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GM's Unplugged

December 10, 2003

At last year’s general manager meetings, Baseball America canvassed 50 of baseball’s top executives to survey their feelings on the game’s hot-button issues: the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, a worldwide draft, pitch counts—and the jobs they would have had if not for baseball. (Sadly, Billy Beane’s dreams of being a Sea World dolphin trainer remain dashed.) The Executive Poll became one of our more popular offseason features.

We decided to take a different approach at this November’s GM meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., gathering five of baseball’s most accomplished general managers into one room for a more intimate look at them and the issues they help shape. The panelists were the Braves’ John Schuerholz, a veteran of model operations in Baltimore, Kansas City and now Atlanta, where he has won 12 straight division titles and won a World Series; the Giants’ Brian Sabean, Baseball America’s 2003 Executive of the Year; two former winners of that award, the Cardinals’ Walt Jocketty and Beane of the A’s; and the Padres’ Kevin Towers, who has won one pennant in San Diego and is now the envy of his peers, gearing up to spend some new-stadium money this offseason. They sat down with BA Senior Writer Alan Schwarz to speak about the slow trade and free-agent markets, the impact of this year’s best-selling profile of Beane, Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” the possibilities for a World Cup, each one’s pet peeve about the game, and more.

Five of the industry’s most respected minds in one room . . . a Baseball America dream. Ingeniously, we brought a tape recorder so you could listen in:


BASEBALL AMERICA: Here at the GM meetings, it feels, at least from the outside, that we’re going to see a lot less movement on the free-agent and trade fronts before the Winter Meetings than we used to. Is that impression accurate?

JOHN SCHUERHOLZ: My view is, from our perspective, it’s not surprisingly slower. I say not surprisingly slower because the economic issues we all face are pretty profound. Decisions we make on what players we trade for and trade away, which free agents we consider, with maybe a newer set of guidelines from my club’s perspective—for me it’s a little slower. And it seems to be that way with all other clubs. My personal expectation is that more final decisions on rosters will be made later than sooner.

KEVIN TOWERS: I see that clubs are more prepared than ever. The limited flexibility that they have, they’re able to identify teams before they get to these meetings—who they match up with and who they don’t. When we came here, we knew that there were probably only five or six teams that we could probably do business with. We focused on those five or six teams. The other 24 or 25 are more social. And the free-agent market, the same thing. There are a couple of free agents that might fit in to where we are from a budget standpoint, but other than that you just kind of ignore them.

BRIAN SABEAN: I think we’re all more prepared because you’re forced to be. It’s more year-round. You’re constantly evaluating, re-evaluating, knowing that it’s always present and future. Whereas in the past, I don’t want to speak for John, it seemed like things could happen in faster fashion with less consequence, shall we say. Or less scrutiny.

SCHUERHOLZ: Well, there were less consequences. We would go willy-nilly at each other after 2 o’clock in the morning some night and make a deal, and it didn’t matter what his contract was or who his agent was or how long you were obligated to keep him.

WALT JOCKETTY: I think the other variable thrown in this year is there are more choices. There are more free agents. There’s a greater chance of more nontenders (on Dec. 20), making people a little bit slower to move. You don’t want to jump at the first thing that’s out there when there might be something better later. I think people are being real cautious.

BILLY BEANE: I think the other thing, too, is that if you look around this room and out there, too, there hasn’t been a whole lot of turnover in GM’s. In the past, there’s been a lot of turnover. But now there’s a sense of confidence that each guy has. John’s been through this how many years? Walt, it’s his 10th year. We’ve been through the cycles. When you first get the GM job, the third- and fourth-year GM’s are running out the door, they’re making phone calls. We’ve all been through this before. There’s no panic. Stability has helped us all get better at our jobs. There’s a sense of confidence knowing that it’s a long winter.

JOCKETTY: And the dollars are so tough today. Every one of us here, with the possible exception of Kevin, who may be able to increase his budget a little bit, but not a lot, right? . . .

TOWERS: Yeah.

JOCKETTY: The rest of us are either at status quo or below. That makes it tough. I think everybody’s like that.

