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May 16, 2005

Prospectus Q&A

John Schuerholz

by Jonah Keri

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John Schuerholz has been the architect of World Champions in both Kansas City and Atlanta. Starting with the Royals in 1975, he claimed that team's general-manager job in 1981 and held it for a decade. He then shuttled to Atlanta, shepherding the Braves to division titles during every year of his tenure except 1994.

Schuerholz recently chatted with Baseball Prospectus about the transition from scout to general manager, the team's focus on drafting Georgia prep players, the importance of delegating, and more.

Baseball Prospectus: The Braves have become known for drafting a high number of players out of Georgia high schools. Why has the team gone this route, and what do you think it's done for the organization?

John Schuerholz: It's served as a great catalyst for energizing local amateur baseball programs, grassroots baseball programs. We then benefit from having more young baseball players gravitating toward the game because of our success.

The more subtle trend is the general trend in the United States of families moving toward the Sun Belt--something you started to see 12 to 15 years ago. If you look at the statistics of where new residents have migrated, the southeast states are among the highest, and Georgia is high on that list. Then you have kids looking at our success, how we have both local and national appeal because of our success, TBS and other factors...kids, as you know, want to do things that seem to be popular in their area.

The competition improves because there are so many kids playing. It's an opportunity for amateur programs to separate themselves as advanced, talent-wise. There are an awful lot of amateur select teams and travel team programs that make for great competition. The [Atlanta-area] East Cobb program stands out nationally. Kids that play in East Cobb ball are high-school students somewhere too. So you take that talent to the baseball community, and the high-school teams have gotten better at the same time. It's a great feeder system for the development of baseball athletes to either advanced amateur players, standout high-school players or college-caliber players--or elite pro prospects, which is what we're looking for. We've recognized that, and it's in our backyard, so we've made a conscious effort to take advantage of that, to spend a lot more time developing our relationships with Georgia amateur and high school programs.

BP: If this is such fertile ground, why haven't other teams targeted Georgia players too?

Schuerholz: The Dodgers probably know more about players in Los Angeles than we do. Tampa Bay probably knows more about players in southwestern Florida than we do. Teams tend to do a better job close to home, then once they have a competitive advantage, it's harder to catch up. We saw this happening in Georgia before other teams did, we got ourselves established locally, and we've cemented those relationships more quickly and firmly than other clubs have. When we drafted Jeffrey Francoeur as low in the first round as we did, it was because he had a multi-sport scholarship offer to Clemson. But he chose to cast his lot with us. Part of that certainly had to do with the money we gave him. But if you ask Jeff, he'll say he was going to get the money regardless, that a lot of it had to do with our success, our stature.

BP: Geography has also played a big role in Braves player development of course. One especially interesting ballpark has to be Myrtle Beach (S.C.), one of the best pitchers' parks in the country. How do you balance the desire to give pitchers a favorable environment to pitch in versus making it that much tougher for hitters?

Schuerholz: The most important factor with minor-league affiliates and their location is the caliber of league: Does it fit the developmental connection we want to have? Is it a high-caliber environment to perform in and to live in? Myrtle Beach, for one, meets those criteria. So we say to our hitters in Myrtle Beach, "we know this is a big ballpark, there are ocean breezes blowing in, it doesn't have a great batter's eye, so hang in there, we know it's tough." We understand that and they learn to understand that. We need each affiliate to fit appropriately with how we want to design our minor-league teams--with a lot of high-school and internationally-based talent. A lot of young guys get fed into the pipeline, so we try to construct our farm system with that in mind. We pick the league progression that we'd like to be in, then try to find the best spots in those leagues.

We want high-quality, modern facilities, too. In the last three years we've opened two brand new parks, one in Rome, Georgia to replace the Macon ballpark, then in Pearl, Mississippi to replace the Greenville, South Carolina one. Geographic proximity is important to us as well.

BP: You mentioned the Braves acquiring international-based talent--having enjoyed so much success with foreign talent over the years, are the Braves looking forward to an international draft, or do you prefer the status quo?

