Through the use of the first-year player draft, free agency, international free agency and trades, Major League Baseball general managers are given the tough task of putting together a successful team. Justin Gorman takes a look at some long-tenured GMs currently working in MLB.
The position of MLB general manager has garnered more attention since the 1990s. Prior to that time, only a handful of GMs (Branch Rickey, Walt Jocketty, Lou “Not Related To The Author” Gorman) were household names. Now, thanks to the meteoric rise in fantasy baseball participation, video games with general manager modes, and the 24-hour sports news cycle where transactions are scrutinized more than ever, the names of many GMs are well-known.
This awareness can be traced to the success of the book (and later the movie) Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, based on the philosophy of Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland Athletics. His approach to finding players who were undervalued by traditional baseball measures opened the eyes of baseball fans. Statistical analysis in baseball reached a fever pitch upon the book’s release and has continued ever since. It has spawned ongoing statistical debate, various conferences to discuss new methodologies, and has turned statistical values into a way of life for many.
Beane’s approach to the game (which can be credited in part to his predecessor and mentor, Sandy Alderson) has also bred a new generation of general managers who have achieved varying levels of success by buttressing their scouting staff with computerized models of statistical analysis. Theo Epstein’s career with both the Red Sox and Cubs has been well documented, but the work of his disciples Ben Cherington (Red Sox) and Josh Byrnes (currently with the Dodgers, formerly with the Diamondbacks and Padres) are works in progress. Similarly, the work of Jon Daniels (Rangers) has been widely regarded as having paid dividends, and it will be interesting to see the outcome of his former right-hand-man, A.J. Preller, who began his GM career in San Diego in August 2014.
Beane’s ability to field several successful teams while maintaining a very low payroll helped change the landscape of baseball, and he has been thusly rewarded. In 2005, he received a contract extension to stay as the A’s general manager through 2012 and was awarded a stake in the ownership of the team. In 2012, his contract was extended once again through 2019. The argument can be made that he has singlehandedly turned the business of baseball on its head.
From a business perspective, there’s no question about Beane’s early success, nor is there much question that he has proven his ability to field an extremely competitive team on relative peanuts. His background in scouting and the organization’s ability to develop young players, particularly pitchers, is irrefutable. His emphasis on home-grown talent has been consistent and he has the draft record to back it up.
Under Beane’s leadership, Oakland has been successful in drafting future major leaguers in the first round. Out of 33 first round picks since 1998, 20 have had a major league career longer than a cup of coffee1. That number aligns well with his counterpart across San Francisco Bay, Brian Sabean – who, since his first draft in 1996, has had 19 MLB contributors out of 34 total first-rounders. While Beane and Sabean have taken fundamentally different approaches to player evaluation, both are GMs of teams with a similar eye towards minor league development over the past 18 years.
The Giants’ recent success can be attributed in significant part to the contributions of several first round picks – notably, Matt Cain (2002), Tim Lincecum (2006), Madison Bumgarner (2007) and Buster Posey (2008). In Beane’s early days, his success could also be traced to some of his first-rounders – Mark Mulder (1998), Barry Zito (1999), Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton (2002), and Huston Street (2004) all played major roles in Oakland’s success in the early ‘00s.
While first round picks are only part of the equation, the above examples are a testament to Beane’s and Sabean’s longevity in employment. The New York Yankees’ Brian Cashman has enjoyed similar longevity with a diametrically opposite approach. The Bombers, up until recently, did not care all that much about their minor-league system and developing internally, but instead spent top dollar on attracting free agents. By virtue of this organizational philosophy, of the 24 first-round picks between 1998 and 2014, only three (Phil Hughes, Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain) have made any significant contribution at the major league level2. The Yankees’ propensity for signing big-name, high-dollar free agents has also led to their yielding of picks to other teams – most notably, the Yankees relinquished the 25th overall pick in the 2009 MLB Draft to the Angels when they signed Mark Teixeira. The Angels used that pick to draft Mike Trout. Cashman is trying to reverse that organizational philosophy, but faces a stiff resistance from a strong ownership group. The Yankees took the first step in that process when they did not renew the contract of their former Senior VP of Operations, Mark Newman, but this change will not occur overnight.
Beane, Sabean and Cashman have all been the GM of their respective ballclubs since the late-90s, and have all made gambles along the way. Each has experienced success – Cashman has four World Series rings (some on the coattails of his predecessors), Sabean has three, and Beane has managed the A’s to seven playoff appearances. However, both the Yankees and Giants have had the flexibility of higher payrolls, despite much different approaches. In 2015, the Yankees have a payroll north of $219M (good for second in the major leagues), the Giants cash out at $172.6M (fifth), and the Athletics are way down the list – 27th in the league – at a paltry $86M.
It remains to be seen if the Athletics will continue to experience success with Beane at the helm – he has come under fire recently for trades he has made, a topic I will explore more in part two of this series. It is clear, however, that Moneyball is still a very influential book in baseball circles, sabermetricians will continue to pore over numbers, and traditional scouting will always remain pertinent. It is also clear that there is no single way to successfully manage the personnel of a major league baseball team and there will always be some level of gambling (and luck) involved.
Players who only appeared in games or registered plate appearances during a September call-up, or in total, did not register more than 100 ABs at the major league level would not be considered to have made a significant major league impact for purposes of this article.
It should be noted – The Yankees’ second first-round pick in 1998 (Mark Prior) and their first round pick in 2008 (Gerrit Cole) both became significant major league pitchers with other teams, but did not sign with the Yankees. Also, Hughes and Kennedy both made a more substantial impact with other teams than they did with the Yankees.