Best and Worst General Managers
by Gregory Pratt, Special to BaseballEvolution.com
September 16, 2007
Anybody can win once. Whether
that means a division title, a playoff series, an appearance in the World Series,
or ultimate victory, it doesn't matter. Baseball has as many one-hit wonders
littered through its history as Tony LaRussa has pitching changes.
Anybody can win with a hundred
million dollar payroll. That is why I eliminate Theo Epstein and Brian Cashman
from consideration immediately*. A hundred million (or a hundred and fifty and
two hundred million dollar payrolls) provides a competitive edge that only the
most bumbling of general managers can fumble. Your margin of error, when it
comes to signing a player, is less than that of an organization which must be
careful with its commitments.
That isn't to say that my top
general managers are all operating with dimes.
That isn't to say that my top
general managers have won multiple World Series contests.
Three of my general managers
have had significant payroll numbers at some point or other, two of them having
reached the upper echelon in the past.
Two of my top five general
managers have never won a Championship. One of the others has two World Series
rings. The other two have one each, although one of them can claim partial
credit for another World Series winner.
Why the inconsistencies?
If you live long enough, you'll
meet someone who'll absolutely shatter your preconceived notions re: just about
everything. I will separate my top GMs from, say, the Cashmans, the Epsteins and
the Williams' in this piece.
*Cashman and Epstein, even if
not immediately disqualified, fail to crack my top five.
THE BEST GENERAL MANAGER IN
#1: John Schuerholz
First and foremost, when
judging a general manager, you must look at the results. The Atlanta Braves won
fourteen division titles in a row, made it to the World Series five times, won
one title and always defied the odds. One could end an article about the best
general manager in baseball with the previously cited successes, but that would
ignore the brilliance of John Schuerholz.
When Schureholz arrived in
Atlanta, he found a team coming off a terrible set of years and was leaving an
organization he had won a World Series with just six years prior -- Kansas City.
Kansas City was, at the time, a model of class and consistency. Atlanta? The
infield was a disgrace and the organization in shambles, even with Bobby Cox
there. Schuerholz had decided months prior that the Braves were an organization
with much untapped potential, and when the position opened, he expressed interest
and received the position. That was the first risk he took that turned into a
The next? Shoring up the
Atlanta defense by acquiring strong defensive players at a variety of positions.
His biggest risk, however, came with his signing of Terry Pendleton, a player
coming off a bum year who nobody considered worthy of his new contract until he
won the National League MVP award in that season, the famous Worst to First!
In the following years, John
Schuerholz would sign free agents, trade veterans and acquire prospects with a
fine knack for finding consistent, committed players. Yes, it is true that John
Schuerholz had a hundred million dollar payroll through much of the 1990s, under
Ted Turner, but that doesn't discount his organization's brilliant scouting.
Take Kerry Ligtenberg, who closed for them in the late 1990s. He was discovered
by a friend of Schuerholz's who told him, "This kid," who was in the Independent
Leagues, "can bring it. You should give him a look." They did, and Schuerholz
traded a bag of balls and bats -- literally -- to acquire him from Minneapolis.
All Ligtenberg would do is save thirty games in 1998, despite the odds, because
the Braves knew what to look for in a player and the coaches knew how to mold
them. Like with Terry Pendleton. Like Fred McGriff. Like Greg Maddux, David
Justice, Jaret Wright, Julio Franco, Gary Sheffield, J.D. Drew, Horacio Ramirez,
Johnny Estrada -- there is a long list of players who have come into Atlanta and
found nothing but success either because their natural talents were overlooked
by other organizations or because the Braves allowed them the opportunity. There
are players currently enjoying monster seasons who probably wouldn't be doing
what they're doing in another organization (Willie Harris, Peter Moylan) and who
might not be lighting the world up quite like they currently are (Mark
Why does that happen? Scouts.
Schuerholz makes no bones about it: he trusts his scouts to draft, develop and
identify quality baseball players. One can look to their current roster and find
several examples of this: Andruw Jones, Chipper Jones, Brian McCann, Jeff
Franceour, John Smoltz, Yuniel Escobar. One can look to their numerous trades
over the years and see, firsthand, how well they have analyzed their own players
and those they've traded for. Ask Billy Beane how he feels about the package he
received in exchange for his ace, Tim Hudson. Ask the Padres how they feel about
what they got for Fred McGriff. Ask the baseball world what general manager
they'd least like to talk to about a trade and it should be the Braves because
you don't fleece Atlanta. Someday, we will look back on the trade for Mark
Teixeira and ask, What ever happened to Jarrod Saltalamacchia?
