General managers have a whole lot on their plates. They build a team from the manager to the bullpen catcher. However, the most exciting thing they can do is make trades and fans, and media alike, love to judge them on these trades. Justin Gorman takes a look at the trade records of Dan Duquette and Billy Beane.
The work done by a major league general manager is not an exact science, but more of a work of art. There is not a perfect way to find or develop young talent, and certainly no guarantee that any team will experience a return on investment from an early-round draft pick. Brandon Magee put it best – the MLB draft is a crapshoot.
The duties of a general manager extend far beyond the cultivation of a successful minor league system. With rare exception, the general manager is responsible for all personnel decisions having to do with their franchise – selecting a manager, free agent signings and the execution of trades. Certainly the former two are not insignificant – and we at SoSH plan on discussing the subject of free agent signings and non-linear contract values in upcoming pieces.
One of the most visible parts of the general manager’s job is the trades that they make. There are countless historical examples of successful and unsuccessful trades, and they have always been the fodder for critics and fans alike, lest we forget Babe Ruth being sent to the New York Yankees for $100,000 on December 26, 1919.
It is certainly worth noting that a string of successful trades does not guarantee a general manager’s longevity – there are other forces at play, both business and political, that are outside of their control. There is no better example of this than Dan Duquette’s years as the GM of the Boston Red Sox – from 1994 through 2002, he had some significant trading highlights:
|Date||Player(s) Traded||Player(s) Acquired|
|December 9, 1994||Otis Nixon/Luis Ortiz||Jose Canseco|
|July 31, 1997||Heathcliff Slocumb||Derek Lowe/Jason Varitek|
|November 18, 1997||Carl Pavano/Tony Armas||Pedro Martinez|
|December 14, 1999||Greg Miller/Adam Everett||Carl Everett|
|July 31, 2001||Tomo Ohka/Rich Rundles||Ugueth Urtaín Urbina|
This is not an exhaustive list, but all five of these trades can be considered great successes. The trades for Martinez, Lowe and Varitek speak for themselves. Despite their character flaws, both Urbina (convicted of attempted murder on March 28, 2007) and Everett (whose record of controversial statements and actions is widely published) were selected to the All-Star team the year after they were acquired via trade.
Flying “under the trade-ar” in this table is the Canseco trade. During his two seasons in Boston, Canseco put up more than respectable slash-lines: .306/.378/.556 (OPS+ of 137) in 1995, and followed that in 1996 with .289/.400/.589 (OPS+ of 146). Meanwhile, Otis Nixon hit .295/.357/.338 in 1995 for Texas and .286/.377/.327 for Toronto in 1996. Luis Ortiz was a disappointment for the Rangers in 1995, with a .231/.270/.343 slash line in 115 plate appearances. He only made seven plate appearances for the remainder of his career, all in 1996.
In addition to Duquette’s success in trading, he also excelled in scouting young and major-league talent (on his watch, the Sox drafted Nomar Garciaparra, Kevin Youkilis and Jon Lester and signed free agents Tim Wakefield, Johnny Damon, Manny Ramirez and international youngster Hanley Ramirez in 2000). Despite all these successes, he was fired by the new ownership group 24 hours after they took over the team in 2002. The pieces that Duquette accumulated defined a generation of Red Sox fans and helped lead the organization to World Series wins in 2004 and 2007. Duquette returned to the front office nine years later as the GM of the Baltimore Orioles in 2011 – and quickly led the team to the AL Championship Series in 2014..
By contrast, Billy Beane has remained gainfully employed (promoted and made part owner) despite a somewhat spotty track record of trade activity. He has been an extremely active general manager in trade circles, having made several dozen trades during his tenure. Unlike Duquette, Beane is more well-known for his lowlights:
|Date||Player(s) Traded||Player(s) Acquired|
|12/16/2004||Tim Hudson||Juan Cruz/Dan Meyer/Charles Thomas|
|12/16/2004||Nelson Cruz/Justin Lehr||Keith Ginter|
|11/10/2008||Carlos Gonzalez/Greg Smith/Huston Street||Matt Holliday|
|7/24/2009||Matt Holliday||Clayton Mortensen/Shane Peterson/Brett Wallace|
|7/5/14||Billy McKinney/Addison Russell/Dan Straily||Jason Hammel/Jeff Samardzija|
|7/31/14||Yoenis Cespedes||Jonny Gomes/Jon Lester|
This table is not entirely fair as it does not consider the element of bad luck. The A’s acquired Nelson Cruz in 2001, at age 20, and he did not break through to the big leagues until the age of 25 – after Milwaukee subsequently traded him and Carlos Lee to the Rangers for Francisco Cordero, Kevin Mench and Laynce Nix. The table also does not consider payroll pressures which forced Beane to trade Hudson to Atlanta during the 2004 offseason.
All luck aside, the rental of Matt Holliday for a half-season is a head-scratcher. Beane was aware that Holliday came from Colorado with a lot of risk – he would be a free agent after the 2009 season and the Athletics certainly did not have the payroll to offer him a market-worthy contract. To acquire Holliday, he gave up the 2005 Rookie of the Year in Street, who was a proven closer with a young arm. He also sent Carlos Gonzalez packing, who before 2008 was ranked as the #22 prospect by Baseball America and the #26 prospect by Baseball Prospectus. Gonzalez finished third in NL MVP voting just two years later, winning both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award in 2010. Ultimately, Beane gave up a ton of talent for 93 games of Matt Holliday, and received three marginal prospects in return from St. Louis when he traded Holliday ahead of the 2009 trade deadline. On the day he was traded, the A’s were 40-55, and 17 games out of first place in the AL West.
Beane’s 2014 trades have brought the most criticism as he made some deals to bolster his rotation short-term, knowing he would likely not be able to sign either Samardzija or Lester in free agency after the season. In acquiring these two pitchers, they gave up Cespedes, who was an everyday offensive starter, batting .256/.303/.464 (115 OPS+) to that point, and Russell, ranked the #14 prospect by Baseball America, #12 by MLB.com and #7 by Baseball Prospectus before the 2014 season.
The 2014 Athletics were 66-41 on July 30th, holding a 2.5 game lead in the AL West. Beane justifiably thought his team could make a deep playoff run based on their early season success. However, their division lead was short lived as they lost that lead for good on August 26. They finished the 2014 season 10 games back in their division, but their overall record qualified them to play in the new one-game Wild Card playoff against the Kansas City Royals.
They lost that game 9-8 in 12 innings, and none of their acquired players stuck around thereafter. Samardzija signed a one-year deal with the White Sox, Lester signed a six-year contract with the Cubs, Hammel rejoined the Cubs and Gomes signed with the Braves. Technically, their appearance in the one-game Wild Card counts as a playoff appearance, but the criticism of these two deals is justified.
The examples of Duquette and Beane demonstrate that the job of a general manager is extremely complex. GMs must keep an eye on developing youth, having a successful minor-league system, evaluating prospects from around the league and doing so with constant payroll and ownership pressures. There will never be a one-size-fits-all approach to guaranteeing a successful major league ball club. There will also never be one management approach that will guarantee job security, either.