Ned Colletti’s finishing his seventh season as Assistant General Manager of the San Francisco Giants. A former sportswriter who got his start in baseball in the Cubs public relations department, Colletti cut his teeth under Dallas Green and Jim Frey in Chicago and Bob Quinn and Brian Sabean in San Francisco. One of the most prolific contract negotiators in the game, he’s completed about 350 player contracts worth $750 million during his career, including the last two Barry Bonds contracts for the Giants. Colletti and GM Brian Sabean have presided over a Giants team that’s been eliminated from playoff contention for a total of 11 days over the last seven years, on track for a fourth playoff appearance this season. He recently chatted with BP about the role of an assistant GM, the Sidney Ponson trade, and why the Giants sign and trade for the players they do.
Baseball Prospectus: What’s a typical day for you? What’s your role with the Giants?
Ned Colletti: Though we haven’t done this as much this year, in the past Brian (Sabean) and I would take a walk after most games, sometimes for as much as two hours. We’d go through every player on the team, talk about everyone, who’s performing well, what areas do we need to improve. Between the two of us we watch every game, often together, talking about everything we can do to make the team better.
My role here encompasses a lot of things I’m not sure every other assistant GM gets a chance to do. One of Brian (Sabean)’s strengths is his ability to delegate–there are no territorial problems here. In that sense he’s been great with me in broadening the scope of my career. He’s helped me in making trades, to where now everyone’s open to suggestions and anyone–whether it’s myself, Brian, or (VP, Player Personnel) Dick Tidrow–might be the person to go after a deal.
Brian knows to take advantage of people’s strengths too–I don’t think he’s done a contract in the last seven years, because he knows that’s an area where I feel comfortable, and it’s one of the things he allows me to run completely…I’ve done the last two Bonds contracts here, and I’ll also do the deal for the last man on the 40-man roster. The same way people have scouting reports on players, I have them on agents. I go way back with a lot of them–I’ve argued with them, talked to them, had a drink with them. I want to know who’s pulling my leg, who stretches the truth from time to time, who has the player’s best interests in mind and who has his own best interests in mind.
BP: When the Giants re-signed Bonds those two times, as great as he’d been, did you have any idea how good he’d be given his age? How did you get a contract done that would keep Bonds happy while making sure the Giants got a good deal out of it?
Colletti: Of all the contracts I’ve done–and that includes Ryne Sandberg for $28 million which was at the time the biggest deal ever, a Greg Maddux contract with the Cubs, Bonds’ first contract extension–none had as many twists and turns as the last Bonds contract. We’re talking about a player who’s if not the best one of the best to ever play. He’s invaluable to the franchise, he’d just broken the single-season home run record the year before and he’d raised his game to a level never seen before.
That said, whenever we’d talk to Scott Boras about a deal, he’d say ‘whoever signs Barry would get home run number 700, 715 and hopefully number 756 included,’ plus the farewell tour and everything else that went with him. We all believed in keeping all that in San Francisco. But we also knew we couldn’t pay high dollar figures for a player who wouldn’t perform in the later years of the deal. We also didn’t want to have to play Bonds and eight Fresno Grizzlies every day.
Brian and I talked almost every day after the All-Star break that year then every day in the off-season, along with Peter Magowan and Larry Baer. We finally sat down and massaged the numbers until we had an idea of what we could pay. Then when we sat down at the Winter Meetings, they wanted money near the A-Rod level, plus a signing bonus. We said we couldn’t pay that kind of money, we could pay a signing bonus, but for the deal to work cash flow-wise, we had to defer some of the compensation. At the end of the day we knew that Barry’s desire to stay was huge, as was our desire to keep him. We were both willing to be creative, and eventually we got it done.
The final deal was for five years ($90 million), though we have a way out of the fifth year, based on number of plate appearances–basically an injury clause. Barry had always shown a willingness to be charitable within the community, so we put some of that in writing. Plus he has a deal for 10 years after he’s done playing, at $100,000 a year, to keep him around the Giants, have him do appearances, work with young players, things like that. One amazing thing about this franchise is the number of past greats doing this already–Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Jim Davenport, Vida Blue, Bobby (Bonds) before he passed away. It’s really like a big extended family.