Maybe the best testament to
their system is this: currently, they have three major league caliber shortstops
in Escobar, Edgar Renteria (another player analyzed and traded for who posted
fantastic rebound numbers upon joining the system) and Brent Lillibridge. They
traded their young phenom, Elvis Andrus, to the Texas Rangers. Don't you wish
your franchise had such depth that it could deal away two of its top prospects
and come away stacked? It allows nothing but flexibility and that's exactly how
John Schuerholz would have it -- how he does have it.
Some might ask, How much of
his success does Schuerholz owe to Bobby Cox, Leo Mezzone and the scouts? "Plenty"
is the only honest answer. That isn't to discount Schuerholz in any way,
however, and it in fact strengthens his position as the best in the game.
Schuerholz has nothing but faith in his scouts and takes their word on his
players. He analyzes the numbers with them, watches tape and asks for their
thoughts, receives them, and together they almost invariably make the right call
about a player. The important thing to note is that he has final say -- one of
his deputies often tells him, "We're with you, Boss, win lose or tie!" -- and he
is the one who has hired all of these professional, storied scouts to perform
for him. And they have. But make no mistake about it: John Schuerholz sets the
tone in Atlanta, and everything that has happened was impossible without him. It
doesn't matter if he never wins another division title and retires in three years. He
has earned himself a spot in the Hall of Fame and is the best general manager in
the game today.
#2: Dave Dombrowski
Dave Dombrowski might be more
famous for assembling the Bought and Wrapped World Series Winning 1997 Florida
Marlins of Wayne Huizenga's Wallet (which, coincidentally, failed to beat
the Braves for first in the division). But that should not erase his many lofty
achievements as a general manager in Montreal, Florida or Detroit.
When he was
hired to general manage the Montreal Expos, he built the franchise' farm system
that would in a few years compete for the division and post respectable numbers
for, arguably, the first and only time in their history. He didn't last long in
Montreal, however, as he was recruited by the Florida Marlins for the position,
which he took. He traded Trevor Hoffman for Gary Sheffield -- a trade that
worked for all involved -- and acquired plenty of good young players, from Jeff Conine to Bryan Harvey to Kevin Brown to Al Leiter to Rob Nenn to Edgar Renteria
to Luis Castillo to Craig Counsell to a new manager, Jim Leyland, who only led
two different teams to the World Series in two different leagues with the same
general manager. Yes, they had an eye for talent. But still, expansion teams are
expected to struggle, and they did until 1997, when Huizenga allowed Dombrowski
to spend millions on players. All he did was pick up Bobby Bonilla, Moises Alou,
Alex Fernandez as free agents.
the World Series that year, and then... Huizenga told Dombrowski to get rid of all
the expensive players! Which he did, and his success there was unparalleled.
They acquired Derrek Lee and AJ Burnett. They struggled for a few years but
acquired more and more young talent, from Antonio Alfonseca to Brad Penny to
Mike Lowell. Dombrowski would soon quit with a change in ownership and move to
Detroit (the Marlins would win the World Series in 2003 with many of the players
Dombrowski was responsible for), where he would soon rebuild an organization
suffering from severe incompetence. All he did there was develop young talent
and sign free agents who would take him to the World Series last year.
have lesser praise and accolades to bestow upon Dombrowski than Schuerholz, I
have a similar amount of respect for them. One of the greatest compliments I can
give Dombrowski is that he's made three inferior organizations into competent,
successful ones (at least in two cases, arguably in Montreal as well).
Dombrowski should not be dismissed due to his huge payroll in Florida, but rather
embraced because of his successes afterwards in organizations with less money
and for his ability to find good, young, will-be successful players all over
#3: Terry Ryan
players ever feel that someone is watching them but they're not sure
who, it's probably Terry Ryan, whose organization prides itself on scouting
everyone in baseball. Everyone. You see, they have to scout
everyone in an effort to find undervalued, underachieving players who the
franchise can transform and utilize. When you have a payroll as small as
Minnesota's, you've got to do everything you can to maximize your
competitive edge, and that's what Ryan does by scouting every single player in
baseball with what is probably the largest scouting staff in the game.
it done for the Twins? Only provided the best pitching performances the game of
baseball has seen in the last five years in Johan Santana, who was undervalued
in Houston, so they dealt for him and he won a couple of Cy Young Awards and Triple
Crowns. What else? The MVP of the 2006 baseball season, Justin Morneau. Joe
Mauer. Torii Hunter. Who else? They've acquired and retained, shrewdly, a
variety of pitchers who have given them quality innings over the years: Brad
Radke, Carlos Silva, Eric Milton. What do all of their pitchers have in common?
Good control, and the ability to keep you in the game. The hitters? Besides
Morneau and Mauer? The ability to hit a line drive square and run the bases
effectively; good, solid defense; hit and run capabilities. All the things that
you preach in little league but baseball players forget as they get older and
one-dimensional White Sox for a week and then watch the Twins and you'll see the
difference in approach to baseball from these guys. And like with John
Schuerholz in Atlanta, Minnesota's tradition of sound ballplayers comes from the
top, as Terry Ryan does not accept excuses or laziness from his players. He
won't tolerate or deal for people who can't do all the little things, who can't
do the right things, to win a ballgame.
afford to. And there's an old saying: when you can't afford to lose, you don't.
