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June 28, 2010

Top 10 Week

General Manager Candidates

by Will Carroll

Welcome to Top 10 Week. All week long, various BP authors will be revealing their Top 10s in various categories. Today we start off with Will Carroll ranking the 10 best general manager candidates.

A couple years back, I did a list of the "next GM" crop. It's one of those innocuous exercises that nonetheless tells us a lot about what's going on inside of the front offices. We hear about GMs, about trades, about drafts, but even in Moneyball and earlier in Dollar Sign on the Muscle, we seldom hear about the day-to-day operations carried out by a group of people that is overworked, underpaid, and most importantly, vastly overqualified. This is a group that years ago would be more likely to be putting together a hedge fund, working for the State Department, or something a bit more "important" than the game of baseball. With the money of the modern era, teams got smarter, fast. 

There's no one way into baseball anymore. What was once an old-boys network might still be mostly men, but it's not all ex-players. Billy Beane might be the best-known GM in the game, but he's also a bit of an oddity as an ex-player. There are not even a lot of "grinders" (as one GM described them), the front-office equivalent of an organizational soldier. It took Jack Zduriencik years to become an overnight success, but it was more the resistance of putting a scout at the top of an organization than a resistance to Zduriencik himself. It doesn't even require an Ivy League degree, MBA, or law degree any more.

Instead, the phrase that kept coming back to me as I spoke with everyone from owners to broadcasters to travelling secretaries is that the one trait needed to succeed in baseball today is "star power." One GM said "the first time I met Jed Hoyer, I knew he was going to succeed. I think he should have been running a club three years ago, but job opportunities are tough and he had such a great situation in Boston."

It's also clear that there has been a shift over the last few years. Scouts seem to be firmly in control of the short lists around baseball. Perhaps it was easier for them to adjust to using statistical analysis that it was for the numbers guys to go the other way. There are no pure outsiders on the list, save one special case. There also hasn't been enough time for the data warriors to make enough of an impact and then to get experience in other areas to really be top contenders just yet. Moneyball isn't dead, but it's certainly not getting nearly as much attention as it once did.

There are a couple of rules for who got on the list. First, we couldn't have any repeats, which removed people who are still great candidates like Kim Ng, Mike Chernoff, and Peter Woodfork. Second, I didn't give any suggestions in the initial stages of the interviews. In the interviews I conducted, all off the record so that no one would be slighted by being left off, they had to bring up the person themselves. I did go back after assembling a scratch list and ask more questions about the finalists. Finally, there are no honorable mentions. In the forty-something interviews I did for this project, nearly 80 names were mentioned. What I was looking for was a complete candidate, one who could not only succeed in the job on merit, but would likely be the type of person that would get an interview next time a job is open (which could be soon.) As we showed the last time, we understand the type. Three of the 10 we named have their own job now, and all of the other seven is are still considered top candidates. So here they are:

Damon Oppenheimer

Age:48
School: University of Southern California
How he got into baseball:  A former catcher at USC, Oppenheimer worked with the Padres, where his mother was the longtime minor-league administrator, and then with the Rangers before joining the Yankees in 1993, becoming the director of player personnel in 2001 and assuming the role of scouting director in 2005.
Current Position: Yankees vice president, amateur scouting (scouting director)
Why He's Ready: There's really nothing left for Oppenheimer to prove with the Yankees. His staff has developed players who have come through and have been traded out. There's the advantage of the big pockets, but with those big pockets comes big scrutiny. The "Joba Rules" have been both a blessing and a curse for Oppenheimer, but he's had enough successes that even laying that at his feet isn't going to ding his finish much. Since it doesn't appear Brian Cashman is going anywhere soon—Cashman is younger than Oppenheimer—it appears that Oppenheimer will have to move on to get his shot, unless the Yankees pay GM-like money to keep him in place.