BEANE: And you know what? Every one of us at this table has lost a marquee player. We’ve had to deal with that. And no matter how tough a baseball decision you have to make, what’s important is your reaction to it. John faced it last year with (Kevin) Millwood having to go, I faced it with (Jason) Giambi, Brian with Jeff Kent, Walt’s faced it with some guys, Kevin with Kevin Brown. There’s the realization that the world doesn’t cease to exist. You can not only recover, but thrive.

SABEAN: And as far as the nontenders go, there’s more speculation because there’s more information. You can have your cyberstician go through that . . .

BEANE: I’ve got to get one of those! (laughter)

SABEAN: You can figure out your six-10 guys on teams and say to yourself, “There’s no way that they can fit these guys in their pie.” That’s the intriguing thing. You realize there’s going to be a second rush.

BEANE: I don’t know what it was like for John years ago, but we know every penny that everybody else is spending on their major league payroll. That’s part of the strategy we all take.

TOWERS: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we might have over 300 players on the open market during the month of December. There could be some good deals to be had.

The “Moneyball” Effect

BA: You’ve talked about information. Every club has its own information-gathering system, its own way of viewing that information, whether it be statistical or scouting or financial. With “Moneyball” bearing for the general public how the A’s use statistical analysis to supplement and occasionally supercede traditional scouting, and other clubs doing the same in different ways, where is the industry at in terms of the tools-based versus performance-based scouting debate? It feels like there’s been a collision of the two the past couple of years.

SCHUERHOLZ: I don’t think so. A lot was made of it. But speaking from a historical perspective perhaps a little more so than the rest of these fellas, Billy’s issues highlighted a particular segment of what we all have always done. We have always put together a dossier, to use an old man’s word, on players that we are considering for acquisition that included their statistical performance, what their trend lines are, etc. And with that we would blend in scouting reports, and it was the total sum of that information that allowed us to feel comfortable making decisions. There may be a bit more focus now because we all have more information to process. We have it available to us.

BEANE: Look, we’re all sort of mutual funds. Some of us are more conservative mutual funds. Some of us are more aggressive mutual funds. But essentially we all have the same portfolio—it’s just how we weight that portfolio based on our individual circumstances.

JOCKETTY: The difference today is you can gather information so much more quickly. It’s there. We hire people to analyze it. And you merge it with what the scouts see.

TOWERS: I always used John and the Braves as the model organization. They could develop a Rafael Furcal or a Javy Lopez or a Chipper Jones every year. They got to the point where they could draft high school players and wait. We’ve been in the mode now we needed to build our system up and have more of an instant return. If we get good, by God, if people are taking college players, I’m going to go pop some high school guys.

BEANE: Don’t kid yourself—we were waiting for some of those high school guys this year to fall down to us. There’s a few we were going to take.

BA: Not pitchers, though.

BEANE: Well, yeah—but that’s because of the business we’re in.

TOWERS: The risk.

BEANE: If I’m in Atlanta, I might operate differently. I’m looking at Baseball America today, seeing all the prospects the Braves have, a lot of them high school pitchers. The fact of the matter is, it’s the risk that you’re allowed to absorb. They’ve been very good for a long time. They can wait four-to-five years. I know I’m going to lose a player once a year, a premium player. My feeder system has to be a little quicker.

SABEAN: At the end of the day, it’s not how good you are, it’s how well you play. The page out of the stat book doesn’t play the game. At the end, I think we’re all good at getting baseball players on the field.

BA: Hasn’t there been a tension, though, between the old-time scouts who wanted to keep going on gut feel, and the newer, younger people who focus on more objective facts, many of them statistics?

TOWERS: I think there’s more tension among underlings, like scouts. I think the people at this table know that change is inevitable. We have to change. There are ways that may be better, or ways to supplement what you may have done in the past, that are going to make you more successful. I was an area scout at one time. Those guys are very proud. They spend a lot of time away from home on the road, and they’re seeing the game changing up and above, and there’s really nothing they can do about it. Those people are probably more soured than the people who run the organizations.

BEANE: They’re the end of the whip.

SABEAN: I’m not patronizing Billy, but I think it’s far less than what you think. It’s been hyped. It’s been misconstrued. I was a scout, too. Their lingo had a form of statistical analysis, too. Before radar guns, they knew how fast people threw. They knew who could hit lefthanded pitching or steal a base. It’s a different set of circumstances. Whether you’re the old guy out there, or whether you’re somebody like Theo Epstein, I think we’re all smart enough to stay current. You can’t have a hard-ass way of looking at things. You’ll never survive.

