by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
September 16, 2007
How can we fairly evaluate general managers in baseball? Certainly,
some function of wins divided by payroll gives us a pretty good idea of who is
doing his job and who is ruining his franchise. But we do need to look
beyond only that. How have his trades panned out? What kind of shape
is his farm system in? How many players has he overpaid, and how many is
he robbing blind?
I attempt to take these factors into account as I rank the five best and five
worst general managers who were active this season.
1. John Schuerholz
The contrarian in me wants to point out that the Braves' "consecutive"
pennant titles streak has now come to an end for two straight years after
pitching coach Leo Mazzone left the organization. The picture of
Schuerholz is not complete, however, until you look at what happened to the
Kansas City Royals organization when Schuerholz left in 1990. Both the
Royals and Braves organizations have fared much, much better with Schuerholz in
the captain's chair.
Even though the Braves have enjoyed some top-tier salaries lately, no other
GM can match Schuerholz' track record. He rarely makes a bad trade, does
extremely well in drafts, and does not throw money at overpriced free agents.
As much talent as he gave up in the Mark Teixeira deal, you pretty much have to
give Schuerholz the benefit of the doubt in these kinds of trades at this point.
If a front office executive ever makes it into the Pro Baseball Hall of Fame,
John Schuerholz should be the pioneer.
2. Terry Ryan
Just days ago,
Terry Ryan announced that he would step down
as the Twins' general manager, though stay on as a senior advisor to
the organization. Ryan would have likely usurped Schuerholz from his top
spot in a few years had he not made this move. But being a baseball GM is
undoubtedly a draining job, and the fact that John Schuerholz has handled the
grind for nearly 30 years while Ryan could only do it for half that time must be
a factor when we consider their greatness.
In fact, the beginning of Ryan's tenure in Minnesota was spotty. Faced
with a miniscule payroll and apathetic fan base, he was unable to get the Twins
even to 3rd place in the first seven years he managed. Then, as though he
took Bud Selig's empty threat of contraction personally, Ryan transformed into
the best GM in baseball over the next seven years of his tenure, even when you
factor in his letting David Ortiz go to Boston. His career as a GM is a
metaphor for the typical Johan Santana season.
Did I say Johan Santana? He's the guy Ryan got with cash in return for
Jared Camp. Ryan was smart enough to limit Santana's use for his first
four seasons, even though the Twins very competitive for three of those. You've
probably heard of the Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser for AJ
Pierzynki swap he orchestrated with Brian Sabean of the Giants. We don't
even know the full extent of the damage to Sabean's backside on that one, yet.
Ultimately, he and Billy Beane are the two GMs that come up in a discussion
of front office guys doing the most with low payrolls. Ryan took longer to
get rolling, but has been better of late. We should never forget just how
unbelievable the Twins Phoenix-like 2006 season was, and
just how much Terry Ryan had to do with it.
3. Billy Beane
What more can we say about Billy Beane? Five
of the eight instances of a bottom-10 payroll team making the postseason from
1996 through 2006 came courtesy of his Oakland Athletics. They have a
well-stocked system in the upper levels, and they are spinning retreads like
Jack Cust into stars. Probably the main reasons that I don't rank Beane
higher are the two gaps I see. The two-year gap now where the A's will
not finish over .500 and the gap coming 5-10 years from now. Beane did not
follow his own advice in the past few drafts, selecting high school pitchers all
over the place and getting burned. As a result, the lower levels of the
Oakland system are threadbare, and Beane is going to need to swindle the Royals
something fierce to overcome it.
4. Josh Byrnes
The Arizona Diamondbacks franchise was in utter shambles when Josh Byrnes
took over after the conclusion of the 2005 season. The team was coming off
back-to back losing seasons for the first time in franchise history, they were
still paying backloaded contracts to players who hadn't played there in years,
and worst of all, Russ Ortiz still had $23 M left on his I-make-Darren-Dreifort-look-like-a-bargain
But Byrnes built arguably the best farm system east of Los Angeles and had
enough faith in it to shed several burdensome contracts (Shawn Green) and play
his young guys. When his second best pitcher demanded a trade and would
not allow a trade to a west coast team, Byrnes was rather handcuffed. But
he was still able to get decent value for Javier Vazquez in Chris Young, Luis
Vizcaino, and Orlando Hernandez.
