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December 29, 2011

Overthinking It

GMs Say the Darndest Things

by Ben Lindbergh

Baseball fans will believe almost anything if they’re starved enough for news. No source is too far removed from the situation, no rumor too far-fetched to attract attention as long as it arrives on a slow news day and can be expressed in 140 characters. Ruben Amaro thinks Vernon Wells could be the Phillies’ answer in left field and wants to offer him an extension? You don't say. Brian Sabean is considering signing a hitter? Now you’re pushing it, but sure, it could happen. A team is talking about trading Zack Greinke for Jeff Francoeur? Okay, so no one would actually say that. (Wait—someone did.)

When a piece of information is couched in conditionals and comes to us through multiple intermediaries—a writer plus someone he knows who knows someone else—we don’t expect perfect accuracy. Anonymously sourced tidbits are generally something to discuss and dream about, not something you can count on. But surely we can trust the men whose job it is to put their clubs together. After all, who would know better what’s in a team’s plans than the man in charge of making them? Can’t we take what a GM says as gospel?

Not exactly. As it turns out, it’s not always in a team’s interest to announce exactly what it’s going to do and when it’s going to do it. That’s why you rarely see GMs quoted saying something like, “So we’re thinking we’ll sign [player] in the next couple weeks. We’ll probably start him off at $5 million, but we’ll go up to $8 million if he doesn’t take our first offer. Once we have [player], [other player] will be expendable, so we’ll be looking to deal him for pennies on the dollar. Oh, and by the way, he’s not as good as he looked last year, and he’s probably hiding an injury.”* Tampering rules aside, no team wants to weaken its bargaining position by giving away its plans or privileged information about a player. Some level of evasiveness is not only understandable, but advisable.

*Movie idea: Jim Carrey is a baseball GM who can’t tell a lie and has to say yes to everything, so he signs everyone to 10-year contracts he openly admits are way too risky. Then he gets fired. I’m still working on where things go from there.

Still, part of a GM’s job is talking to the press, so he has to say something. When he’s asked about a particularly sensitive subject, he has two choices: he can shout, “Look, a suspected steroid user!” and flee in the ensuing furor, or he can dissemble and double-talk until someone serves up a softball. Most GMs opt for option B. Inspired by the first item on the list below, I asked the BP staff for other instances in which a GM was less than forthcoming about his plans. Here are a few examples that show why it’s best to exercise some caution before buying into everything your friendly neighborhood baseball executive says:

1. Angels 2011-2012 off-season spending
What he said: "I don't think you're going to get a financial bargain swimming in that pool. That's not what we're waiting for. It's just a matter of how your roster starts to shake out once certain deals are made—and if certain deals are made. In our present set-up? Neither one fits."—Angels GM Jerry Dipoto on the possibility of the Angels signing Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder, in an article entitled, “Dipoto: Angels won’t be big spenders this winter.” The article came out less than a month before the Angels signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson (and LaTroy Hawkins!).
What he really meant: “Don’t get your hopes up.”
Why he said what he said: Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of Jerry Dipoto? We can’t determine exactly why Dipoto suggested that the Angels weren’t going to be prominent players in the free-agent market, but we can speculate. At the time that article was published, Dipoto may not have gotten or thought he could get permission from ownership to pursue Pujols, so he lowered expectations in anticipation of Angels’ fans disappointment. Note that Dipoto didn’t say, “If we sign Albert Pujols, I’ll eat a Rally Monkey.” He left himself room to wriggle out of it, like so: “I said in our present setup. I didn’t say in our setup after we released Anthony Ortega.”