Schuerholz: Status quo. I don't see the value of an international draft. The logistical demands and nightmares created would be more problematic than the benefits.

BP: Is there a selfish element to your opinion, too?

Schuerholz: Probably. But if baseball ever decided to adopt an international draft, we'd go into it very confidently.

BP: What about the idea of making draft picks tradeable--would you be for that kind of plan or against it?

Schuerholz: I think it's an advantage to good scouting organizations, so I would be in favor of it. I don't think it would accomplish what the draft was designed for, though--to allow for an evening-out process, so that the have-not clubs by virtue of being in better drafting position, can fill their pipeline more quickly, more effectively. But it's always about having the best scouting system, the best development programs, so that's who would benefit the most.

Let's say you're a middle-market team, you need a shortstop, and we have three of them. I trade you one of them for your top two draft picks. Your needs for the immediate term are solved, and you're better right now--but you've diminished your future. I would be in favor of it because I think we'd be better for it. From a broader perspective, though, it would not be good for the industry. Teams that have immediate needs would be made vulnerable.

BP: How does the responsibility break down among the baseball operations staff? Why is it structured the way it is?

Schuerholz: As general manager I'm ultimately responsible for everything that occurs, both at the major-league level and minor-league level. My management style is as a delegator. To continue the success of the last 25 years, I need to have in place people who do their jobs well, people on whom I can rely to do their jobs well, to provide me with necessary judgments, recommendations and ideas that I can examine and filter. This is everything--which free agents we're going to sign, scouting reports, statistical data, the needs of the major-league team. We've averaged 10 new players on the roster every year since I've been here, so we need to always look ahead. We look at who in our farm system has matriculated, and is ready to burst onto the major-league scene. We'll get recommendations from [Director of Player Personnel] Dayton Moore and his staff. Who do we put on the 40-man roster, who it is we expose to the Rule 5 draft.

We take that all the way down to the basic elements, our scouting department, with Roy Clark our scouting director. We typically draft between 28th and 30th each year, yet we manage to keep the pipeline filled. Dayton Moore and Roy Clark--they run the show for the amateur draft, they do the work to figure out who we're taking, how much it's going to cost us. I don't do any of that. I used to be a scout, then I was director of player development, but I don't do that anymore.

We rely on Frank Wren, our assistant GM, to deal with all the technical issues--waivers, most of the contract negotiations. Tyrone Brooks, our director of baseball operations at the major-league level, digs into all the data. Once we're through the process of acquiring and developing talent at a championship-caliber level, then we give the responsibility for blending that talent together to the major-league coaching staff and to Bobby Cox--and they're as good as any group in the game. My job is player acquisition, administrative management and field management. Then if you can answer a few questions, put a few sentences together, you're going to be able to do the job. This is the same process as I used in Kansas City--it's how I learned to become a general manager.

BP Having been a GM before and obviously being a big part of the organization, is Bobby Cox still involved in personnel decisions on some level?

Schuerholz: Bobby has great judgment and instincts, but he hasn't scouted for a long time--he's been the manager here for 15 years, so he doesn't see players all the time. Do I ask him about guys? Absolutely. If I'm making a deal, once I'm far enough down the line in terms of player analysis, I'll ask him. It's a courtesy as much as anything, and he does have good judgment with the players that he's seen. I might ask something like "what kind of teammate will this guy be," questions like those.

BP: One area where the Braves seem to do a great job every year is in finding players--especially pitchers--whose careers don't seem to be going anywhere and turning them into useful regulars on good teams. Darren Holmes, Chris Hammond--there have been a lot of these guys. How much of the credit for that goes to Leo Mazzone?

Schuerholz: We use pretty the much same process with all players. We trust our scouts and we ask the appropriate questions: Who are the guys who might not be at top of their pitching game, who may not be in a positive pitching environment? Who has that latent ability, but isn't utilizing it effectively or consistently? Once we get those answers, we can go get these candidates for repair or revitalization.

