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June 18, 2008 at 10:07 AM

The next GM

The most often-asked question I’ve had to deal with on radio and in the streets the past few days is…why can’t Erik Bedard go more than six innings? I’ll leave that one to all the Bedard experts out there who insist he’s simply a misunderstood ace-in-waiting, much-maligned by the media. The other big question I’ve had to deal with is exactly what type of GM the Mariners will bring in to replace Bill Bavasi.
Also not an easy question. If this team did the obvious thing more often than not, it might not be the worst club in all of major league baseball.
That said, I’ll give it my best.
For me, there are a couple of musts that this organization will have to look for in a new GM:
1. A grasp of statistical/sabermetric concepts
2. The ability to work with a high payroll

The first of those things might seem obvious to you. But there’s a difference between knowing how to calculate on-base-plus slugging percentage (OPS), isolated power (ISO), and batting average on balls put into play (BABIP) and actually using those stats to make decisions. Contrary to some rumors, the Mariners still do employ the services of sabermetrics analyst Mat Olkin. Thing is, the way the team has thrown big-time contracts at small-time performers, it was easy to believe that Olkin had been dismissed. That can’t happen again. Whoever comes in cannot continue to suggest in public that the Mariners have one of the top defenses in baseball. They don’t. There are too many stats out there suggesting they don’t. A new GM has to be able to look at those stats, know what they mean and proceed accordingly. We’ve all seen what a great defense looks like. And while I didn’t think Seattle’s defense would make or break this team’s playoff chances, you’d never catch me — in public or private — calling it one of the top units in the AL.
So, that’s important. And you don’t have to be under the age of 40 and armed with a Harvard degree to know something about the newer numbers. That’s what folks like Olkin are for. But you have to listen to those folks, decide how much importance to place on their judgements and then have the communication skills to make other people in your organization (especially the more “traditional” ones) buy into those concepts. And it’s not going to be enough to say “Thanks for your input, Mat!” and then go in a completely different direction.
If you do that too many times, it’s time to stop throwing money away on guys like Olkin. Either hire somebody else, or start winning more games.
Now, the second part of the equation is equally important. And it’s not one I hear brought up nearly enough when it’s time to consider a GM.
Whoever replaces Bavasi will have to be able to handle a $100 million payroll. Or higher.
I can hear all the chortles now. “Of course a GM could handle that problem! Give Billy Beane a $100 million payroll and he’d have World Series banners lining the streets from San Francisco to Pleasanton!”
Maybe, maybe not.
We won’t know, of course, until Beane is actually given such a payroll.
I heard all sorts of talk five years ago about how Toronto Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, dubbed a genius by his buddies in the East Coast media before he’d ever run a team, would be cleaning up the AL East if only he had more than a $50 million payroll. Well, since the Blue Jays gained control over their stadium in early 2005 (forcing them to drop any low-payroll, Moneyball, little-engine-that-could pretensions) they have spent up a storm. Their payroll, with the recent extension given Alex Rios, has doubled over the past three seasons to just under $100 million.
But the team’s standing has not changed. Well, actually, it has. Instead of a third-place team for $47 million, the Blue Jays are now a last place team at $98 million.
Like I said, the new GM has to be able to work with a larger payroll. Why can this be difficult? For one thing, when you’ve only got $70 million or less to spend, a lot of decisions are made for you. It becomes mandatory to plug cheap, young players in at certain positions to cut corners and costs. When those young players work out and develop quickly, a GM looks like a genius. When they don’t work out, all said GM has to do is shrug his shoulders and say “If only I had more money, I could compete!”
Not so with a payroll of $100 million or more. That type of money means a GM will usually have a choice between going the cheap, less proven route, or throwing big money at a veteran player in free-agency. And when they pass on the free-agent, they’ll have to justify it when that young prospect hits below .200 for the first two months and throws off his team’s plans for contention.
Big money also means that a GM will be expected to pull off bigger trades to bring in bigger name players, given that salary accomodation won’t always be an issue.
And the bigger the stakes, the bigger the blunder looks when plans go astray. You think Brian Sabean in San Francisco wishes his team had capped his budget a lot lower before he threw away $126 million on Barry Zito? Now, he’ll go down in history as the GM who orchestrated one of the biggest free-agent signing busts ever. Until the next guy comes along. There’s always a next guy.
And that next guy could soon be working for the M’s.