2. Angels 2010-2011 off-season spending
What he said: I think I already made a huge splash with (Hisanori) Takahashi. He adds a lot of value to your club. —Former Angels GM Tony Reagins, defending his club's winter inactivity.
 What he meant: “We’re definitely not getting Pujols this winter, but we did get this cool left-handed reliever! Please come to our games.”
Why he said what he said: As Sam Miller observed, Takahashi was more of a “nice little pickup” than a “huge splash.” It’s questionable whether Takahashi would have made a huge splash had Reagins chucked him into the Pacific instead of signing him. There’s nothing wrong with making a player sound more exciting than he is or attempting to drum up some interest in a team. Sometimes GMs have to do that. It’s just that this attempt to do both of those things was a little more transparent than most. It looked even more transparent after Reagins, who clearly wasn’t actually content to call it an offseason after importing Takahashi, made a bigger, more catastrophic splash by trading for Vernon Wells the following month.

3. Anything Concerning Signing Rafael Soriano
What they said: “There is no $7 million closer showing up.”—Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg, five days before the Rays traded Jesse Chavez to the Braves for Soriano and then signed him to a one-year, $7.25 million deal.“I will not lose our No. 1 draft pick. I would have for Cliff Lee. I won’t lose our No. 1 draft pick for anyone else.’’—Brian Cashman, shortly before losing the Yankees’ No. 1 draft pick by signing Soriano.
What they meant:
Sternberg: “There is no $7 million closer showing up (barring unforeseeable circumstances).”
Cashman: “I will not lose our No. 1 draft pick (if I have any say in the matter).”
Why they said what he said:
Cashman didn’t lose his team’s No. 1 pick for Soriano—ownership did. In fact, Cashman went to great lengths to establish that he didn’t negotiate and didn’t recommend the deal by saying things like “I didn’t negotiate this deal” and “I didn’t recommend [the deal].” Just to make his non-culpability completely clear, he also wore this expression whenever he appeared in Soriano’s vicinity:*

Sternberg and Cashman weren’t lying about their intentions. They were just omitting the invisible “unless” attached to the end of every sentence an owner or general manager says. “Player X is untouchable [unless someone blows me away.]” “We’re not going to sign Player Y [unless market conditions change in unpredictable ways or my boss overrules me].” The “unless” should always be assumed. Meanwhile, Soriano just keeps showing up on rosters against the wishes of everyone involved. He’s like that last piece of candy you keep telling yourself you’re not going to eat right until you realize you’re holding the empty wrapper and it’s on its way to your midsection.

*Just because a GM approves of a move and looks pleased at a press conference doesn’t mean it’s going to be a success. Case in point: Cashman again, this time in 2004. (Click to expand if you want to see the expressions on both faces more clearly. And if you don’t, I’m not sure I want to know you.)

I scanned this image from a back issue of Yankees Magazine a few years ago, knowing the internet might need to see it someday. I don’t know that it needs a caption, but the best captions/speech bubbles in the comments below get, um, a congratulatory comment from me.

4. Other things Brian Cashman says about the Yankees’ off-season plans
What he said: “
Center field is not easy to fill. That's why I continue to say that Bubba Crosby could very well be that guy.”—Brian Cashman, shortly before signing Johnny Damon to play center field.*
What he meant:
“Bubba Crosby could very well be our center fielder if he’s the last center fielder on earth.”
Why he said what he said:
Joe DiMaggio. Mickey Mantle. Bubba Crosby. Which one of these things—well, you know the rest. Crosby was never going to inherit one of the highest-profile positions in sports from Bernie Williams, but Cashman had to pretend he was content with a sub-replacement player who’d hit .221/.253/.301 to that point to increase his leverage and (theoretically) fool Scott Boras into giving him Johnny Damon for free. And it worked, if by “free” you mean “$52 million.” Even better, Crosby still got to play 117 innings in center in 2006.

Maybe it’s because as the GM of the team that attracts the most intense media attention, he has to say the most things, some of which are inevitably deceptive, but Cashman has acquired quite a reputation for caginess. As Moshe Mandel recounted earlier this month, Cashman said the Yankees wouldn’t negotiate with A-Rod if he opted out after the 2007 season and suggested that they couldn’t sign CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, and A.J. Burnett in a single offseason. He also said he envisioned Nick Swisher as a first baseman before bringing in Teixeira.** The moral of the story is that you can’t see Cashman coming.

