Eric Gartman / Salaries & Business
STRATEGIES FOR GENERAL MANAGERS
by Eric Gartman
Strategies for General Managers
Which teams consistently pick the right players and are able to field winning teams and which teams always seem to get it wrong? Let's examine how the front offices of major league teams have done, keeping in mind that organizations vary greatly in the resources they command.
Doing More with Less: The Oakland A's
By far the greatest success story in baseball over the past three years has been a team that hasn't even made it past the first round of the playoffs. The perennially poor Oakland Athletics have managed to make the playoffs each of the past three years, despite one of the lowest payrolls in the game. General Manager Billy Beane's success has begun to garner attention, and rightly so. Beane's formula has been to disregard speed and stolen bases, while focusing on power and On base percentage. With a meager budget he has also had to look for bargains wherever he could find them. He has been able to so by focusing on stats rather than what scouts think. Finally, Beane has used the July 31 trading deadline to his advantage, dealing for quality players from teams who were no longer in contention. Beane has thus fielded .500 teams for the first half of the season, then trading for stars, and taking off in the second half.
A typical example of a player Beane took that most other teams viewed as useless is Matt Stairs, who most scouts considered too fat. Similarly, Beane gave up next to nothing for Jeremy Giambi, who produced well in Oakland. Beane also drafted Tim Hudson, who most scouts considered too small at only 160 pounds. Hudson has turned into one of the top pitchers in the majors. Beane also signed free agent Scott Hatteberg, who has produced well in Oakland, for cheap, as most other teams viewed him useless. Beane also used his high first-round draft picks to land Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, who along with Hudson, make the most formidable top three in the majors. In 2002, Beane traded for the underused Erubiel Durazo, who most likely will hit well when finally given the chance to play every day. Beane's mid-season trades have sparked the second-half rallies for which the A's have become famous. In 2001, he acquired Jermaine Dye for three minor leaguers. Dye played well and led Oakland's charge to the playoffs. Similarly, in 2002, he acquired Ray Durham to spark the top of Oakland's lineup. Given his low budget, what Beane has done in Oakland make him the best GM in the majors in my opinion.
Doing More With More: The Yankees and Braves
It's hard to argue with success. And no one has been more successful than the New York Yankees in the last few years, winning championships in 1996,'98,'99, 2000, and very nearly in 2001. They have reached the playoffs every since in 1995. Of course, they have more money to work with than anyone else, but none of it has been squandered. The Yanks dynasty is not just based on free agency. They developed Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and more recently, Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson from within the organization. Around this solid core, they added key players via free agency: David Wells, David Cone, Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina, Paul O'Neil, Jason Giambi, and now, Hideki Matsui. All of these players were proven veterans, and represented little risk. The Yanks also took some chances. They signed Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez, and unknown quantity, to a four-year deal. El Duque was a great pitcher in Cuba, but nobody knew how he would do in America. He was a solid performer who won 41 games in three years with the Yankees before being injured.
There were also some deals that did not go so well for the Yankees. Most notably, Hideki Irabu never lived up to his billing, but the Yankees managed to trade him for prospect Ted Lilly. Chuck Knoblauch and Tino Martinez played well in the early years of their contracts, but faded towards the end. The Yanks did not resign either one. Money is very important in the free agency era, and the Yanks showed the right way to spend it.
The second-most successful team in recent years has been the Atlanta Braves. The Braves won their division every year from 1991-2002, and may not be done yet. The Braves success has been based on pitching. Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Kent Mercker, Denny Neagle, and Kevin Millwood were all either drafted by the Braves organization or traded for. Only Greg Maddux himself was acquired via free agency, and his signing in 1993 was one of the best free agent deals in history. Offensively, the Braves were put together via smart free agent signings, including Fred McGriff and Andres Galaragga. But they also brought up several stars of their own including Andruw and Chipper Jones. They also traded for Gary Sheffield. Like the Yankees, the Braves were a combination of internal and external parts.