BP: One of the biggest fears with that deal, or really with any deal, has to be weighing past performance vs. how you think a player will perform in the future, especially in the case of older players. How do the Giants try to mitigate the risk of a player not performing up to his past standards?
Colletti: Well we always keep past performance in mind, because that’s still one of the best predictors for future performance we have. But when we’re signing a player, especially an older one, many times it’s not the dollar figure that holds you back, it’s the number of years. We can’t send $5 million to a mailbox because the player we have under contract isn’t playing anymore.
BP: How much of a role does (Head Athletic Trainer) Stan Conte and his staff play in making sure those mailbox checks aren’t sent in terms of injury prevention and keeping guys on the field?
Colletti: We find that players who have been with us for a while tend to stay in shape and injury-free more so than some of the players we acquire. Stan and (Assistant Athletic Trainer) Barney Nugent and (Assistant Athletic Trainer) Dave Groeschner work these players 11 months a year. They’re all given their own conditioning program, and we make sure they’re pretty religious with it, watching them almost non-stop. When we acquire a player, they’re surprised at how much effort is put into conditioning, and it usually takes players that whole first season to get into that kind of good shape.
BP: Is there a specific age group you look for when pursuing free agents?
Colletti: It varies as far as age goes. We signed Jose Cruz Jr. in his late 20s. Alfonzo was around 30, Durham a little over 30. Marquis (Grissom) was in his mid-30s. It’s just a matter of how long we believe a player can be productive at the dollars they’re being paid.
A big thing we look for is to find overachievers. When we acquired J.T. Snow, Jose Vizcaino, Jeff Kent–all those guys were character players who had something to prove.
When we had Matt (Williams) and Barry, they made up something like 30% of the payroll, so we knew we had to trade one of them, and it had to be Matt. Cleveland came forward, and we were looking at Kent. People would tell us he’s a selfish player, a loner, not a glowing report at all. So we went back to the Mets organization–where he’d played before–and we asked them what we could expect. They said he’d play hard every day. Would he go to all the team parties? No. Some teammates maybe didn’t appreciate that he’s a quiet guy who preferred spending time with his family, and that on the field he was all business. He came to us as a good player, and he left as a great player, a potential Hall of Famer.
BP: The Giants have fared much better against lefty pitchers (.281/.360/.482) this year than against righties (.256/.328/.401). Does the team take platoon splits into account when putting together the roster every year?
Colletti: Not really. We concentrated more on being more athletic. Having played Anaheim in the World Series, seeing them go first to third and other things like that, we wanted to bring some of that to our own team, run more, steal bases. It hasn’t worked out as far as stolen bases go with Cruz not running as much and Durham being hurt. But we’d also stressed increasing our versatility and depth, and we feel with Neifi (Perez), (Pedro) Feliz, Galarraga, Jeffrey Hammonds and some other players, we’ve done that.
BP: You mentioned Neifi Perez. This was a player who last year, and really throughout his career, has been one of the worst hitters in baseball. You got him off waivers, non-tendered him, then signed him to a two-year contract (for $4.25 million plus bonuses). What made the Giants believe he was worth that much money? Were there no other alternatives out there? Could someone like say, Cody Ransom have done the same job for the league minimum instead?
Colletti: When we were first in conversations with Neifi, we didn’t know what would happen with Kent, or David Bell, and we had players like Reggie Sanders and Kenny Lofton possibly leaving too. So we really wanted a player who was versatile, who could play a bunch of positions for us to help make up for those losses. Talking to Felipe (Alou) about him, he said Neifi could play second, short and third, that he’d be an above-average fielder, a guy who’d occasionally get a big hit and who knew how to play the game. We felt that was a player we could use.
BP: More and more we’re hearing about the concept of a GM being the boss and the field manager being like a middle manager in the company. How do you and Brian Sabean interact with Felipe Alou? Does (Alou) have a lot of say in player personnel decisions? Does the front office get involved in a lot of on-field decisions?
Colletti: We have great conversations with Felipe. He’s seen so many different things in the game. Even when we have a short conversation to say hello, you can learn so much. There’s really no ‘play this guy’, ‘or hit this guy’ going on though. Once in a while, if we want to make a suggestion, we might say something like, ‘what would you think about…’? But there are no mandates. We trust the manager to do his job. It goes back to Brian’s style: he delegates and he doesn’t micromanage other people’s positions.
Part II tomorrow…
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