BEANE: People really underestimate the amount of stress we’re under in this job, the amount of work there is to keep on top of. I look at a basketball GM and realize, from a compensation standpoint compared to responsibility, we might have the most underpaid job in sports. I look at John and think, “Why are you still doing this? Why aren’t you out playing golf every day?”

SCHUERHOLZ: John says the same thing to himself. (laughter)

BA: Will there be any lasting impact of “Moneyball” in baseball?

SCHUERHOLZ: I’ll say this from our organization’s standpoint. It provided an opportunity for me to say to our scouting staff and our scouting administrators, “OK, this should draw our attention, and let’s make sure that we’re deeply engaged enough in this issue—that we know what benefit this stuff brings to a team.” Perhaps there’s some other way to structure a scouting philosophy. It allowed us to keep challenging ourselves—is this a better way? Is this a new twist that we need to look at?

TOWERS: I watch what everybody does. That’s why I love these meetings. You pick stuff up all the time. Perfect example: When I was a young scout for Pittsburgh, I was taught velocity, Jugs gun, speed. In Pittsburgh, if he didn’t run a 6.9, you didn’t turn a player in. By God, I’ve changed. I’ll take strike-throwers any day. You can throw that gun away. Give me someone who knows how to locate. I had to change. The people out there having success are the ones who are locating. Not just the power arms. Power-arm guys I saw as amateurs, they’re in bullpens now. They’re not starters. Your philosophy changes as you move along. There are things I got out of “Moneyball” that I might implement in our system.

BEANE: I think the really self-confident guys, like say Brian, not to speak for him, he’s going to say to himself, “How can I take advantage of this thinking?” Not use it. A guy like John and the Braves’ scouting director (Roy Clark), they’re going, “This is great. This is a chance for me to take advantage of all these teams going one way. I’m going to do this other thing.”

SCHUERHOLZ: That’s exactly what Roy said to me—”There’s more high school guys for us.”

SABEAN: The whole thing has been blown out of proportion.

SCHUERHOLZ: Remember when the Major League Scouting Bureau was started and those of us back then had to cut back horribly on our scouts? Whether we agreed with it or liked it, it caused us to think. It caused us to examine. It caused us to measure.

BEANE: And we have to live that internally as an organization. We just got to the economic issues faster than some others. People forget that I have a scouting background. Heck, one of my favorite days in baseball was spending an eight-hour car ride with Kevin going to watch John’s Triple-A team (in 1993) with Chipper and everyone.

TOWERS: We talked scouting! We weren’t talking statistics.

Draft Changes Tabled

BA: Let’s turn to the draft. Sixteen months ago, the owners and players agreed to the spirit of a worldwide draft, free-agent compensation was gone, there was far stronger compensation for not signing a first-round draft pick—teams would get a virtually identical pick the next year rather than the one they do now, after the first round had ended. And some trading of picks would be allowed. But those changes disintegrated, and we’re back at the status quo while the joint draft committee has barely met. What’s going on?

TOWERS: It is so complicated, how you can administrate the worldwide draft. Talking about opting in players—do we have a big enough (central) body to be able to do that?

JOCKETTY: That year we had the Dominican draft (1985), that was a disaster.

TOWERS: I don’t think there was a consensus feeling this time either. And that was troublesome. I’d say it was 50-50.

JOCKETTY: I’m still not sure which way I lie on it.

SCHUERHOLZ: All of us who thought this may be problematic were concerned with information validation. I don’t think anybody felt that we were going to be able to get accurate information to put prospective draftees on a list knowing their real age, knowing their real address, knowing anything about them accurately, knowing the systems from which they come.

BEANE: A few years ago, I was a huge proponent of the worldwide draft. But now, when I look at Player X, a high-profile guy, coming from another country, I now see that as an opportunity for a big-market team . . . to go that route and leave other players for us. I hope a team signs the player from Japan. I hope they sign the defector from Cuba. I’ll take a known commodity.

BA: But the Yankees can sign both Andy Morales and Alfonso Soriano, and just write off Morales!

TOWERS: There are a lot of mistakes on the worldwide market.