Doing Less with More: The Orioles, Rangers, and Mets
If the Yankees are the poster team for how a wealthy franchise can win, the Orioles must be the poster team for how to lose with money. After winning the AL East in 1997, the Orioles have finished in fourth place every single year since then. The Orioles started the 1998 season with the highest payroll in baseball, higher even than the Yankees, yet finished under .500. That team was stocked with overpaid veterans like Brady Anderson, Jimmy Key, Doug Drabek, and Joe Carter, all well past their primes. All played poorly or were injured that year. To make things worse, the O's best player, Roberto Alomar, couldn't wait to get off the team after the season ended, due to a feud with the Orioles for not supporting him during the infamous John Hirschbeck spitting incident in 1996. Alomar dogged it that year, gaining only 19 win shares, far below his potential.
Things only got worse after the season. Owner Peter Angelos, who had chased off manager Davey Johnson the year before, now chased away the best broadcaster in the game, Jon Miller. Alomar bolted to Cleveland where he posted 35 win shares in 1999. But the O's also failed to sign Rafael Palmeiro when they could have early in the season, and he fled to Texas, where he registered 31 win shares in 1999. Replacing Raffy was Will Clark, old and injury-prone, who posted a mere 8 win shares for the O's in 1999. Desperate for offense, the O's acquire Albert Belle, who posted 24 win shares and stabilized the offense. Still, the O's only won 78 games, one fewer than the year before. The aging Orioles continued to play poorly in 2000, and finally decided to break up their team before the July 31 trading deadline. But it was a last-minute decision, and the Orioles did not get enough in return for dealing players like BJ Surhoff, Mike Timlin, Will Clark, and Mike Bordick. The only two bright spots that year were Delino Deshields and Mike Mussina, as the O's won 74 games against 88 losses.
Tired of losing, as well as the dictatorial style of Angelos, Mike Mussina left for the greener pastures of Yankee Stadium. Without Mussina the O's were in trouble, and everybody knew it. The only big free agent they signed was David Segui, whose 14 win shares in 2001 did not justify his huge contract. Deshields did not play as well as he did the year before, and the O's went 63-98. It was more of the same in 2002, as the O's went 67-95. Entering 2003, the Orioles not only have very little talent on the major league level, but no talent on any of their farm teams. New GMs Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan and their work cut out for them. The only road back to success may be through the free agent market, but at least the O's have the money to spend.
The Texas Rangers also seem to be managing the trick of how to lose with a big payroll. The Rangers have apparently never heard the old adage that pitching is sixty percent of the game. Bill James thinks its only 37 percent of the game, but the Rangers seem to think it's about 10 percent. After posting a 71-91 record in 2000, the Rangers went out and blew $252 on Alex Rodriguez without spending a dime on pitching. They also picked up veterans Ken Caminiti and Andres Galaraga. GM John Hart explained that his goal was to start pitchers Rick Helling and Kenny Rogers in the first two spots in the rotation, and then outscore their opponents in the other games.
A brilliant plan it was not. Hart should have known that Caminiti and Galaraga were too old to be useful. Both played poorly before being shipped off to other teams. Hart also had no backup starters when Rogers was injured, and Helling, who was forced to lead the rotation, was ineffective. The Rangers offense was still very good, led by A-Rod's incredible 37 win shares, and helped by Palmeiro with 24, and Pudge Rodriguez with 19. But with by far the worst pitching in the majors, the Rangers went 73-89, last place in the AL West.
Determined not to let his pitching staff undermine his offense again, Hart held open tryouts for just about anyone who had ever thrown in the majors. The motley crew of pitchers he assembled including Hideki Irabu, best known for being labeled by George Steinbrenner "A fat pussy toad," former phenom gone bust Todd Van Poppel, and journeyman Ismail Valdes. Not surprisingly, Irabu and Van Poppel were ineffective, although Valdes did register 10 win shares. Kenny Rogers returned to form with 15 win shares, and the staff might have been okay if Hart's biggest free agent acquisition that year, Chan Ho Park hadn't been injured, and ineffective. Park had registered 18 and 16 win shares in the two years prior to signing with the Rangers, but was a bust his first year in the AL. The Rangers finished 72-90, last place once again in the AL West.
