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GM's Unplugged

December 10, 2003

At last years general manager meetings, Baseball America canvassed 50 of baseballs top executives to survey their feelings on the games hot-button issues: the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, a worldwide draft, pitch countsand the jobs they would have had if not for baseball. (Sadly, Billy Beanes 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 Novembers GM meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., gathering five of baseballs 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 Americas 2003 Executive of the Year; two former winners of that award, the Cardinals Walt Jocketty and Beane of the As; 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 years best-selling profile of Beane, Michael Lewis Moneyball, the possibilities for a World Cup, each ones pet peeve about the game, and more.

Five of the industrys 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 were 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, its 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 clubs perspectivefor me its 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, theyre able to identify teams before they get to these meetingswho they match up with and who they dont. 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 were all more prepared because youre forced to be. Its more year-round. Youre constantly evaluating, re-evaluating, knowing that its always present and future. Whereas in the past, I dont 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 oclock in the morning some night and make a deal, and it didnt 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. Theres a greater chance of more nontenders (on Dec. 20), making people a little bit slower to move. You dont want to jump at the first thing thats 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 hasnt been a whole lot of turnover in GMs. In the past, theres been a lot of turnover. But now theres a sense of confidence that each guy has. Johns been through this how many years? Walt, its his 10th year. Weve been through the cycles. When you first get the GM job, the third- and fourth-year GMs are running out the door, theyre making phone calls. Weve all been through this before. Theres no panic. Stability has helped us all get better at our jobs. Theres a sense of confidence knowing that its 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 everybodys like that.

BEANE: And you know what? Every one of us at this table has lost a marquee player. Weve had to deal with that. And no matter how tough a baseball decision you have to make, whats 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, Walts faced it with some guys, Kevin with Kevin Brown. Theres the realization that the world doesnt cease to exist. You can not only recover, but thrive.

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

BEANE: Ive got to get one of those! (laughter)

SABEAN: You can figure out your six-10 guys on teams and say to yourself, Theres no way that they can fit these guys in their pie. Thats the intriguing thing. You realize theres going to be a second rush.

BEANE: I dont know what it was like for John years ago, but we know every penny that everybody else is spending on their major league payroll. Thats part of the strategy we all take.

TOWERS: It doesnt 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: Youve 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 As 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 theres been a collision of the two the past couple of years.

SCHUERHOLZ: I dont 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, Billys issues highlighted a particular segment of what we all have always done. We have always put together a dossier, to use an old mans 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, were 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 portfolioits just how we weight that portfolio based on our individual circumstances.

JOCKETTY: The difference today is you can gather information so much more quickly. Its 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. Weve 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, Im going to go pop some high school guys.

BEANE: Dont kid yourselfwe were waiting for some of those high school guys this year to fall down to us. Theres a few we were going to take.

BA: Not pitchers, though.

BEANE: Well, yeahbut thats because of the business were in.

TOWERS: The risk.

BEANE: If Im in Atlanta, I might operate differently. Im 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, its the risk that youre allowed to absorb. Theyve been very good for a long time. They can wait four-to-five years. I know Im 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, its not how good you are, its how well you play. The page out of the stat book doesnt play the game. At the end, I think were all good at getting baseball players on the field.

BA: Hasnt 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 theres 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 theyre seeing the game changing up and above, and theres really nothing they can do about it. Those people are probably more soured than the people who run the organizations.

BEANE: Theyre the end of the whip.

SABEAN: Im not patronizing Billy, but I think its far less than what you think. Its been hyped. Its 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. Its a different set of circumstances. Whether youre the old guy out there, or whether youre somebody like Theo Epstein, I think were all smart enough to stay current. You cant have a hard-ass way of looking at things. Youll never survive.

BEANE: People really underestimate the amount of stress were 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 arent 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: Ill say this from our organizations standpoint. It provided an opportunity for me to say to our scouting staff and our scouting administrators, OK, this should draw our attention, and lets make sure that were deeply engaged enough in this issuethat we know what benefit this stuff brings to a team. Perhaps theres some other way to structure a scouting philosophy. It allowed us to keep challenging ourselvesis this a better way? Is this a new twist that we need to look at?

TOWERS: I watch what everybody does. Thats 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 didnt run a 6.9, you didnt turn a player in. By God, Ive changed. Ill 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, theyre in bullpens now. Theyre 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, hes 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), theyre going, This is great. This is a chance for me to take advantage of all these teams going one way. Im going to do this other thing.