Ordinarily, it works. It works because of a few factors. This is the best pitching environment that exists at the major-league level. It's a legacy established by an early group of excellent pitchers in 1991, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Steve Avery, then Greg Maddux in 1993. It's a legacy of pitching excellence. Why is it excellent? We have a manager who understands pitching, who pays more attention to pitching and has a better feel for pitching than any other manager I've ever been around. We're very, very conscious not to abuse pitchers in whatever role they're in. That's been Bobby's M.O. since I've been with him--though Chris Reitsma might argue with that, given his 84 appearances last year.

Leo has put together a remarkable throwing program--actually not only a throwing program, but a pitching revitalization program--that has worked well for established veteran players. It's about how often they throw, for what purpose do they throw, how they feel about what they're doing, psychological preparation, establishing the intellectual intent of throwing pitches to certain locations, the mental and physical characteristics that make for a great pitcher--they learn all that.

Then you've got a medical staff led by [Head Athletic Trainer] Jeff Porter, [Assistant Athletic Trainer] Jim Lovell and [Braves Orthopedic Surgeon] Dr. Joe Chandler who do a remarkable job of tending to our pitchers, keeping them on the field. Finally, you've got the strength and conditioning program that Frank Fultz puts together. It's specific to positions, so that the program that our pitchers use is different from the one our other players use. We take a lot of pride in the amount of innings our pitchers pitch. They take the ball when it's their turn, and they just pitch.

BP: On the flip side, how do you assess how much of a player's improvements are the result of the Braves' system? Thinking of examples like Avery, Jaret Wright--how does that then affect who you decide to retain and let go?

Schuerholz: It's health, ability or money. In Avery's case it was health. With Wright it wasn't health, in that he was completely healthy for us. But he had a history of health issues, and then the money requirement gets to a certain level, you factor in the historical concerns, and you say no. With Kevin Millwood, it was purely money; we couldn't afford him if we were going to construct a team. Glavine we tried to sign, it was his choice not to sign--we made what we thought was a fair offer. With Maddux it was his age, his prospective productivity.

BP: How do you approach building a major league roster?

Schuerholz: Given the budgetary limitations we have, or any team has, my approach is that you win most of your games with your starting eight, starting pitching staff and your closer. That's where we invest most of our dollars. After that we put together middle-relief pitching and the bench. In consideration of middle-relief pitching, there may be a young player who if given a chance would have the ability to grow into a dominant pitcher and take on a greater role later--someone like Roman Colon, to give a current example.

For a position player, every once in a while we'll take a 46-year-old Julio Franco. But often we'll look for someone who could grow into a starting role for us, like Ryan Langerhans or Pete Orr, or Nick Green and Charles Thomas before them. It allows us an opportunity to give young players with talent an opportunity for major-league experience. This is a major-league team expected to win the division title [every year], so these players are still here to help us win.

BP: How will the near-term future of Andy Marte be addressed? We rated him as our #1 prospect this year, he's producing at Triple-A, you've got question marks at the corner outfield spots, and you've got Chipper Jones, by our metrics one of the worst defenders in the majors, playing third base. At what point do you bring up Marte and move Jones back to the outfield?

Schuerholz: Chipper Jones was a perennial All-Star at third base. We moved him to left field to accommodate Vinny Castilla, who by everyone's admission was a better third baseman. Chipper did not take to it, he did not play his new position well. It was physically debilitating to him, hard on his legs. We brought him back to third base, not just for physical reasons, but with the idea that it would help his bat as well. If you have a player the caliber of Chipper Jones, a potential future Hall of Famer, you accommodate him.

Are we delighted to have Andy Marte? Absolutely. And it will likely happen for him at third base. On the other hand, could he be a Miguel Cabrera-type player, where he plays some left field, right field, some first base? Maybe. You can't really analyze the value of Chipper Jones if you just look at statistical defensive analysis. Because then you don't see what his impact is when he drives in the winning run in the ninth inning. It's important to feed some positivity to a player like that. If Marte does what we think he's going to do, he'll be in the big leagues very shortly.