Things don't look a whole lot better for 2003. The Rangers office will still be potent, but the Rangers lost their best starter in Kenny Rogers. The only bright spot is the bullpen, where the Rangers picked up Esteban Yan and Ugueth Urbina. But until the Rangers decided to get some quality pitching, they are going to be stuck in last place in the highly competitive AL West.
But even the Orioles and Rangers haven't sunk as low as the New York Mets since their World Series visit in 2000. The Mets offensive woes crippled the team in 2001, and General Manager Steve Phillips set out to add some punch. His biggest (no pun intended) move was acquiring Mo Vaughn from the Angels before the 2002 season. It was an expensive gamble. Vaughn had signed a six-year $80 million contract with the Angels in 1999. He had produced fairly good numbers in 1999 and 2000, but well below his level with the Red Sox in prior years. He missed all of 2001 with a biceps injury, and was overweight and out of shape. But Phillips needed some power, and traded for him. Not only was he to be paid $10 million in 2002, but $15 million in 2003 plus the $8 million remaining of his signing bonus, $15 million in 2004, and a $14 million option for 2005. Vaughn was terrible for the first half of 2002, before posting some decent numbers in the second half. Still, 72 RBI's was not what the Mets had in mind. Even worse, the Mets are stuck with Vaughn and his huge contract until the end of 2004. I somehow doubt they will take his option in 2005. Phillips also traded for Brewers slugger Jeromy Burnitz for the 2002 season, taking his two year $20 million dollar deal with him. Burnitz was 33 years old in 2002, and his numbers had been declining a bit. But he managed 100 RBI's in 2001. The Mets could not have expected him to drop of to 54 RBI's in 2002, but acquiring an aging free swinger was not a good idea. The Mets also paid a lot of money for speedster Roger Cedeno, whose poor defense and declining batting average have hurt the Mets Finally, 40-year old David Cone did not pitch well either.
In fairness to Phillips there were also a couple of deals he made that didn't work, but should have. Acquiring Robbie Alomar was a good move since he is the greatest second baseman of his era, and he was coming off a great year in Cleveland in 2001. But Alomar slumped badly in 2002. He may come back in 2003, but even if he doesn't it is the final year of reasonably-priced contract. Cliff Floyd was signed in 2003, but has not produced yet, although he most likely will. The one bright spot for Phillips has been the signing of Tom Glavine, who has been leading the Mets staff. But for $117 million, are a laughingstock. They need to get younger, and they also need a new GM.
Doing Less With Less: The Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Baseball's have-nots simply don't have the money to waste on unproductive players. But in the 1999-2000 offseason, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays went on a spending spree, and ended up with old, overpaid, and unproductive veterans. The Devil Rays weren't just trying to win more games, they were trying to attract more fans, and this led to some bad moves. The first player they signed was veteran slugger Greg Vaughn, to a four-year $34 million deal. Vaughn had hit 50 homers two years earlier and 45 the year before, for a total of 30 and 24 win shares in the two years before 2000. But the Devil Rays should have been more careful. Vaughn was going to turn 35 during the 2000 season, old man territory for a below superstar-level player. Vaughn never played full-time until age 26, and his 1998 campaign was much better than any other year he ever had. Vaughn put up 16 win shares in 2000 and 15 in 2001 for the Rays, hardly the kind of production they wanted from him. Then things really got ugly. Vaughn was batting an anemic .163 in 2002 when the Devil Rays finally benched him. He finished the year with a single win share. The Devil Rays hope that returns to form in 2003 so they can trade him, or if not, at least use some the huge salary they gave for some use. I can tell you, however, that it is not going to happen. Vaughn turns 38 this year, and will be lucky to produce 5 win shares.
The same day that the Devil Rays signed Vaughn, they traded for another old veteran, Vinny Castilla. Castilla had hit 33 home runs the year before, but that was in Colorado's thin air. In terms of win shares he only registered 11. Furthermore, he was about to turn 33 years old, and was clearly past his prime. He was even worse than I would have guessed, however, turning a mere 3 win shares. Furthermore, the Devil Rays already had experience with acquiring older players. The year before, they signed former star Jose Canseco, amid much ballyhoo. Canseco was 34 in 1999, oft-injured, and far past his prime during his glory days in Oakland. The Devil Rays should have known better. Canseco garnered 13 win shares in 1999, and was struggling badly in 2000 when the Devil Rays shipped him to the Yankees. The Yankees only took him to prevent him from falling into a competitors lap. Joe Torre didn't even know what to do with him, and he saw limited action in New York. Since their birth in 1998, the Devil Rays have never known anywhere but the cellar of the AL East. With deals like this, is it any wonder?
