failed to defend their NL West title in 2012, finishing 81-81, largely because…well, there wasn’t one glaring thing. Just some drop-offs from the likes of Ian Kennedy (acquired by former Arizona GM and current San Diego GM Josh Byrnes) and Justin Upton (drafted by first-ever D-Backs GM Joe Garagiola Jr.), who once again could be traded. With a young nucleus, there’s no reason why Arizona can’t contend for years to come.
9.Theo Epstein, Cubs. He’s technically the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, with Jed Hoyer owning the GM title, but we won’t get caught up in titles. The buck stops with Epstein when it comes to all baseball operations decisions, as his title indicates. In 2012, Epstein probably drew more notice than what happened with his old team, the Red Sox, than with his new club, which he and Hoyer began to rebuild.
Does Epstein deserve some blame for what went down in Beantown? Sure. The Carl Crawford contract and Josh Beckett looked like albatrosses, and Adrian Gonzalez, despite putting up good numbers, seemed like a bad fit. Of course, the massive August trade with the Dodgers wiped out those three headaches for the Sawx.
In any case, Epstein still has a strong record of excellence with the Red Sox before his last couple of years in Boston turned for the worse, and he seems to be going about things the right way -- methodically, with an emphasis on player development -- with the Cubs.
10.Walt Jocketty, Cincinnati. The Reds won their second NL Central title in three years, and back in the day, Jocketty led the Cardinals to six playoff appearances and a World Series title. The Central divisions in both leagues have become the weakest links, and you wonder how to assess the performances of GMs like Jocketty and his good friend Doug Melvin of Milwaukee, as well as Detroit’s Dombrowski, in light of the fact that they receive so many winnable games on the schedule.
Of course, Jocketty and Melvin -- whom I’d probably rank 11th here -- will be tested a little harder in 2013 now that the Astros are moving over to the AL West. Yet results are results. You gotta be in it to win it. And Jocketty has his teams in it quite often.
--Have a great day.