December 3, 2012
Pulling Back the Curtain on the Winter Meetings
Thousands of people within baseball have gathered here in Nashville for the annual Winter Meetings. It is the largest collection of baseball personnel in one spot every year, and the attendees are as diverse a group as you'll find, with 20 or more staff from every major-league organization present, along with key staff members from minor-league affiliates, hundreds of media, hundreds of baseball-related service providers, MLB rights-holders, and other personnel affiliated with the game from all over the world, along with a large group of individuals seeking employment in the sport.
The massive Opryland complex has hosted the meetings a few times before, and it can be a somewhat unmanageable destination for those whose personal GPS is not as accurate as most. The hotel actually provides an intricate map to those who inquire, and it comes in handy numerous times before the week is over. By the end of the week, everyone will know where the Delta, Magnolia, and Cascade buildings are located.
The public's main focus is on the 30 MLB organizations, and rightfully so, since the Winter Meetings are the last time most decision-makers gather in one place until the All-Star Game or the following World Series. I have attended each of the Winter Meetings for the last 30 years, and I find it to be a five-day whirlwind that is always exciting, unpredictable, and totally exhausting.
Each of the clubs has a suite, and a fun fact is that they are assigned by MLB in terms of general manager seniority. Most of the key staff members have nearby rooms in a kind of satellite-style setup. There is no such thing as a "typical" day, but that is part of the Winter Meetings intrigue. You are on the clock every minute of the day.
Clubs try to carry out their off-season game plans this time of the year. Most general managers assign clubs to their top personnel at the Meetings to see if there is a potential match between the two parties. Those individuals, mostly top front office and top advisors, mingle in the lobby, investigating whether Plan A, B, C, and D have any legs. The late Nick Kamzic, a great Angels scout who was a real character, once had business cards labeling him "Lobby Gladiator" to capture the tone. Representatives of free agents connect with top decision-makers to explore potential matches. Most teams like to gather their top staff a number of times throughout the day to exchange information, sharing what they have learned from their club contacts, but also to keep the GM and his top advisors aware of the ever-changing MLB landscape.
There are early morning organization meetings to evaluate potential moves, and if there is enough foundation for a meeting to take place between clubs someone will connect with another team and see if the two parties are available. Every form of communication is used. It might be the hotel phone, your cell, a text message, an e-mail, or simply bumping into someone in the hotel. People jokingly ask if it is a "home" or "road" game, and while you'd think that the senior GM would always host the meeting, sometimes a club just wants to get out of its room.
Every club and its GM has a unique way of doing business, and you would be astounded at the amount of information that teams carry in thick binders and iPads from meeting to meeting. You don't know what to expect, so you have to be prepared, and that database is what baseball operations staff has been working on for the last six to nine months. The GM will have a small group accompany him to each trade discussion, as the rest of the club's staff continues to work on their responsibilities. It is an incredible dose of spontaneity, and a fascinating experience. You get to see who is really talented, who has done their homework, and who really paid attention to your team over the previous season. The great personnel minds are evident in those settings. Clubs try to flush out whether there is some traction within those initial meetings and then follow up accordingly afterwards.
These are marathon, 15-to-18-hour days for most clubs, lasting well after midnight and sometimes deep into the night as they weigh their opportunities. It is a fun time to hear people voice their position and their philosophy as to why one opportunity is a better one than another. You have to know your staff; their decision-making style and personalities. Sometimes the quietest person carries the most weight.
There was a trade deadline after the Winter Meetings when I first started in baseball, and it really marked the end of the offseason. The club you came home with was likely the team you took to spring training. There was enormous pressure to get things done back then. But times have changed, the deadline is gone, and the game is better off as a result, as the constant tinkering keeps baseball in the news throughout the winter. Another alteration that has improved the Winter Meetings is having the tender date precede the session so clubs really know who comprises the free agent pool along with trade options.
As if there wasn't enough on the schedule, the GMs meet with their media every evening to update them, and it is a valuable session for both sides. Talented people on the club's beat know just about everything the team is trying to accomplish. They know your game plan and usually even know whom you have met with every day, including clubs and agents. There is some posturing from both sides, to be sure, but I found it to be an incredible element of the meetings through the years, as you hear what is going on and the overall tone from an independent party.
In addition, there is usually a dinner with the club's collection of affiliates, and each of the MLB managers has his own media session at some point in the main press area. You can now better understand why some of the top club people never get to the lobby during their stay. Room service becomes the norm, and snacks comprise the main food group. You just don't have time for a legit, sit-down meal. Dave Yoakum, one of the game's great scouts, once said near the end of a Winter Meetings that he just "wanted to use utensils!"
There are so many other things going on under the Opryland roof right now. There are two days of meetings among the game's medical staffs and trainers, sharing the latest concepts and discoveries. What an extraordinary experience it was for me to have the great Dr. Frank Jobe on-site anytime I had a medical question while I was the Dodgers' GM. Each of the leagues within Minor League Baseball also meet with their affiliates during the meetings, and that is one of the real perks for me, as I get to say hello to individuals whom I have gotten to know through the years from the minor leagues. There is an announcement for the Scout of the Year Award winners. The Hall of Fame announces its Veterans' Committee selections when applicable (like this year).
Finally, there are two great opportunities for people seeking to get into the sport, as Minor League Baseball hosts the Professional Baseball Employment Opportunities seminar while SMWW conducts its own session and brings people from the game to the potential candidates to share their own experiences. In fact, I spoke at the SMWW session Monday morning along with Pat Gillick, Stan Kasten, Jayson Stark, Maury Brown, and others.
But my favorite item are the Exhibits, a collection of products housed in a huge conference hall on display from the game's rights holders, along with baseball service providers from across the world and the latest innovations from entrepreneurs. It is a tremendous place to get away, take a break, and collect your thoughts, but also a place to explore cutting-edge technology and ideas.
I hired Logan White to be the Dodgers' Director of Scouting one year at the Winter Meetings and purposely used the venue to our advantage, as we had all the candidates there, plus had our top staff in place to interact with them. We did a lot of due diligence in the lobby that year in addition to making a couple of good trades.
Of course, whenever there are that many people gathered, there are always fun stories, too. It’s enjoyable to catch up with people within the game throughout the Meetings.
The Rule 5 Draft (on Thursday) marks the conclusion of the Meetings, as MLB clubs try to find the next Roberto Clemente, Bobby Bonilla, Johan Santana, or Joakim Soria. Staffs have spent a lot of time on every roster in baseball for the last few weeks, combing over the unprotected prospects and evaluating whether a player would be worth the risk as a major-league, Triple-A, or Double-A draft. It is the most fascinating aspect of the offseason, since it is all about trusting scouts and your staff.
Everyone scatters after the Rule 5 Draft, kicking off an amazing race to Nashville International Airport. One year, the Winter Meetings were held in Louisville, and my boss at the time, White Sox GM Ron Schueler, and I were driving back to Chicago. We found out there was a huge snowstorm between Louisville and the Windy City, but we thought that we would be okay. Ron and I decided we didn't need one more night in a hotel. I'm a native Midwesterner, and it was easily the most treacherous drive of my life.
We finally got to Ron's home after about eight hours of blinding snow and drifts.
Baseball Prospectus will have a number of staff here in Nashville to bring you the latest news and rumors from the Baseball Winter Meetings. I'm looking forward to another unpredictable series of events among the Poinsettias here in the Music City.