Unfortunately, the Devil Rays aren't the only cash strapped team to go out and pay too much money for lousy players clearly past their prime. The Brewers paid $21 million for Jeffrey Hammonds over three years, effectively limiting them from making any other major acquisitions during that time. The Pirates signed the once-productive Kevin Young to four-year deal they could ill afford, and then made matters worse by signing Derek Bell as well. The Kansas City Royals signed Chuck Knoblauch, on the decline for years in New York, in 2002, and promptly got 2 win shares from him. The problem when teams like these ones overpay for worthless free agents is that they don't have the resources to make up for it. And it seems like the poorest teams have been making the worst deals lately.
From Bad to Worse: The Detroit Tigers
How do you take a team that hasn't had a winning season in ten years, that lost 106 games the year before, and actually make it worse? Just as the Detroit Tigers. For a lesson in how not to run a baseball team, let us examine how the once-proud Tigers have been so pitiful in the last few years. The Tigers have made a series of long-term contracts to older players and made even worse trades, miring them in perpetual loss. In November 1999 the Tigers signed thirty-year old Dean Palmer to a five-year $36 million contract. Palmer had had a rather undistinguished career to that point, showing some power, but also a low average, few walks, and lots of strikeouts. He would be 34 years old by the end of the deal. Palmer put decent numbers for the first year of his deal, before collapsing in 2001 with a .222 batting average. He missed all of 2002 due to injury, and I doubt he will do much better in 2003.
In 2001, the Tigers signed 31-year old Damion Easley to a four-year $26.5 million contract. It was a bizarre move. Easley was never a full-time regular in majors until age 27, and posted one big year at age 28 before lapsing back into mediocrity at ages 29 and 30. But the Tigers signed him to a huge deal despite his age and poor numbers. He wasn't terrible in the first year of his deal, but he only managed a .224 average in 2002. The Tigers, desperate to get rid of him, ate most of the remainder of his contract, $14.5 million, in a trade with our friends, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
The Tigers weren't done giving contracts to old players however. The Tigers made a similar deal with Bobby Higgenson, signing him to a four-year $35 million deal in April 2001, when he was 31. The Tigers should have been more careful. Higgenson hadn't been a full-time major leaguer until age 25, and had put up decent, if not spectacular numbers for his first few season. But he broke out in 2000, setting career highs in homers and RBI's while batting .300. The reason for his huge season, however, shouldn't have been too hard to grasp. With Juan Gonzalez batting behind him in the lineup in 2000, Higgenson had a career year. His numbers declined badly in 2001, and again in 2002. With two more years left in his contract, his numbers won't get any better as reaches his mid-thirties.
As bad as these free-agent signings have been, the Tigers have made the worst series of trades in the majors. The trade the Tigers made to acquire Karim Garcia in exchange for Luis Gonzalez was the worst trade in years. Surely the Tigers could not have known that Gonzo would turn into a superstar in his thirties, but he did hit 23 homers for the Tigers while showing good plate discipline, while Garcia was unproven on the major league level. Another bad trade was the acquisition of Juan Gonzalez from Texas in 2000 in exchange for a number of players, including top prospect Gabe Kapler. A right-handed power hitter who was used to playing in small parks, Gonzo had to contend with the new Comerica Park and its 395-foot leftfield power alleys. Not surprisingly, he struggled mightily, and was injured as well. Even worse, Tigers GM Randy Smith for some reason acquired him in the last year of his contract, making him a free agent after the season. Gonzalez didn't even consider staying in Detroit, and left for Cleveland as soon as the season ended. The deal could have even been worse for the Tigers if the players they sent to Texas developed, but Kapler has not turned into the kind of player most people were expecting he would, although he hasn't been terrible either.