BEANE: I just don’t have enough information to risk any capital.

BA: John, your Braves were once big competitors on the worldwide front, signing marquee guys like Glenn Williams out of Australia. You don’t seem to be as much now.

SCHUERHOLZ: Probably not. We had a guy on our scouting staff (Bill Clark) who was very aggressive in spanning the globe. We signed a Russian javelin thrower in addition to Glenn Williams. That was Bill Clark’s view. It was worldly. It was imaginative. And we gave him a long tether. But no, our philosophy has changed. We’ve narrowed our focus a bit in the international marketplace.

BA: Does that affect your feelings on the worldwide draft?

SCHUERHOLZ: I’ve never been in favor of the worldwide draft.

SABEAN: After the ’85 Dominican draft, it could be a horrific undertaking. And either way, if a worldwide draft came into place, we’re not going to go hither and yon to worry about every guy.

JOCKETTY: We don’t have the manpower or the dollars.

SABEAN: If somebody wants to take a guy who would have been a free agent in Venezuela, and who would have been reduced to three or four teams in a bidding war because he had agent, in the first or second round, then so be it. That’s another pick for me. For every great one an organization might have, there’s a lot of carcasses all over the place.

BA: What about the stronger compensation rule? Do you want that?

TOWERS: Talking about compensation, I’ve always looked at my baseball budget as an overall budget. If I think I have a chance to win now, I might go out and sign that Type A free agent and give up the first- or second-round pick—by God, I’ll use that (bonus) money to get the lefthanded set-up guy I might not have. When you’re a small- or middle-market club, you have to think that way.

BEANE: Last year, Brian signed Ray Durham the day before he wouldn’t have had to give up a pick to us. We knew exactly what he was doing. People were asking him, “Why didn’t you just wait for a day?” He knew he was going to get a pick for Jeff Kent, OK? Brian realized the cost of (signing) those draft picks. He was balancing the major league and scouting budgets. That tie-in didn’t exist years ago. They were separate departments. Now you’re balancing costs. That’s why I’m all for trading picks.

JOCKETTY: Like the year Minnesota took Joe Mauer instead of Mark Prior. They liked Mauer—he’s a hometown kid and looks like he’ll be a great player—but it might have been a No. 1 pick they could have traded to the Cubs (at No. 2) and gotten something in addition to the player they wanted.

Baseball Goes Global

BA: Another topic that is being discussed right now between ownership and the union is the staging of a World Cup, perhaps in the spring of 2005. With the United States recently losing in the Olympic qualifier, meaning it won’t be competing in Athens next summer, do you think that will help in the movement toward a World Cup?

SABEAN: Whatever can expand the globe. Now, this will sound ass-backwards, but I don’t know that the U.S. losing is such a bad thing. It gives everybody else the incentive that they can be the winner, notwithstanding that Japan and Cuba will probably be the two principals. But I don’t know if it’s a bad thing. We play at the highest level. Until they can get major leaguers in the competition, like the other sports, I don’t know, other than the patriotic investment in the thing, why we’re worried about this. Whatever can spread the game.

JOCKETTY: I think we’ll do whatever we can to support it. I just saw (scouts) Bruce Hurst and Jim Lefebvre in the lobby, and they just came back from a month in China. I didn’t know they were even playing that much baseball in China.

BEANE: The great thing about soccer is a guy like David Beckham can be the most popular athlete in the Southeast. It would be great if Barry Bonds were doing commercials in Japan.

BA: One interesting question is, assuming a World Cup takes place during a 10-day portion of spring training, would you rather that be, say, early—March 1-10, to give your team the chance to jell afterwards—or at the end, say March 20-30? You’d lose, for example, your top three guys to various countries’ teams.

JOCKETTY: I’d prefer our guys to come to camp, get ’em in shape and make sure they’re ready to go.

TOWERS: I’d want to lose my guys late, too. Especially if they’re guys you’re sure are going to make your club.

BA: Speaking of international baseball, the Montreal Expos are still in limbo. What do you think of the experiment of Major League Baseball owning the club, this temporary resolution now entering its third year? How is this working?

SABEAN: You know what? Omar (Minaya) and his staff should get a badge of courage. They’ve done amazing stuff, above and beyond the call of duty. They were in the wild-card lead this year, what, on Labor Day? What should have been a huge problem has been made into a huge opportunity. I marvel at them. I really do.

