June 18, 2008
The Next Ten
Top GM Candidates
In a post-Moneyball world, a new generation of baseball minds have ascended to the top of their teams. While initial returns have been mixed-Paul DePodesta was forced out of Los Angeles after a perfect storm of weak ownership and a hostile local media conspired against him-the trend is still running strong. That's because like most sports baseball is a game that thrives on imitation; if you win, someone will try to copy your success or at least steal someone that knows the formula. Josh Byrnes got a shot in Arizona because the Red Sox won, even if the second Sox title didn't start a run on the next Sox assistant.
It's time to take a look at the names you'll be hearing next year. While some of these are people who have already been interviewed for positions and might already be on your radar, some of them aren't. I've also taken some of the more easily-anticipated names off of the list. For example, any time there's an opening, Chris Antonetti's name has come up, and for good reason, but after turning down several job offers, Antonetti seems locked in with the Indians, and essentially removes himself from our list, though his name's going to keep coming up whenever a GM job does become available. I also removed former general managers from this list, even though that means keeping well-qualified people like DePodesta off; as with Antonetti, DePodesta will be in circulation as a candidate. This choice also keeps people like Gord Ash, Gerry Hunsicker, or even Pat Gillick off of my list. That's because what I would like to do here is add some names to your mental list. Inside baseball, these guys are known and known well; it's time you did too.
There are also some recurring elements to be found in common among the guys on this list. Several of these candidates come from similar backgrounds, and come from a relatively small group of teams. Most come from front offices with a history of delegating tasks and a focus on developing their own people. Most have a degree from an elite college. Almost all have a background in playing the game, though none played in the majors.
1. Jed Hoyer (Assistant GM, Red Sox)
Hoyer has been at Theo Epstein's right hand since the start of the Red Sox revival. Taking over as Assistant GM after Josh Byrnes left to head up the rebuilding of the Diamondbacks, Hoyer was mentioned by nearly everyone asked as "the next big thing." Given Byrnes' success in Arizona, the Boston slot seems charmed. Like many in the delegatory Sox front office, Hoyer has had his hands in the various areas of baseball operations and doesn't seem to have a pronounced weakness. Some may remember that Hoyer was briefly the co-GM of the Red Sox during Epstein's equally brief hiatus, a testament to John Henry's confidence in the young exec. (Being 34 isn't the knock it once was; maybe it's old for this new generation of front office talent.) Hoyer has made it clear that he's comfortable winning rings in Boston and would want a similar situation to what Byrnes has in Arizona before leaving.
2. Jack Zduriencik (Scouting Director, Brewers)
The first non-GM to ever win Baseball America's Executive of the Year Award, Zduriencik doesn't have to pronounce his name for owners anymore; they know who he is and what his track record has been. His drafts for the Brewers are not just legendary to scouts, they're now producing results on the field for the Brewers. The knock on Zduriencik is that he doesn't have much experience dealing with the media or in managing an organization. I don't think this is an issue at all. First, he has managed one of the best scouting systems in the league, as well as growing several employees into scouting directors-Tom Allison in Arizona, and Bobby Heck in Houston. He's also made a concerted effort to be more accessible to the media. Zduriencik would be a perfect candidate for an organization needing to rebuild from the bottom up and working without the budget to go after big-name free agents. Several people have indicated that Zduriencik's hiring would help in another way: "That team would get flooded with resumés. People love working for Jack," said one NL exec.
3. Rick Hahn (Assistant GM, White Sox)
Hahn might be among the least-known names on this list, but that suits him fine. Hahn is comfortable working in the background, focusing on building up the White Sox while Kenny Williams takes the media heat. Hahn's background working with agents has given him plenty of experience dealing with contracts, thereby allowing Williams to focus on the makeup of the team. The knock on Hahn is that he might not have the talent evaluation chops that others on the list do, but no one thinks that he couldn't handle the job if he brought in a solid talent evaluator as a second-in-command. Hahn's strengths clearly outweigh his weaknesses, and one writer I spoke with said "it's his presence that's most impressive. You know this guy's in charge when you meet him, but he's not bigger than the room." Add in a spotless resumé that includes some top schools and a World Series ring, and it's no wonder Hahn's on this list-and other's.
4. Mike Rizzo (Assistant GM/Scouting, Nationals)
Rizzo left behind a ton of homegrown talent when he left Arizona to take on the challenge of rebuilding the weak Nationals farm system. While titularly the Assistant GM, Rizzo is more accurately described as the head of scouting and development in the Nationals organization. While no one questions his ability to draft and develop, there are worries that he's not ready to handle the media or to lead a front office. As with Zduriencik, Rizzo's handling of his scouting staff speaks to his management ability. The bigger worry is that while his picks are helping the D'backs win, his work in Washington is still a few years from being able to be judged. "It's hard to get noticed in Bowden's shadow," one current GM noted.