Scott Proefrock

Age: 50
School: William and Mary; University of Massachusetts Amherst (masters in sports management)
How he got into baseball: He began his baseball career with the Pirates in August of 1987 as a marketing intern. Working under Chuck LaMar, he became director of baseball information systems in November 1987 and then a scouting and player development assistant in December 1989. He would also work with LaMar in his next two positions with the Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He worked for the Braves from 1991-95, at first in scouting and player development and later as assistant director for scouting and player development.
Current Position: Phillies assistant general manager (handled 10 arbitration cases in 2009, also instrumental in signing Pedro Martinez, and was involved with Roy Halladay trade-and-sign)
Why He's Ready: Success is often copied, and the easiest way to do that is to grab a coach or front-office type from a winning team and try to steal some of the mojo. Proefrock's scouting background really helps, as he not only gets the benefit of being associated with the Phillies' wins, but also was involved with some excellent Braves and Rays' picks that are still helping their respective teams. He's one of many that have come out of Lisa Masteralexis' program at the Isenberg School of Management, something you prospective GM's might want to note. There's no area of baseball operations that appears to be a weakness for Proefrock, with only a low media profile being cited by a few. "You're not going to put him in New York," said one writer, "but if it's a situation like Bill Smith [Minnesota]or even Jack Z[duriencik], Scott would be excellent."

Ben Cherington

Age: 36
Schools: Amherst College, University of Massachusetts (masters in sports management)
How he got into baseball: He did advance scouting for the Indians before joining the Red Sox, when he was hired by former Boston GM Dan Duquette in 1997.
Current Position: Red Sox senior vice president/assistant general manager. (Since his co-assistant, Hoyer, departed to take the GM job in San Diego, Cherington has transitioned from a role overseeing scouting and player development to a more traditional assistant GM role focusing on major-league roster construction, professional player evaluation, and contract negotiations.)
Why He's Ready: Cherington has been a key part of a very visible organization since the dawn of the John Henry-Theo Epstein era. Cherington served as co-GM during Epstein's gorilla suit vacation and while most believe that Epstein was always coming back, they also believe that a Hoyer-Cherington front office could have succeeded, though most think Hoyer is just slightly more politically savvy and would have come out ahead, just as he did in getting his second GM position with the Padres. Cherington's Moneyball roots are covered by the scouting and development system he's been in charge of for years. It's a very productive and well-regarded system that has been successful with many types of players. Overall, Cherington is seen as someone who could succeed away from a big-money team, but that he's media-savvy enough to handle a bigger market like Los Angeles. (His wife, Wendy Nix, is a reporter for ESPN.) If there's any weakness, Cherington doesn't seem ambitious to outsiders. "I don't know him very well," said one West Coast FOT, "but he's awful comfortable there in Boston. I don't think Theo's going anywhere, but I've always had the sense that Ben's one of those guys that's just as happy being the No. 2. That's not a bad thing, but it's going to keep him off some interview lists."

Jeff Kingston

Age: 32
School: Dickinson College (economics)
How he got into baseball: He got started in baseball when hired by Epstein as an intern for the Padres, and has spent the last nine seasons working his way up through the San Diego baseball operations department. Kingston was named the Padres' director of baseball operations in November 2002, a title he held until being hired by the Seattle Mariners. While in San Diego, he was primarily responsible for assisting former GM Kevin Towers and assistant GM Fred Uhlman Jr. in all player acquisitions as well as roster, payroll and budget management, contract negotiations and salary arbitration efforts,and overseeing statistical analysis and scouting efforts.
Current Position: Mariners assistant GM. He joined the Mariners last September, replacing longtime assistant GM Lee Pelekoudas, and made a big impact this winter, being a key operator in the negotiations that ultimately led to the signing of staff ace Felix Hernandez to a five-year contract extension.
Why He's Ready: Kingston is the hero of every job-seeker haunting the lobby of the winter meetings. (Orlando this year, kids.) He's rocketed through the baseball operations department to become a prime candidate for several jobs. "He's really on the radar," said one former GM, "and he damned well ought to be." Kingston is known as a detail freak, perhaps a bit controlling, but certainly isn't domineering. His position as AGM under Zduriencik solidifies his reputation as a perfect complement to someone who's more scout-oriented. It works both ways—if the GM is a scouting/development guy, the AGM is usually a stats/contracts guy, or vice versa. It won't be much of a knock as he's interviewed for a position, as it's relatively easy to find a scouting director who's ready for an AGM slot. Some thing Kingston is getting a bit too much credit, being a more acceptable candidate than Mariners stats guru Tony Blengino. The M's collapse in 2010 does take some of the shine off, but Kingston is young enough that he's going to be on plenty of short lists.