SCHUERHOLZ: They’re tough. There’s no diminishment in the apprehension of playing them in their current circumstance, that they’re baseball’s team. They are a good team, well-run, and Omar’s done a wonderful job.

TOWERS: You see a lot of clubs out here talking with the Expos, because they have some of the most desirable players in baseball. They’ve got very competent people over there who have shown they can make good deals. Yeah, they may have to move salary. But nobody in this room takes them for granted. They know what they have.

BA: OK, last thing. Let’s go around the room. Name one thing that if you were king of the world, you’d change about baseball.

SABEAN: I wish that we could have GM meetings four or five times a year. It’s too hard to jam everything in—the important legislative stuff, what we’re trying to get done. This is tough for me.

JOCKETTY: We don’t get together enough. We don’t talk about baseball enough anymore.

TOWERS: For me, it’s arbitration. There are no winners in arbitration. I can’t stand the process. It creates bad blood between management and players. I would love to see a survey about the guys who went to arbitration, how long they stayed with that club, regardless of whether they won or lost. Our business is the players. They’re our extended family. We want them to do well. I need them to do well. But there’s something in the back of your mind—believe me, we’ve all been there, though a lot of us won’t admit it—there’s times where we’re out there, “Well, we’re getting our ass kicked . . . ” It’s terrible to say, but . . .

BEANE: I have no idea what you’re talking about. (Laughs.)

TOWERS: It’s sad. The last thing that I want is ever to be put into that tough position. It hurts that we have to go through that process. I hate it. I hate that part of the game. We work for the same club!

BEANE: For me, and this is not to grant the media less access, but I wish we could adopt more structure. I’ll give you an example. We lost Game Five of the playoffs this year, and Miguel Tejada was very emotional. By the time I got to the clubhouse, we had people videotaping him in an emotional moment. It’s not their fault—they have the access—but I like the way the NFL does it. It’s more separated. You sometimes can’t talk in what you think is the privacy of your own clubhouse without turning around and there’s a media person there. I’d like a chance where afterwards guys have a chance to collect themselves.

Better Communication

SCHUERHOLZ: There are a couple of things. I wish it were easier for families to access the game at the major league level. I wish it were economically possible for a mother and father to bring their two or three children to major league games and enjoy that. I’d like to be able to change that. Now I know we can’t, because the economics don’t allow us to charge less for tickets. We have to keep our revenues up to stay as even as we can with the cost of operating these franchises. And the second thing is how agents have broken the chain of communication between the club and the player. There now is a filter that goes through their representative. I’m concerned that often what we’re trying to communicate to the player doesn’t get to the player, either in spirit or in substance.

JOCKETTY: A lot of times, you don’t have an open relationship with your players because you’re afraid to say too much about their contract or financial situation. We need to break down the barriers. I’ve tried to do it with some of my guys, and it’s worked. Matt Morris and I negotiated his contract. At least we’ve started to. Sometimes, we don’t have that ability to be as open with them as we should be. And with the media, I’m constantly having to dispel rumors of players who were supposedly being talked about in trades. We had absolutely no mention of their names with any clubs. The agent reads it, he calls me, “What’s going on?”, the player’s upset. It’s unbelievable. It’s made up, it’s on the Internet, it’s on talk radio, and there’s no accountability.

SABEAN: It’s also an agent thing. Without naming the agent, I can tell you that Agent X will call up Walt, and mention in conversation a free agent that Walt has no ability to go after. But the agent is smart enough to know that he got it into the conversation, and so now he’s . . .

JOCKETTY: We’re a team he’s talked to!

SABEAN: He can say, “We’ve talked to the Cardinals.” It’s a complete line of bulls—-. More so, what happens unfortunately—it’s happened to all of us, it happened to John last offseason, it’s about to happen to me, it’s already happened to a certain extent with someone already—where an agent hasn’t relayed three whole conversations we’ve had with a potential returning free agent. Now the player goes public and says, “I haven’t heard from the Giants. What’s going on?” Well, whose fault is that?

JOCKETTY: One last thing. I’d like to see the World Series games start earlier. For the kids.

BEANE: And the adults, too.

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