So, contrary to popular belief, a GM’s life doesn’t always become easier when he has more money to spend. As any remotely wealthy person can tell you, money doesn’t buy happiness. Yes, you need it to get by in life. And yes, you usually need it to win an AL pennant. But often, it just buys you bigger headaches.
And those headaches begin the moment a GM takes over a team with such a high payroll. Not only is the scope of their potential deals expanded, but the pressure to win goes up as well.
It’s relatively easy for a GM with a $50 million payroll to declare himself to be in “rebuilding mode”. Try finishing last three years running with a $100 million payroll and see what happens.
I hear a lot of talk about how the “patient” Tampa Bay Rays waited for their youngsters to mature and are now reaping the benefits. Can we please dispense with this fiction? The Rays had no choice. They didn’t spend enough money over the past six years to do anything but stick with youth. They finished in last place every year of their existence with the exception of 2004. This is a franchise loaded with top-round picks. If anything they should have been contending five years ago, except that management forgot that character can sometimes trump talent in the draft sweepstakes. Hence, the wasted picks on guys like Josh Hamilton, Ellijah Dukes, Delmon Young and others who helped set that franchise back by years.
But hey, they’re the Rays. Nobody except for experienced baseball people like Lou Piniella realized how ineptly that franchise was being run. After all, they were spending $35 million or less every year since 2002 until “splurging” at $44 million this season. Watch that payroll shoot up and up each year from now. And try getting away with what the Rays have done on the field since 1998 with a payroll even approaching the upper tier of baseball. It can’t happen.
So, whoever comes in to run the Mariners has to be able to handle the wealth. He or she has to be able to manage a large budget, pull off the bigger deals, take a risk on a high-priced free-agent and not come away looking like a fool every time out. Bavasi was not able to do that, more often than not.
My frontrunners?
If Brian Cashman is available, I’d give him a serious look because of the fit. He’s a guy who’s spent the past decade working under a meddlesome owner who often has his own ideas of which players to add to a roster and will force moves upon him. Compared to the Steinbrenner family, the absentee owner in Seattle and his bureaucratic heirarchy — with its family-oriented ideals and affinity for the odd splurge on Japanese players — should be a piece of cake.
Cashman is a proven winner. He’s thrived with a high payroll in the game’s highest-pressure market. He has the credentials to come here.
If he’s not available, one guy I’d keep an eye on — a darkhorse, if you will — is Blue Jays director of player personnel Tony LaCava. I’ve been hearing his name as a potential Bavasi successor since before I left Toronto. And no, not from him. He’d worked for multiple organizations, in Anaheim, Atlanta, Montreal and Cleveland, before heading off to Toronto.
And he’s pulled out of the running for a GM job in Pittsburgh in the past, holding out for a situation that was a better fit. In other words, a place where the rebuilding plan would not be hopeless. It isn’t hopeless in Seattle. Not when an ownership group is willing to spend $100 million. That kind of money can buy progess a lot quicker than years worth of carefully-plotted rebuilding.
LaCava is known as a “people-oriented” guy who has worked for teams with a vast range of approaches and philosophies, not to mention budgets. If anyone is going to marry the newfangled sabermetric approach with the traditionalist “tools” scouting community, he’s the guy. And he’s respected around the game. That helps when you’re trying to make deals, believe me. You want a guy who can sit down with any GM around the game, or get him to take your calls. It doesn’t always happen that way. Takes years to earn respect. Baseball is still a sport with 19th century values in a lot of ways.
I’m not campaigning for LaCava in any way. I just know that he’s valued highly by some in the Mariners’ hierarchy and has vast contacts across baseball’s scouting community who are looked on favorably by the folks running the show here. Remember his name. If you hear it again later, you can’t pretend to be surprised.
ADDITIONAL NOTE (11:28 a.m.): For Mr. Sabermetrics in the comments thread, Mat Olkin has been employed as the M’s Player Personnel Management Consultant since 2006 and can be found listed as such on Page 11 of the team’s official handbook along with other baseball operations staff. As with other consultants in other businesses, some can work for multiple companies provided they do not disclose private information about one employer that would provide a competitive advantage to another. When I interviewed Olkin last year, he told me he was not bound to the M’s by any exclusivity arrangement. That meant he could work for other clubs as well. He is now doing work for the Royals, as well as the M’s. But nothing about his employment with the team as a consultant has changed. He’s doing the same job he always has.



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