5. Tony LaCava (Assistant GM, Blue Jays)
When you meet Tony La Cava, you learn two things. First, he knows everyone. Second, everyone loves him. La Cava might rightly be known as the nicest guy in baseball, and his extensive connections will be among his biggest asset when a team finally decides to give him his shot. With a scouting background, La Cava is known as one of the most savvy talent evaluators in the game, making him a perfect candidate for a team that needs to build through development. Most of the questions with LaCava focus on his team. Teams tend to hire from success, picking off the underlings of winning teams rather than the best of a mediocre bunch. At 46, LaCava is both young enough to have the energy to take on a rebuilding project and the experience to handle any situation. He'd be perfect for a team coming off a disappointment, says one insider. "He's a guy that can find a bright side in any thing," one journalist noted. "He could probably get more leeway on a cold start than any guy this side of Omar Minaya." It's a different style of charisma, but LaCava has "it."
6. Mike Chernoff (Director of Baseball Operations, Indians)
The youngest person on the list, Chernoff has become the de facto No. 3 in Cleveland, and likely would have taken over the Assistant GM slot if Chris Antonetti had left for another organization. While having Antonetti and Shapiro above him on the organizational chart might seem like a tough ceiling, it's also giving Chernoff the chance to learn from some of the best in the business. Shapiro and the Indians have a great internship program, and have developed a number major league staffers in the past decade. Even so, Chernoff might end up being the best. The son of WFAN's program director, no one thinks that Chernoff will be intimidated by the media, though his age will likely be held against him in the near future. "Someone's going to go after Antonetti," a GM said, "and end up with Chernoff. That's not a bad thing."
7. John Ricco (Assistant GM, Mets)
Other than perhaps Hahn, Ricco is probably the least-known name on the list, proving that sometimes it's hard to get noticed, even if you're working in the bigger media markets. As Omar Minaya's Assistant GM, Ricco has taken what he learned in MLB's labor office working under Frank Coonelly and applied it to helping the Mets contend. While Minaya's charisma is more easily noticed, it's Ricco who often works on the details and is responsible for much of the day-to-day organization that makes Minaya's vision for the team possible. Ricco is perhaps going to take a hit because that vision hasn't resulted in rings, and the disappointments of the 2008 season won't help either. There are still some questions about Ricco's resumé, but only in relation to Minaya and Mets exec Tony Bernarzard. As one source noted, "[h]e's low-key, and that could work against him. Someone's going to have to know him and his work, because he's not going to be the guy that is going to get the job on his interview." Many compared him to Neal Huntington, in that his vision and resumé might be more impressive than his persona.
8. John Abbamondi (Assistant GM, Cardinals)
Naming an Assistant GM with Abbamondi's resumé (MIT, Stanford) to this list might not seem like much of a reach, but when I started compiling this list in the offseason, Abbamondi was still ensconced in his New York office getting ready for arbitration hearings in the league's labor office. However, like his former boss, Frank Coonelly, the time was right to jump from the Commissioner's Office to the front office. His move to the Cardinals didn't surprise many in the game, though his name wasn't generally well-known outside of the industry. "I expected him in a bigger market," one insider told me, "and I think it's too early to see him take over his own team. He will, but he's probably a couple years behind some of the other Assistant GMs." One other insider agreed with that statement but said "[John] is the most likely guy on the list to go in and blow someone away in the interview."
9. Thad Levine (Assistant GM, Rangers)
A former college teammate of Josh Byrnes, Levine has had an interesting path through baseball. He joined Byrnes in Colorado, replacing him when Byrnes went to Boston, then joined Jon Daniels in Texas as Assistant GM when Daniels got the job. That's a pair of pretty good mentors, perhaps making the soft-spoken Levine one of the most complete candidates on the list. While not often thought of as a talent evaluator, Levine's approach is to synthesize information, leading many to think that he'd be the perfect "middle road" GM. The downside is that the Rangers' lack of on-field success might handicap his chances, and that soft-spoken nature might work against him outside of the small markets. He's done very well with an oft-combative media in Texas, however. "I take Levine over a lot of these numbers guys," says one old school exec, "because he's been in a couple organizations with a couple types of guys over him."
10. Peter Woodfork (Assistant GM, Diamondbacks)
The last of the three MLB labor-associated alumni on the list, Woodfork's position at the bottom of the list shouldn't be taken as any sort of knock. His name was mentioned prominently in several GM searches this winter, and he's perhaps the most inevitable of all the names on this list. After following Josh Byrnes from Boston to the desert, Woodfork's reputation has only grown. He's still young and still holds that Ivy League diploma, but has also built up more experience and more wins onto his resumé. Some have questioned if he's well-rounded enough to head up an organization, but the same questions were asked about Byrnes. He'd be ideal for a team looking to downsize their payroll while remaining competitive, given the job he's done on the financial well-being of the debt-ridden D'backs.
Other Names to Remember: Damon Oppenheimer, Tony Bernazard, Jerry DiPoto, Kim Ng, Dick Tidrow.
Thanks to all the writers and executives who gave us suggestions on who should be considered.