SCHUERHOLZ: Thats exactly what Roy said to meTheres 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 Johns Triple-A team (in 1993) with Chipper and everyone.

TOWERS: We talked scouting! We werent talking statistics.

Draft Changes Tabled

BA: Lets 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 pickteams 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 were back at the status quo while the joint draft committee has barely met. Whats going on?

TOWERS: It is so complicated, how you can administrate the worldwide draft. Talking about opting in playersdo 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 dont think there was a consensus feeling this time either. And that was troublesome. Id say it was 50-50.

JOCKETTY: Im 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 dont 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. Ill 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 dont 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 dont 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 Clarks view. It was worldly. It was imaginative. And we gave him a long tether. But no, our philosophy has changed. Weve narrowed our focus a bit in the international marketplace.

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

SCHUERHOLZ: Ive 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, were not going to go hither and yon to worry about every guy.

JOCKETTY: We dont 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. Thats another pick for me. For every great one an organization might have, theres a lot of carcasses all over the place.

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

TOWERS: Talking about compensation, Ive 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 pickby God, Ill use that (bonus) money to get the lefthanded set-up guy I might not have. When youre a small- or middle-market club, you have to think that way.

BEANE: Last year, Brian signed Ray Durham the day before he wouldnt have had to give up a pick to us. We knew exactly what he was doing. People were asking him, Why didnt 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 didnt exist years ago. They were separate departments. Now youre balancing costs. Thats why Im all for trading picks.

JOCKETTY: Like the year Minnesota took Joe Mauer instead of Mark Prior. They liked Mauerhes a hometown kid and looks like hell be a great playerbut 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 wont 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 dont 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 dont know if its a bad thing. We play at the highest level. Until they can get major leaguers in the competition, like the other sports, I dont know, other than the patriotic investment in the thing, why were worried about this. Whatever can spread the game.

JOCKETTY: I think well 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 didnt 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, earlyMarch 1-10, to give your team the chance to jell afterwardsor at the end, say March 20-30? Youd lose, for example, your top three guys to various countries teams.

JOCKETTY: Id prefer our guys to come to camp, get em in shape and make sure theyre ready to go.

TOWERS: Id want to lose my guys late, too. Especially if theyre guys youre 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. Theyve 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: Theyre tough. Theres no diminishment in the apprehension of playing them in their current circumstance, that theyre baseballs team. They are a good team, well-run, and Omars 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. Theyve 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. Lets go around the room. Name one thing that if you were king of the world, youd change about baseball.

SABEAN: I wish that we could have GM meetings four or five times a year. Its too hard to jam everything inthe important legislative stuff, what were trying to get done. This is tough for me.

JOCKETTY: We dont get together enough. We dont talk about baseball enough anymore.

TOWERS: For me, its arbitration. There are no winners in arbitration. I cant 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. Theyre our extended family. We want them to do well. I need them to do well. But theres something in the back of your mindbelieve me, weve all been there, though a lot of us wont admit ittheres times where were out there, Well, were getting our ass kicked . . . Its terrible to say, but . . .

BEANE: I have no idea what youre talking about. (Laughs.)

TOWERS: Its 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. Ill 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. Its not their faultthey have the accessbut I like the way the NFL does it. Its more separated. You sometimes cant talk in what you think is the privacy of your own clubhouse without turning around and theres a media person there. Id 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. Id like to be able to change that. Now I know we cant, because the economics dont 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. Im concerned that often what were trying to communicate to the player doesnt get to the player, either in spirit or in substance.

JOCKETTY: A lot of times, you dont have an open relationship with your players because youre afraid to say too much about their contract or financial situation. We need to break down the barriers. Ive tried to do it with some of my guys, and its worked. Matt Morris and I negotiated his contract. At least weve started to. Sometimes, we dont have that ability to be as open with them as we should be. And with the media, Im 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, Whats going on?, the players upset. Its unbelievable. Its made up, its on the Internet, its on talk radio, and theres no accountability.

SABEAN: Its 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 hes . . .

JOCKETTY: Were a team hes talked to!

SABEAN: He can say, Weve talked to the Cardinals. Its a complete line of bulls-. More so, what happens unfortunatelyits happened to all of us, it happened to John last offseason, its about to happen to me, its already happened to a certain extent with someone alreadywhere an agent hasnt relayed three whole conversations weve had with a potential returning free agent. Now the player goes public and says, I havent heard from the Giants. Whats going on? Well, whose fault is that?

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

BEANE: And the adults, too.

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