When general managers hold their annual meeting in three weeks in Orlando, Fla., they will have to wear name tags to identify themselves and the clubs they work for. It has been that kind of crazy period for general managers.
They have been falling all over, although in some instances they have moved up to become club presidents. That is what happened with John Schuerholz in Atlanta and Larry Beinfest in Florida. Terry Ryan walked away from his job in Minnesota, but he did not go upstairs.
Walt Jocketty is out in St. Louis, and Dave Littlefield in Pittsburgh, following Tim Purpura’s involuntary departure seven weeks ago in Houston. Jim Duquette did not have the title but acted the part in Baltimore and left rather than accept a reduced role.
Who’s new? Assistant general managers have replaced the three general managers who willingly relinquished their roles: Frank Wren for Schuerholz in Atlanta, Michael Hill for Beinfest in Florida and Bill Smith for Ryan in Minnesota.
Ed Wade has been hired to replace Purpura in Houston, and Neal Huntington is the new general manager in Pittsburgh. The Cardinals are looking for Jocketty’s replacement, and the Orioles are expected to make a move that could also end Mike Flanagan’s role as executive vice president for baseball operations. It would be no surprise if Jocketty became the Orioles’ general manager.
Jocketty’s ouster is the most surprising departure, and the hiring of Wade and Huntington the most surprising arrivals.
In 13 years under Jocketty, the Cardinals reached the playoffs seven times and won the World Series once. That Series conquest made his departure all the more curious because it came only a year later.
Jocketty, 56, said he wasn’t the victim of a power struggle, but was caught in a difference in strategic approach to building the team. Bill DeWitt Jr., the managing partner, sided with the vice president for player development and amateur scouting, Jeff Luhnow.
“It was probably more philosophical differences over the direction they wanted to take the club that I wasn’t necessarily comfortable with,” Jocketty said. “He wanted to do things that were different from my philosophy. We felt the best way to resolve it was to go our separate ways.”
The schism between Jocketty and DeWitt epitomizes the debate in baseball that has raged with increasing passion and disagreement: the traditional method of building a club (scouting) versus the newer method of statistical analysis, the player procurement method popularized in the book “Moneyball.”
In his book published last year, Schuerholz, who had been the longest-running general manager, wrote critically of the “Moneyball” concept.
“I was critical of the notion,” Schuerholz said Friday, the day the Braves’ changes were announced, “that someone writes that entirely in place of traditional, instinctive, experienced, intuitive scouting, there could be some metric model that could be as good as that.”
On the other hand, Schuerholz said, “I have always suggested that if someone were to create the proper balance of those two elements, that would be a good way to go.”
Jocketty agreed that merging the two methods was probably the best idea. “Blend together the traditional way of scouting and the analytical side of it,” he said. “We tried to do that. It’s important to do both. You kind of need both to support each other’s theory.”
In general, teams that hire younger general managers — and many younger ones have been hired — are looking to the statistical analysis method to the exclusion of the traditional method.
The result has been a flood of graduates from the Ivy League and similar universities entering baseball front offices.
Four general managers are Ivy League graduates — Theo Epstein (Red Sox), Yale; Mark Shapiro (Indians), Princeton; Jon Daniels (Rangers), Cornell; and Hill (Marlins), Harvard. At least a dozen other Ivy graduates hold front-office positions, mostly assistant general managers and department directors.
Some veteran baseball men, mostly traditionalists, are critical of the appointment of proponents of statistical analysis. They feel that in many cases the proponents lack the experience needed to be a general manager.
That experience, they say, should include running baseball operations departments (amateur, professional and international scouting and player development, for example). People who are hired without solid experience, they say, tend to hire friends they know from college.
In turn, they add, people in the field are reluctant to talk to these newcomers. It is possible that traditional scouts find they have little to talk about with statistical analysts.
The hirings of Wade in Houston and Huntington in Pittsburgh have drawn criticism: Huntington because of his inexperience and Wade because he is a recycled general manager who had a poor record in Philadelphia. He is viewed as having been hired because he was once an associate of Tal Smith, the Astros’ president.
The word in baseball circles is that Drayton McLane Jr., the Astros’ owner, favored hiring Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies’ assistant general manager, but that Smith persuaded him to go with Wade.
Frank Coonelly, the Pirates’ new president, said that Huntington, 37, wasn’t a leading candidate when he began his search, but he subsequently found him to be an ideal candidate, especially because of his work in the Indians’ front office.
“Cleveland is a club I’ve respected from the commissioner’s office for a long time in the way they analyze issues and systematically put together major league and minor league clubs and think through problems in putting a team together,” said Coonelly, formerly baseball’s general counsel for labor.
“Neal has been in the office and then back out in the field being a talent evaluator. He had a nice blend, somewhat unconventional in that he wasn’t sitting in an assistant general manager’s seat.
“He was someone who understood the value of statistical analysis but also somebody who appreciated the job scouts do and the subjective judgment of people who look at amateur and professional players.”
Huntington, an Amherst graduate, is the latest of the new breed of young general managers. Speaking of them generally, Schuerholz, who is 67 and had been a general manager for 26 years, said he didn’t think some of them had the necessary experience, “but they have the energy and the physicality for the job.”
Worth a Second Look
Although clubs are often criticized when they recycle general managers, as Houston was with Ed Wade, some former general managers are worth recycling in the view of veteran baseball men. Two who fit that category are Allard Baird, a former general manager for the Royals now working for the Red Sox, and Dan Evans, a former general manager for the Dodgers now working for the Mariners.
Among other club officials considered worthy of serious consideration for becoming general managers are Jack Zduriencik, a special assistant to the Brewers’ general manager, and Craig Shipley, the head of international scouting for the Red Sox.
Ruben Amaro Jr. is expected to replace Pat Gillick as the Phillies’ general manager in a year when Gillick retires, as expected, for the fourth time.
Nurtured in Cleveland
Three of the four teams remaining in the playoffs have general managers who worked for the Indians under John Hart, the general manager who built Cleveland’s successful teams of the 1990s. Mark Shapiro succeeded Hart in Cleveland after succeeding Dan O’Dowd as Hart’s assistant when O’Dowd became the Rockies’ general manager. Josh Byrnes (Diamondbacks) worked in the Indians’ front office.
“I would expose them as much as I could to the baseball side of it,” Hart said of his front-office operation. “These guys were contributors and they were utilized. I had an open-door policy and I was an encourager. They were going to be involved in making decisions.
“I look at what they’ve done, and it doesn’t surprise me. With men of character who are bright, passionate and have a strong work ethic, good things are going to happen.
“I think all of us are about young players, player development, building an organization from the ground up. That’s how we did it in Cleveland and that’s how these guys have done it in their shops.”
Hart more recently was the Rangers’ general manager and now serves as a special assistant to his successor, Jon Daniels. Baseball people have heard that Hart will take a more active role to help Daniels because of his inexperience.