Jason McLeod

Age: 39
School: Palomar Junior College, before being drafted by Astros in 44thround of 1991 draft
How he got into baseball: McLeod started his front-office career as an intern in the Padres' baseball operations department in 1994. He went on to hold multiple posts for the Padres through 2003, starting as an assistant in the baseball operations department and then coaching in the minor leagues for three years before returning to the front office as the assistant director of scouting and player development. He then served as an area scout in Southern California from 2002-03 before joining the Red Sox.
Current Position: Padres vice president/ assistant general manager (instrumental in developing farm system and scouting)
Why He's Ready: Another graduate of the Padres' internship program (which is becoming what the Indians' internship program was), McLeod came back to the Padres with Hoyer. McLeod has the coaching stint on his resume, which isn't unusual for people in player development, but is a bit more rare when it comes to AGM slots. That could help him if he has the chance to interview for a job that has an established manager. "Mo [John Mozeliak] isn't going anywhere [in St. Louis]," said one writer, "but that's the kind of situation where [McLeod] would excel. I'd compare him to the other guy with a coaching background, (Cubs GM) Jim Hendry. Hendry's always had a big name down there—Baker, Piniella." One downside for McLeod is that he's seen as another Epstein disciple, something there's no shortage of. "I like McLeod," said an NL GM, "but I don't take him over Peter Woodfork or Ben Cherington."

Bobby Heck

Age:45
School: Broward Community College
How he got into baseball: He was an area scout for the Rangers from 1995-99
Current Position: Astros assistant general manager/ director of scouting (oversees the drafts—Heck had joined the Astros as the director of amateur scouting on October 24, 2007, from the Milwaukee Brewers organization, where he served for eight seasons as that club's eastern scouting supervisor, including the drafts of 2000-07.)
Why He's Ready: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Zduriencik is going to be happy when Heck gets hired. Heck was hired away from the Brewers and handed one of the worst minor-league systems around. In just a couple of years, he's been able to turn things around with solid drafts despite being handcuffed by slots. The Astros have also kept up their work in Latin America, keeping that channel working for them due to their longtime commitment, especially in Venezuela. Heck isn't thought of as much of a new-school guy and some thought that might work against him. "He's more of a guy you'll see on the edge of a room rather than in the middle of it," one current GM said, "and I don't see him as someone that will get looked at by someone like (Cubs owner) Tom Ricketts, someone who'd want a Moneyball guy." More than one person thought that Heck would be best suited for his own club, if Drayton McLane decides to oust Ed Wade.

Ray Montgomery

Age: 40
School: None. The former Astros outfielder (1996-1998 in the majors after being drafted in 1990) was also in the minors with the Pirates (1999-2000) and Mets (2001).
How he got into baseball: He spent six seasons with the Brewers, including the past two seasons as Midwest crosschecker. He joined the Brewers as an area scout for South Texas and Louisiana in December 2002. In that role, he was responsible for the scouting and signing of current Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks (2003 First-Year Player Draft).
Current Position: Brewers assistant director of amateur scouting (central scouting supervisor)
Why He's Ready: Have we mentioned Jack Zduriencik yet? This is another of the Jack Z clones we'll see, though Montgomery isn't quite as experienced or polished as Zduriencik was. As much credit at Zduriencik gets for his scouting department, some of it has to go to GM Doug Melvin and AGM Gord Ash. The Brewers might only have one playoff appearance with this front office, but they've become a contender in most years, strengthening the team in almost every way. Montgomery's biggest strength is his charisma. He's one of those guys that people are drawn to, something one scouting director points to. "He's not going to be the best candidate going in to an interview just yet," he said, "but he's got a great chance if he gets into the room. He's likeable, affable, relatable, and he's going to articulate a vision, which some people with better resumes might not be able to do."