*Many people seem to remember Cashman saying “Bubba Crosby is/will be our center fielder,” but I haven’t seen a citation for any statement that explicit. Memory can be tricky.

**When a GM goes in a different direction after saying he thinks a player can play a particular role, it doesn’t mean he wasn’t telling the truth. After trading for Mark Melancon, Ben Cherington said, “We believe he's definitely capable of closing and capable of pitching in the ninth inning for us.” In other words, “Hear that, Billy Beane? We don’t need Andrew Bailey!” Of course, the Sox did trade for Bailey, which means Melancon won’t be closing. Still, we don’t know whether Cherington actually though Melancon wasn’t up to the task. Maybe he just liked Bailey better.

5. The “vote of confidence”
What many people said: “
He’s our manager/general manager.” Specific example: “Jim Hendry is our general manager.”—Tom Ricketts, shortly before firing Jim Hendry.
What everyone meant:
“He won’t be our manager/general manager much longer.”
Why everyone said what they said:
You want to fire your manager or GM, but you’re not quite ready yet. Maybe you’re still searching for his replacement. Maybe you just don’t want to do it in the middle of the night at the beginning of a road trip. You can’t say, “He’s the best of all possible managers, and we’re never going to fire him. In fact, I’m holding his signed lifetime contract right here,” because you’ll look like a liar when you do end up giving him the axe. So you need something non-committal, a statement of fact that says nothing about the future. Hence the “vote of confidence,” a close cousin of the vote of no confidence: “He’s our manager.” What? It’s true!* There’s a reason why the word “dreaded” often goes before the VoC: according to a Wall Street Journal study, a vote of confidence often means that the manager/GM in question’s days are numbered (and that the number is low).

*For bonus points, you can add a “for the foreseeable future,” then use aYeah, so what if I said that yesterday? Do I look like a fortune teller?” defense after the firing.

6. Changes in team-building philosophy
What he said: “
We have to understand the importance of on-base percentage.”—Dayton Moore, October 2008.
What he meant:
Your guess is as good as mine.
Why he said what he said:
Maybe he said it because it was the cool thing to say and he wanted to get on the good side of the bloggerati. Maybe Miguel Olivo's .278 OBP prompted an epiphany and he actually believed it but found it difficult to apply that understanding to his roster. Whatever his reasons for stressing the importance of improving the Royals’ on-base percentage—which ranked fifth-worst in the majors at .320 in 2008—Moore waited only a few weeks before trading for Mike Jacobs, a first baseman with a .327 career OBP to that point. A couple months later, he signed Willie Bloomquist. In 2009, the Royals’ OBP was again fifth-worst, this time at .318. Since then, the Royals have gotten on base more often, though their walk rate remains among the lowest in baseball and may continue to be with Yuniesky Betancourt back in town.

7. Injuries
What he said:
In the spring of 2007, Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi said high-priced closer B.J. Ryan wasn’t pitching because he had a back injury.
What he meant:
High-priced closer B.J. Ryan wasn’t pitching because he had an elbow injury that would lead to Tommy John surgery.
Why he said what he said:
I’ll let him explain. Ricciardi revealed, “We said it was his back so we could have a little bit more time.” He later defended his deceptive diagnosis with the inspired line, “It’s not a lie if we know the truth,” which Nixon probably would’ve wished he could’ve found a way to include in the Watergate tapes.

Baseball teams aren’t obligated to tell you the truth. Sometimes they shouldn’t. (Although it’s probably better for them to equivocate than outright lie). It helps to remember that when a GM says something publicly, he might be saying it for a reason other than keeping you informed. But don’t feel too bad about not knowing what a team is really going to do. Very often, the GM doesn’t know yet either.

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Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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