Best and Worst General Managers

by Gregory Pratt, Special to
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.


#1: John Schuerholz

Results matter.

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 great success.

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! Braves season.

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 Teixeira).

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.

They won 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.

While I 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 baseball.

#3: Terry Ryan

If baseball 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.

What has 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 selfish.

Watch the 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.

He can't 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.

Yeah. He's good.

#4: Billy Beane

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 Wikipedia):

The central premise of Moneyball is that the collected wisdom of baseball insiders (including players, managers, coaches, scouts and the front office) over the past century is subjective and often flawed. Statistics such as stolen base, RBIs and 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.

Since 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.

By 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 far.

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, Barry Zito...

#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 "resigning."]


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.


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)

See also: Keith's Rankings

This article was written by a guest contributor to You can be one as well. Mail your articles to