All this explains how the Tigers fielded a team that started the 2003 season with a 3-25 record, the worst in modern history.
Buying the Championship: The Marlins and Diamondbacks
It has been said the 1997 Florida Marlins bought the World Series. The Marlins certainly acquired key players through free agency, but the core of the team was built through the farm system and through trades. In 1995, the Marlins already had Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Jeff Connine, Edgar Renteria, and Rob Nenn, all acquired through trades or drafts. The following year they signed ace free-agent Kevin Brown, and lefthander Al Leiter. Before their championship run in 1997, they finished building their team by signing free agents Moises Alou and Bobby Bonilla. Like the Yankees and Braves, the Marlins success was due to a combination of smart drafting, deft trades, and key free agent signings. The Marlins did not buy the World Series any more than the Yankees did. The memory of the fire sale the next year in which they dumped all of their stars has left people with the impression that all their players were free agents, but this is not the case.
A better case for buying the championship could be made for the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks. The 2001 Diamondbacks got major contributions from free agents Randy Johnson, Mark Grace, Steve Finley, Matt Williams, and Jay Bell. The other two major pieces of the puzzle, Curt Schilling and Luis Gonzalez, were acquired through trades. Gonzalez was acquired for Karim Garcia, one of the most one-sided deals in recent years. The only real contribution from a home-grown player was from reliever Byung-Hyun Kim. But since the Diamondbacks kept their team together the next year, they are not remembered in the same way as the Marlins.
Winning With Two Superstars: The Astros and Giants
The Houston Astros and San Francisco Giants have been two of the more successful teams in the past few years, reaching the playoffs on a regular basis, with mid-to-high level payrolls. Both teams success has been built around two superstars, who have provided the foundation around which to base a winning team. The Astros have been led by Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, one of the most successful and longest-lasting tandems in major league history. The Astros needed only 84 wins to take a weak Central Division in 1997, with Biggio leading the team with a mighty 38 win shares, and Bagwell adding 32 of his own. The only other player on the team to contribute greatly was Darryl Kile with 21 win shares. The 'Stros were trounced fairly quickly in the playoffs however. Houston repeated as division champs the next year, winning 102 games, but with Biggio and Bagwell leading the way again. Biggio registered 35 win shares, and Bagpipes had 29. This time, they had help, as Moises Alou also had 29, and pitchers Mike Hampton and Shane Reynolds developed into top starters. Derek Bell had a career year, and a mid-season trade landed Randy Johnson. The Astros lost in first round of the playoffs again, however.
The Astros defended their division crown again in 1999, winning 97 games. Bagwell led the way with 37 win shares, followed by Biggio's 31. Mike Hampton chipped in 26, and Carl Everett had a career season with 25. Yet the 'Stros lost again the first round of the playoffs. Biggio was injured for most of 2000, and without him in the lineup, Bagwell fell to 25 win shares as the Astros lost 90 games. They were back in 2001, however, led once again by the killer B's. Bagwell had 30 win shares while Biggio had 25. But it was no longer a two-man show, as young Lance Berkman led the team with 32 win shares. Bagwell and Biggio both seemed to be slowing down a bit by 2001. Bagwell was 33 and Biggio was 35. The slowdown was not reflected in their numbers since they moved from the cavernous Astrodome to hitter-friendly Enron Field in 2000, but a careful factoring of ballpark effects shows they were indeed slowing down. Nonetheless, it was a great run for a team built around only two players. The Astros made the most of the killer B's prime years by bringing in other players for cheap who had big years before moving on, and never posting such numbers again.
The Giants used much the same formula to advance to the playoffs in 1997, 2000, and 2002, with Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent as the dual superstars. In 1997, the first year Bonds and Kent were together, Bonds led the team with 36 win shares, followed by JT Snow's 28. Kent registered 22, and he would only get better. The Giants won the NL West with 92 wins but lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Giants narrowly missed the playoffs the next year, winning 89 games. Bonds led the team with 34 and Kent followed with 25. No other player had more than 20. The Giants posted the best record in the regular season in 2000, led by NL MVP Jeff Kent's 37 win shares. Bonds posted 32, and no other player had more than 21. The Giants folded in playoffs again, however. In 2001, the Giants won 92 games, but just missed the playoffs. They were led by Barry Bonds, whose astonishing 54 win shares the greatest offensive season of all time, as Bonds set new records for homers, walks, and slugging percentage. Batting in front of Barry, Rich Aurilia had the season of his life, registering 33 win shares, a figure he likely never approach again. Kent had 27 win shares, but no other player had over 15.
