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April 25, 2002

Avoiding Dissonance

Avoiding Dissonance

by Jonah Keri

Ever see your favorite team's general manager trade a hot prospect for a soft-tossing middle reliever and think: "What could he possibly be thinking?!"

Oh, it's not that bad, is it? Does your team really need a 22-year-old masher with power, patience and a good glove? Shouldn't you be focusing on that last spot in the team's eight-man bullpen instead?

If this horror show sounds familiar, take heart: you're not alone. GMs give away the farm all the time. It's the reason for their behavior that might scare you:

Your team's GM may be thinking of his own interests, not the ballclub's.

When that happens, look out. A GM fighting to save his job can severely damage a team's future. In a desperate attempt to win now, he could sign veteran players on the downside of their careers to back-breaking contracts. He may trade what could be his team's middle infield for the next six years for a name player of dubious value. He could crush the club's hopes for years to come.

An owner hoping to get the most out of his GM should keep his goals simple. Make every move consistent with the team's place in the success cycle. Be aggressive when needed, but without completely sabotaging the cycle's next step.

Just ask Mike Port, the man for now in charge of cleaning up Dan Duquette's mess in Boston. Duquette's win-now-at-all-costs approach helped shift the organization's focus away from building a strong farm system. There were few legitimate prospects in the Sox system, and Duquette shipped many of those out for players of dubious value. Trades like Chris Reitsma-for-Dante Bichette and Dennis Tankersley-for-Ed Sprague will haunt the team for years to come.

The lack of young talent coming through the system means fewer reinforcements and fewer trade chits to fuel a stretch run. Contract disasters like Jose Offerman also hurt the team's chances to win. Throw in Pedro Martinez's injury concerns, and it's possible the Sox may go through a stretch with Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Manny Ramirez on the roster--three of the best players of this generation--without making a World Series, let alone winning one.

You'd think a GM would want what fans want--as many wins as possible for the team. Winning seasons, pennants, and championships make fans happy, make players happy and line owners' pockets. They can also do wonders for a general manager's job security. But baseball can be a cruel game. New owners often hire new people to run their teams. No matter what Bud Selig tells you, they plan to not only win, but also to make money on their investment.

If a GM can't build a winner in his first a few seasons, he'll likely face severe pressure to win quickly or lose his job. As Doug Pappas recently noted here at BP, "The purchaser of a major-league team is allowed to attribute half the purchase price to the acquisition of player contracts, then write off the value of these contracts over five years." Buyers looking for a quick pop may circle that five-year anniversary on their calendars and hope to get out beforehand with a World Series title in tow. Those in it longer may see the end of their tax loophole as the last straw for the team's GM, manager, and anyone else available to share the blame.

On the flip side, if the team does improve enough to become a contender, the pressure to keep it there will grow. A GM may talk at length about having a long-term plan and understanding success cycles, but reel off a few 90-win seasons only to fall just short each year and the pressure mounts. Fans, media, ownership...everyone wants and expects the team to take that last step forward, damn the consequences. The pressure can even be self-imposed--what GM wouldn't do just about anything to help his team win the big one?

When a GM is hired, he may find his team in a rebuilding phase. Expectations are low, so he can take a few risks with an eye toward winning a few years down the road--give starting jobs to minor-league no-names, trade mediocre veterans for unproven prospects with potential. It might work out, in which case he comes out ahead, or it might not work out, in which case he's barely any worse off then he was before.

The Rockies' Dan O'Dowd has seemingly tried everything, and he's entering just his third season as GM in Colorado. He broke up the Blake Street Bombers, chucking Coors-inflated sluggers Vinny Castilla and Dante Bichette. He paid astronomical sums to sign Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. He's tried assembling speed and defense. He's made an ungodly number of trades and player moves, some of which--including acquiring Benny Agbayani and Jack Cust in separate deals--even suggest a reversal back to the home-run derby days.

To his credit, O'Dowd made the Rockies younger and cheaper, building a strong core up the middle and a decent group of secondary players that could compete in the near future. He also deserves some caveats for the team's struggles in his first two years. Playing mile-high baseball may be the toughest challenge any team has faced in decades. He may need to turn pitcher usage on its ear to build a winner. He may need to hire a team of shamans.

But how long will ownership wait? The team went from 82 to 73 wins last year. Though the NL West appears winnable for every team in the division in the next year or two, the Rockies may be the team worst equipped to win it. They're tiring of Ben Petrick. Larry Walker is getting older. Hampton and Neagle may be untradeable due to their mammoth contracts.

Will O'Dowd panic and try to cover the Hampton and Neagle disasters by throwing $60 million at Steve Trachsel? Will he make up for co-fleecing Allard Baird by offering Jose Ortiz to get Neifi Perez back?

Before you brush off those thoughts, consider the desperate grabs some GMs have made in recent years. A decade ago, Dan Duquette was a shrewd young GM for the up and coming Montreal Expos. Forced to work with a tight budget, Duquette made a series of bold moves. He traded away expensive mediocrities to get younger, cheaper and better.