Considering their payroll disparity and Ryan's ability to pluck a great season
out of his players, he has enough credentials to qualify as a great general
manager but he has one more thing going for him: he almost always knows when to
deal a veteran player for younger players, and many of those named earlier came
from deals like this. Nowhere is his ability to gauge talent on better display
than on the superdeal he pulled for AJ Pierzynski, who is a good contact hitter
(or was, before he came to Chicago), decent defensive catcher, and general pest
(in the best way) to the San Francisco Giants for Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano
and Boof Bonser.
Billy Beane needs no
introduction, but I should be clear: I am no fan of sabermetrics, and so his
inclusion on this list is a great testament to his leadership and abilities.
Though I do not particularly care for his numbers or those who espouse them, I
can not argue with the results. If you aren't familiar with Moneyball (from
central premise of Moneyball is that the collected
insiders (including players, managers, coaches, scouts and the front office)
over the past
century is subjective and often flawed. Statistics such as stolen base,
batting average, typically used to gauge players, are relics of a
19th-century view of the game and the
statistics that were available at the time.
then, real statistical analysis has shown that
on base percentage and
slugging percentage are better indicators of offensive success and that
avoiding an out is more important than getting a hit. Every on-field play can be
evaluated in terms of expected runs contributed. For example, a strike on the
first pitch of an at-bat may be worth - 0.05 runs. This flies in the face of
conventional baseball wisdom and the beliefs of many scouts who are paid large
sums to evaluate talent.
re-evaluating the strategies that produce wins on the field, the 2002 Athletics,
with approximately $41 million in salary, are competitive with larger market
teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox who spend over $100
million in payroll. Oakland is forced to find players undervalued by the market,
and their system for finding value in undervalued players has proven itself thus
One must only look at his track
record of successful season after successful season to see that his principles work and
work well, especially with the tiny payroll they operate with. At this point,
I'd like to defend Beane from the only criticism one can have with his success:
the lack of postseason success. Should Billy Beane be discounted as a general
manager because, up to last year, he had never won a postseason series? No.
Absolutely not. Unequivocally, No. A general manager deserves zero blame for any
series lost by his players, especially not in the playoffs. If a team makes the
playoffs, it is a testament to the construction of the roster by the general
manager, the evaluations of the scouts and the execution of the players. If a
team loses in the playoffs, it is due to poor luck, bad managing, or simply
inferiority in comparison to another very talented team. Listen, a 90-100 win
team doesn't come about because the players decided, "By God, we work well
together." And a losing team in the playoffs doesn't happen because the general
manager didn't construct a team "good enough." Baseball, being baseball, is a
game where a team can lose to any other at any time. It is not football, where
the greater team habitually beats the inferior. It is a game that allows the
best to be beaten by the worst and that will happen from time to time.
Someday, Billy Beane will win a
World Series. Until then, he has done perfectly well for himself and can't be
blamed for his teams losing. There is a huge shift in responsibility from
general manager-and-players to manager-pitcher-player-general manager when you
go from the regular season to the playoffs.
Something I feel worthy of
comment, though: Beane is the only GM on my list who doesn't have a great
manager who serves as a great partner. We've got Bobby Cox, Jim Leyland, Ron
Gardenhire and...Macha? Kind of interesting, if you think about it, though I'm
not sure what it means besides: "good GMs with good managers = better than good
GMs alone." Maybe Beane's problem is a lack of a quality manager as much as the
players? More so than the players, I think, as he's acquired a wide variety of
excellent players in his tenure from Jason Giambi to Miguel Tejada to Eric
Chavez, Bubba Crosby, Nick Swisher, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Huston Street,
#5: Walt Jocketty
His St. Louis Cardinals have
won the National League Central Division six times and have had seven straight
winning seasons. They've been to the World Series twice in the last few years
and have won it once.
That is all. That consistency
says it all to me.
[Bill Stoneman (Angels) might be fifth with
everybody going up one if we're not counting Terry Ryan, due to his
One argument I'd like to
emphasize: these are GMs whose runs have been more attributable to them than
luck. Their histories, their track records, show us that they are more than just
lucky. They are good.
BOTTOM FIVE GMs:
No way am I going to go into
why these guys are all awful.
Two of mine have been fired:
Purpura and Littlefield. Of those remaining:
1. Jim Bowden (Nationals)
2. Ned Coletti (Dodgers)
3. Wayne Krivsky (Reds)
4. John Daniels (Rangers)
5. Bill Bavasi (Mariners)
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