If you shot Vince Coleman in the leg, he could probably still outrun a lot of
baseball players. Josh Byrnes was hit by a barrage of bullets as soon as
he agreed to take the Diamondbacks job, and his franchise is nevertheless
beating nearly every other franchise in baseball, both at present and for the
future. The only reason Byrnes does not rank higher is because he has been
at this for less than two years now, where the guys ahead of him have been at it
5. Mark Shapiro
When Shapiro took over for John Hart in 2002, the Indians' payroll had
already begun to plummet. Their 2001 payroll of over $93 M dropped to just
under $79 M in 2002, then to $48.6 M in 2003. Their opening day payroll of
$61.6 M this year is easily the highest that the team has had since.
While many would chastise Mark Shapiro for turning a perennial
division-winner into a middle-of-the-pack team, I look to history to look to the
future. Meaning, the historically inept Indians were able to succeed in
the mid-90's by developing good young players and signing them to long-term
contracts (before they even became arbitration eligible in many cases).
Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga, Charles Nagy, Jim Thome, and Manny
Ramirez became the underpaid nucleus of a dynasty.
It doesn't take Nostradamus to see that the exact same thing is happening in
Cleveland now. Jhonny Peralta makes just $2.25 M next year, and is signed
through 2011. Grady Sizemore makes $3 M next year and his contract runs
through 2012. Victor Martinez - $4.24M/2010. Travis Hafner -
$8M/2013. C.C. Sabathia is going to make record free agent money after
netting $8 million in 2008, but the Tribe has the likes of Fausto Carmona and
Adam Miller ready to take over for the big guy.
Whether you look at the short term or the distant future, the Indians look
like they are going to compete every single year. If Shapiro is then
afforded the same freedom as his predecessor was, he will be able to supplement
this nucleus with imports a la Roberto Alomar, Matt Williams, and Davis Justice.
Few teams can succeed year in and year out with a small market budget.
The Indians seem to prefer going on intermittent eight-year stretches of
dominance rather than putting forward a pretty good team every year. To
each their own.
1. Whoever the heck is running the Orioles
From what I can piece together, Syd thrift was fired as the Orioles' GM in
2003 and replaced with a two-headed monster of former pitchers Jim Beattie and
Mike Flanagan. In 2006, Jim Duquette (who had a wildly successful 1-year
tenure as the Mets' GM in 2004) replaced Beattie, but it was supposedly made
clear that Duquette was to report to Flanagan, rather than continue with the
GM-by-committee approach. This June, Andy MacPhail entered into the mix,
but the current hierarchy remains unclear to me.
But it appears that in one fashion or another, Mike Flanagan has been at the
center of it all. So this ranking is directed at him.
What a great playing career you had! It must have been great working
under Earl Weaver and alongside so many similarly talented teammates.
There can't be too many players out there who did not experience a losing season
until their 12th year in the league.
I do, however, find it odd that in all of your time surrounded by an ambiance
of winning that none of it rubbed off on you during your front office tenure.
I look at the contracts that you gave Melvin Mora, Ramon Hernandez, Danys Baez,
Jay Gibbons, Jay Payton, and Aubrey Huff, and my eyes begin to water.
Trading John Maine for Kris Benson? Makes me want to with my head on the
wall. Trading for Tools Patterson? Well, that made my day, but only
because I'm a Cubs fan.
I definitely like your acquisition of Leo Mazzone, although it might help if
you hired some trainers that could keep your pitching staff healthy, as there's
probably only so much Leo can do with torn elbows and shoulders. And it's
entirely possible that your first-round draft choice in 2003, Nick Markakis, is
on his way to a fine career. But bottom line, your payroll this year is
over $93 M, and you have arguably the worst team in baseball, with no help for
the future on the immediate horizon.