Finally, in 2002 the Giants won 95 games, good enough for the Wild Card in National League. Bonds was outstanding once again, putting up 49 win shares, followed by Kent with 29. This time the Giants did not fold in the playoffs, nearly winning the World Series against the Anaheim Angels. Bonds played well throughout the postseason, but the alliance with Jeff Kent was over. Kent left for the Astros, and although he and Bonds never got along personally, they were the reason for the Giants run of success.
Winning Without Superstars: The Seattle Mariners
How does a team manage to lose the two best all-around position players in baseball, as well as the best pitcher, and actually get better? Just ask the Seattle Mariners. That's what they did from 1998 to 2001, losing Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, and Alex Rodriguez, but still being able to lead the majors in wins in 2001, winning 116! Seattle's three superstars led them to the AL West championship in 1997, but Randy Johnson decided he wanted out the following year. Seattle bowed to wishes, trading him to the highest bidder halfway through the season. And the highest bidder paid a high price: The Houston Astros offered top pitching prospect Freddy Garcia, whom the M's happily took. Garcia was good from the beginning, winning 16 win shares in 1999, before recovering from an injury in 2000 and registering 18 win shares in 2001, establishing himself as the ace of the staff.
After the 1999 season, Ken Griffey decided he wanted to leave Seattle, and the Mariners dealt him to the Reds for a package of players, including Mike Cameron. Cameron turned out to be much better than most people expected, gaining 19 win shares in 2000, while Griffey registered 24 that year. But in 2001 Cameron had a huge year with 29 win shares, while Griffey fell to 14. Cameron continued to produce in 2002, with 19 win shares, while Griffey missed most of the year with injuries. Without Griffey's enormous contract, the Mariners had more money to work with, and in 2000 signed veteran John Olerud, who provided consistent production at first base. The Mariners also signed veteran pitcher Aaron Sele, after the Orioles reneged on a contract with him, believing his health was questionable. Sele went on to become a fixture in M's rotation, winning 32 games over the next two years. The Mariners also improved their bullpen, signing Arthur Rhodes, who settled well in his new role in Seattle. Finally, the Mariners added a relief ace, signing Japanese pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki, who saved 37 games in 2000, 45 in 2001, and 37 again in 2002. With their new players, the Mariners managed to win 91 games in 2000, reaching the playoffs before falling to the Yankees in the League Championship.
The superstar exodus continued when Alex Rodriguez signed his huge contract with the Texas Rangers before the 2001 season. But the Mariners used the money they would have spent on him wisely, as they had done with Griffey. The Mariners signed the first position player from Japan, Ichiro Suzuki, to serve as their leadoff hitter for the bargain price of three years $14 million. It was widely seen as a gamble, but Ichiro posted 36 win shares to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. The Mariners also signed free agent second baseman Bret Boone, a solid veteran who surprised everyone by posting 32 win shares in 2001, and 25 in 2002. Reliever Jeff Nelson was also signed that offseason, solidifying the bullpen.
With the players traded for in the superstar deals, and the money saved by not signing them, the Mariners put together an even better team in 2001, winning a record-tying 116 games. Several players had career years, but the Mariners were not a fluke team. They won 93 games the next year, just missing the playoffs. All this was possible through the shrewd moves of General Manager Pat Gillick, voted by his peers as the second-greatest GM of all time. Gillick had also put together a champion in Toronto in the early 90's, but his work in Seattle was his best ever.
And if losing his players wasn't bad enough for Gillick, him manager demanded out before 2003. Lou Pinella, the guiding light of the Mariners for years, was traded to Tampa for outfielder Randy Winn. It remains to be seen if this trade will work as well as the others did.