A.J. Preller

Age: 33
School: Cornell University
How he got into baseball: He went to Cornell University with Jon Daniels and got the Rangers GM into baseball after joining the Texas front office in November 2004 after working in baseball operations with the Dodgers, Major League Baseball, and the Arizona Fall League. In the course of directing the club's scouting operation and acquisitions in Latin America, he uncovered much of the talent, including phenom reliever Neftali Feliz, that has pushed the Rangers' farm system to a high ranking among baseball publications.
Current Position: Rangers senior director of player personnel (Preller has shot up the organizational ranks and is now overseeing all scouting and has a hand in acquisitions.)
Why He's Ready:  If there's a Jon Daniels, Part II, this is it. Preller has, as scouts would call it during the draft, "helium." His background is close enough to Daniels 'that there's a little worry that he's unprepared, but he adds in the scouting department seasoning that could get him painted with the still-derogatory "Stat Geek" tag. He also played a big role while working for MLB in beating Eric Gagne in a landmark arbitration case. The Rangers' success has been fueled in large part by players that Preller has his fingerprints on. Don't think that doesn't get noticed by the competition. There's some concern that he might not be fully ready for the big chair. "I wouldn't feel confident that he's ready to run an organization," said one current GM, "but I'd want to interview him and see if he impressed me enough with a plan."

Mike Berger

Age: 48
School: Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School.
How he got into baseball: He was the Pirates' fourth-round draft pick in 1980. Following his 14-year playing career, all in the minor leagues, he spent one season (1994) as a hitting coach, and another season 1995) as a manager in the Rangers' farm system. He then moved on to the Expos as an area scouting supervisor (1996-98), East Coast crosschecker (1999), special assistant to the general manager (2000), and director of professional scouting (2001). He also was a pro scout with the Astros (2002), the Rockies (2003-05), and Blue Jays (2006-09) before taking over as the Diamondbacks' farm director last season, when he replaced A.J. Hinch, who took over as manager when Bob Melvin was fired.
Current Position: Diamondbacks director of player development.
Why He's Ready: Berger has a wealth of experience as a player, coach and scout, spending 31 years in professional baseball and being around the game his whole life as his father, Jack, was the Pirates' long-time public relations director. Berger's greatest strength is his ability to communicate, as he is outgoing, smart, funny, and seemingly knows everybody in baseball, which is why he was a finalist for an opening on ESPN's Baseball Tonight a few years ago. Undoubtedly, he would be a big hit with the media and the fans. Berger is not a "new-school" statistics guy but is very open-minded enough, understands sabermetric principles and that blending scouts and stats is a good way to build a winning organization.

Sam Presti

Age: 33
School: Emerson College
Current Position: Oklahoma City Thunder general manager
NBA Resume: Presti's NBA résumé includes a long stint in San Antonio, where he started as an intern doing film work in the video room for coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford. (His former coach, Smith, was wearing a Spurs jacket at the game.) Legend has it that it was Presti who, just before the 2001 draft, went up to Popovich and said, "I really think you need to take another look at this kid Tony Parker." Popovich had not been impressed with Parker after his first workout with the Spurs, but Presti had seen a lot of Parker and was convinced that the 19-year-old was worth a second look. Presti had been with the Spurs for one year. Popovich agreed to look anew. The rest is history. Presti rose through the ranks to eventually become assistant general manager to Buford. He was schooled in the "San Antonio Way" and has brought a similar mentality to Oklahoma City: Try to avoid the jerks, try to avoid overspending, try to hire the right people, try to sustain what you have (if you want to sustain it, of course)
Why He's Ready: Surprisingly, Presti's name came up time and time again. Bill Simmons thinks that Presti might be the best current GM in any sport. It's hard to argue given the results and Presti's ability to combine new-school thinking with old-school scouting. Playing in a small market, Presti doesn't have some of the same advantages, especially when it comes  to free agency. That means the draft is more important to the Thunder and that's where they've had outsized success. Drafting Kevin Durant was something of a no-brainer, but the Thunder have excelled at finding hidden talent like Jeff Green and D.J. White. Just take a look at what Presti did on draft day 2010, making three trades that improved his team. He's a hard worker. It's not unprecedented to switch sports,either. John Wooden, the legendary coach at UCLA, was once approached about taking over as manager of the Pirates. Presti would no doubt need to be paired with a "baseball lifer" to do some translation and relationship work, in the same way that the Rays use Gerry Hunsicker, but the skills of an NBA GM certainly carry over to baseball.

Jimmy Hascup contributed research to this article.

12 comments have been left for this article.

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