BP: Another consideration with a player like Marte is the question of starting his service-time clock. How much of a concern is that for you, given the budget constraints the Braves and every other team must face?

Schuerholz: It's never an issue for us. Maybe that's just because of my attitude--we always seem to have quality talent in the pipeline behind the guy whose time clock starts, behind the guy who's going to get more expensive than his quality of play demands. So we'll just put another player in that role. We have great confidence in our scouting and development program, that we have a very full pipeline of talented players. If they're good enough, there's really no problem--they'll earn their way into a starting spot.

BP: What have you found the differences to be between corporate and private ownership? Are you given more instruction on holding the line on salaries one way or another?

Schuerholz: I've been the GM here for 15 years and I can tell you the impact is zero. There's no more involvement or intrusiveness under corporate ownership. Actually there's less--when Ted Turner was around, he got involved. But I was always autonomous in my decision-making, regardless. There's less money on the team as far as payroll goes, but that's not because of ownership; it's because of crazy baseball decisions that force you to make idiotic decisions. If you ran any business like baseball is run, you'd be run out of the industry. You hear "Do whatever you have to do to put a winning team on the field"--that's ludicrous! We went from a $105 million payroll to $80 million, and kept winning, kept doing the exact same thing. Only now we're losing less money.

Our company does not have an obligation to spend whatever it takes to support the idiotic salaries that players are making just because a couple teams have the ability to drive salaries. No one knows that better than the union, or the agents. No one says you have to a ring placed through your nose, that you have to get dragged through this idiotic system. We took the ring out, and I support the decision 1000%. Three of the last four champions had payrolls of less than $80 million. You don't have to do any of that insane spending. You just have to operate more creatively, to use a little more imagination.

BP Until Mark Wohlers came along--and he was homegrown--the Braves never really had a dominant closer during the team's run, and certainly none who were signed for huge money. The team won with Alejandro Pena, with Jeff Reardon toward the end of his career--and with many other lesser names. What, then, was the thought process that led to trading Jose Capellan for Danny Kolb? Is the team's philosophy now that you have to have an established, proven closer to win?

Schuerholz: Our team had finished last three years in a row when I became general manager, so we weren't going to put a closer high on our shopping list. We didn't feel like that was something we had to do. But it didn't take long to recognize that we were going to need a quality closer every year. That's the way to construct a quality team: First you get good to great starting pitching, then you find your closer--it was a natural progression. As far as Kolb goes--is he a different-style closer than Smoltz? Sure. His track record wasn't real long, just one year, but we wanted to put John back into the starting rotation. That was the bigger issue in this case, rather than who it was we were going to get to replace him.

BP: What are the best and worst trades you've ever made?

Schuerholz: The best trade was Fred McGriff in 1993--Donnie Elliott, Melvin Nieves and somebody else [Note: It was Vince Moore, who never played a major league game--JK]. For that we got Fred McGriff--we didn't have a fourth-place hitter, and he was perfect fit. That was the year the stadium caught on fire. McGriff hit two home runs in a game early on for us, and we caught on fire.

The worst trade was David Cone for Ed Hearn, that's an easy one. Any time you trade away someone who wins a Cy Young and makes that many All-Star Games after you trade him, there's not much you can say.

If you ask me what the best acquisition was, that was definitely the signing of Greg Maddux.

BP: McGriff was a case where you had a contending team, and you made that "go for it" trade. How do you decide if the team is close enough, such that you'd make this kind of in-season deal? How do you convince management to invest the extra money to make it happen?

Schuerholz: Our operating budget is our operating budget, and that's OK with me. If I say it's OK to win a championship with $80 million, I can't say later, "it's OK to get this guy who's going to add $5 million more." When we stay within our operating budget, though, that doesn't mean we're not going to get someone who'll help us. It may not be a headline trade; it just has to be somebody with the talent to fill the position we're looking for.

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

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