Three months after taking the helm, he stole John Wetteland from the Reds for Dave Martinez, Scott Ruskin, and Willie Greene. During those same Winter Meetings, he grabbed Darrin Fletcher from the Phillies for Barry Jones. He also signed Jeff Fassero as a six-year minor-league free agent. Oh yeah, and he dealt Delino Deshields for Pedro Martinez.

Duquette's moves helped shape the Expos into a serious contender in 1993 and the best team in baseball in 1994.

Fast forward to Duquette's days in Boston. There, he didn't have to worry about being a perennial loser. He found himself at the building stage. Supplement the players you have without destroying your future and you can soon contend. The Sox had enough talent and cash on hand to become a winner...as long as Duquette made the right moves.

For a while, he did. The Duke made tough choices on several players, letting stars like Mike Greenwell, Mo Vaughn, and Roger Clemens leave instead of risking getting stuck with bloated contracts for average players. He made several clever scrap-heap claims, nabbing players like Troy O'Leary and Brian Daubach for nothing. He struck his first major coup in 1997, acquiring Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek from the Mariners for Heathcliff Slocumb. Then he dealt Carl Pavano and Tony Armas, Jr. to Montreal for Martinez, giving his team a still-improving Cy Young winner to anchor the rotation.

Not all his moves worked, but Duquette seemed to be following a path similar to the one he toed in his Expos days. The Sox looked set to make several title runs.

After topping 90 wins in 1998 and 1999, the pressure mounted. Fans' high expectations, the bulldog Boston media banging down his door, and a roster built to win now prompted Duquette to make moves that seem out of character with the rest of his career.

He hit rock bottom at the trade deadline of 2000. Already dealing with a depleted farm system, he sent promising pitching prospect Chris Reitsma to the Reds for Dante Bichette. Desperate for pitching help, he took on Mike Lansing's albatross contract from the Rockies to ensure he landed Rolando Arrojo. After shrewdly grabbing O'Leary for next to nothing, he signed the scrap-heap pickup to a foolish long-term deal.

You could argue neither was his coup de grace. That honor might belong to his swap of Dennis Tankersley to the Padres for Ed Sprague. Tankersley has blossomed into one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. Sprague hit .216 in 111 at-bats with the Sox and was released two months after the trade.

In an effort to win now, Duquette chucked his old dogma: don't pay top dollar for easily replaceable talent. The Duke who let mediocre veterans go and built good, inexpensive teams on the backs of young players with potential had vanished. In his stead, the Sox got a guy who did the exact opposite.

Though those moves look awful now, Duquette deserves to be judged in context. He realized the Sox were in the competing part of the cycle. There, your margin for error is low. Your job may ride on making the playoffs, or depending on where you are, the World Series. A GM may go to extremes to avoid risk. He's strongly tempted to favor a known mediocrity over a player who because of inexperience may be just as likely to be good, mediocre, or awful in a given season. He's far more likely to sacrifice future gains for immediate glory. He'll also go to almost any lengths to keep his job.

So what can a team do to ensure that its general manager balances the ballclub's goals with the GM's own? Quality control, and lots of it.

Ideally, an owner will hire a knowledgeable person who will hold the GM accountable for all of his moves. But a team president figure looking over the GM's shoulder could undermine the GM's authority and make him feel ill at ease. Plus many teams can't even hire one competent front-office executive, let alone two.

That said, Randy Smith's stint as GM under Dave Dombrowski in Detroit would have made an interesting test case. If Dombrowski hires a new GM to take Smith's place, we could gain new insight into the value of team-based thinking.

Until then, the best solution would have the owner running the team the way an effective CEO would run a business. He'd take a hands-on approach, interacting with the GM, asking the right questions. The GM should sit down with the owner, devise a plan, then execute that plan. He should keep the channels of communication with the owner open, filling him in when he makes significant player moves.

Though owners shouldn't be expected to master the ins and outs of the Rule 5 draft, they should learn the basic concepts of the success cycle. If the GM knows his owners are aware the team can't compete every year, he'll feel less pressure during the rebuilding and building stages. Owners shouldn't let incompetent GMs rest easy, but they should give good GMs that breathing room.

Armed with cursory knowledge of success cycles, owners should periodically ask the GM where he sees the team. Does he see a rebuilding squad, one well into the building stage, or one ready to contend?

If a GM stays true to his plan, one agreed upon by everyone early in his tenure, ownership should reward him with a reasonable level of job security, a must for the GM to avoid making panic moves to save his job.

Wins and losses should always serve as a vital barometer of a team--and a GM's--success. But if an owner finds a bright general manager who does his job the right way, he should give him every chance to succeed. With apologies to Sox fans, he'll be far less likely to trade Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen if he knows his job is secure.

Jonah Keri is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jonah's other articles. You can contact Jonah by clicking here

Related Content:  Montreal Expos,  GM

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