Congratulations, you are the worst general manager (or whatever it is you
call yourself) who worked this year.
PS- How come your teams never win games after July?
2. David Littlefield
In one of the first articles I wrote for Baseball Evolution posited
an alternate reality in which the
Pittsburgh Pirates had the best pitching staff in baseball. The catch was
that in this reality, Pirates GM Dave Littlefield wasn't a blithering idiot.
Littlefield's failures weren't readily apparent to Pirates fans because he
was still better than his predecessor, Cam Bonifay. In the interest of
space and time (uh-oh, I'm getting all Sci-Fi on you again, aren't I?) I will
not bother to list all of Littlefield's failures as a GM. Suffice it to
say that Littlefield ran a small market team as though he had a large payroll to
work with and vigorously outbid other teams for mediocre or worse veteran
players rather than work on acquiring and developing young talent. The
Pirates went 442-581 during Littlefield's tenure, and are now enduring their
15th consecutive losing season.
3. Tim Purpura
It feels odd to list a GM here that took a team to its first ever World
Series during his first year in charge. However, most of the pieces for
that 2005 team were already in place when Purpura took the helm.
Even if you want to give Purpura some of the credit for that success, it
probably doesn't outweigh the real possibility that the Astros franchise is
currently in bigger trouble than any other major league franchise. It will
be burdened by Carlos Lee's contract for five more years, and generally
speaking, the Astros are filled with declining players rather than improving
There is little help on the horizon, particularly with Purpura signing enough
free agents to deprive the club of a first and second round pick in this year's
draft, then failing to sign his third and fourth round selections. The
Astros appear poised to become the new Orioles - a team with high payroll and
4. Jim Hendry
Jim Hendry's legacy is quieting those fans who say that the Cubs do not want
to win because they are cheap. He has now proven without question that the
Cubs can spend a lot of money and still not get results. They are going to win
the NL Central by default this year, but don't let that fool you into thinking
that this is a well-run franchise. The farm system doesn't even have the
usual highly touted prospects that never develop well, with the exception of Jeff Samardzija, who is a prototype
for that phenomenon. Although the hometown discounts from
Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez are helpful, the insane Soriano contract
balances those out, and then you have a lot of marginal players on the wrong
side of 30 who are still signed beyond this year (Jacque Jones, Scott Eyre,
etc.). If he is lucky, the Cubs will Cardinals their way to the World
Series this year, and no one will care that the Cubs were bad before that and
will continue to be bad after it.
5. Brian Sabean
Brian Sabean gets a lot of respect in some circles because of the tremendous
success his Giants had in the first eight years of his tenure. Personally,
I think that this success was middling given that he was spotted the best
baseball player since integration when he signed on to take the Giants job.
I mean, he hasn't exactly matched the Yankees' success with Ruth, has he.
Ah, but you say that those Yankees also had Lou Gehrig while the Giants did
not. But that is what everyone says. That is the point. After
Jeff Kent left, WHY DIDN'T HE GET A GOOD HITTER TO BAT BEHIND BONDS? The
players who hit behind Bonds tend to have career years... so imagine what would
happen if Sabean had put someone who could hit even better than Benito Santiago
or Ryan Klesko there? OK, Moises Alou, but no one really didn't expect him to
stay healthy, did they?
And don't tell me that Sabean couldn't afford to pay both Bonds and another
star hitter. He's spending plenty of money, just not on good hitters.
The trouble, I suppose, is that their top position player prospect, Kevin
Frandsen, has the ceiling of a utility infielder. And as Sabean has been
there so long, he has no one to blame for the sad state of the farm system (A.J.
Pierzynski trade). Tim Lincecum was a nice pick, but we'll see what
happens as the 23-year old approaches 200 innings pitched in the final weeks of
a lost season.
I will close this section, and this article, with two words: Barry Zito.
Gregory Pratt's rankings
Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Keith resides in Chicago, Illinois and can be reached at email@example.com.