Rating the best GMs in the business
For the last 20 years, one of Baseball America's most popular features has been our Best Tools surveys, our comprehensive breakdowns of which players in the majors, minors and even amateur levels thrive at each specific area of the game. But players aren't the only people in baseball with tools.
The job of general manager has recently splintered into an astounding number of disciplines, from evaluating talent and budget balancing to waiver navigation and front-office management. Much as players need a full toolbox to survive in the big leagues, so do executives.
And so, we've compiled the first-ever General Manager Best Tools survey. At the recent general managers meetings in Naples, Fla., we corralled almost every GM, and also more than 25 additional high-level executives, to break down which front office men (and women) most impress them in 18 areas of GM-dom. We also identified some top prospects—current assistant GMs and the like—who are excelling at certain skills and should be on everybody's radar.
Winners are listed in BOLD CAPS, while other notables are in Bold.
MAJOR LEAGUE PLAYERS
Of all the duties GMs must perform these days, none remains more paramount than being able to tell who can play and who can't. TERRY RYAN
(Twins) might not have the pocketbook of his GM brethren, but he has their respect as the best pure talent evaluator.
"He's good at evaluating not just major league personnel but also rookies and overlooked guys," Phillies GM Pat Gillick said. "He can look at a player and determine what his skill level is, and how long he'll keep it up." Added Braves assistant GM Frank Wren, "That was his strength going into the job—talent evaluation. He got the job, and he developed the other skills."
Also receiving significant support were Pat Gillick
himself and Billy Beane
(Athletics). The Cardinals' Walt Jocketty said of Gillick, "Look at the teams he's put together with four organizations—always quality, always deep and successful." Other GMs to receive multiple mentions were Jocketty
, Kevin Towers
(Padres), Brian Sabean
(Giants) and John Schuerholz
Evaluating international talent—both raw amateur players as well as more polished ones from Asia and Cuba—tends to be delegated deep within an organization, but OMAR MINAYA
(Mets) retains his zeal for globe-hopping since beating the bushes for the Rangers and finding Sammy Sosa some 20 years ago. Said Royals assistant GM Dean Taylor, "A lot of success on the international market is based on relationships and connections with the people in important positions, and also having the right talent evaluators in place. Omar does because of his background. It's a people business more than domestically. In the states you can rely on draft picks, but overseas you have to build relationships."
Two longtime GMs—Pat Gillick
(Phillies) and John Schuerholz
(Braves)—got a good deal of support as well, particularly Gillick after getting the expansion Blue Jays off the ground by focusing on Latin American talent. "I remember looking at all of the great players in the Blue Jays system in the '80s, how many of them were worldwide signs," Cubs GM Jim Hendry said. "He's been doing it for 25 years—everywhere he's gone, in four organizations, he's done it well." Also receiving multiple votes were Dave Dombrowski
(Tigers), Brian Cashman
(Yankees) and Theo Epstein
Given today's premium on young talent, being able to tell which minor leaguers can make the jump and which can not is perhaps the most crucial job of all. TERRY RYAN
(Twins) has used his keen eye in this area to win several division titles thanks to astutely evaluating his own players as well as those in other clubs' systems. (Ever heard of Francisco Liriano?) "Most of us are more administrative-oriented or statistical oriented," Mariners GM Bill Bavasi said. "His scouting background is what makes Terry so rare."
Also receiving support were John Schuerholz
(Braves), Pat Gillick
(Phillies) and the mad scientist behind last year's stunning Marlins, Larry Beinfest
. Royals GM Dayton Moore said of Schuerholz, his former boss in Atlanta, "He evaluates what people say, reads reports, talks with the staff. John's so instinctive when it comes to trading young players—who to hold on to for another year to let his value rise, and who to trade right now."
The days of single- and two-man front offices are long gone—a GM must flank himself with astute minds and hard workers. JOHN SCHUERHOLZ
(Braves) received the best reviews here, having employed the likes of Dayton Moore, Dean Taylor, Chuck McMichael, Paul Snyder, Bill Lajoie and others in his 16 years in Atlanta. "He knows good people and lets them do their job," Astros GM Tim Purpura said. "I was always impressed when I was an assistant GM, and at the GM meetings, where the assistants sit in the row behind the GMs, John would always look back and get thoughts from his assistants. That always impressed me. That's a good example of how he does his business."
(Indians) also received many votes for team-building during his relatively short time running the Cleveland front office. "He's bright, articulate, and not afraid to go outside the box and get smart people," Padres GM Kevin Towers said. "And he can develop that talent around him."
PURE STATISTICAL INSTINCT
Despite their distaste for "Moneyball" hysteria, fellow GMs had no problem saluting BILLY BEANE
(Athletics) for his understanding of what numbers mean—and, just as important, what they don't mean. "He has a philosophy of how to acquire players and assign a dollar value to their performance, and sticks to it," Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd said. "The hype is overblown, but he's the best and does a great job with it year in and year out."
Some voters viewed Beane as relying more on his assistants for much of his quantitative work, and instead gave support to Theo Epstein
(Red Sox), Mark Shapiro
(Indians) and Andrew Friedman
(Devil Rays). Mets GM Omar Minaya said of Epstein, "He's grown up in that background. A lot of the moves he makes with that in mind, and he used it to win a World Series. He's always had productive teams using his way of doing things."
, Indians. What makes Cleveland's Mark Shapiro so sharp with numbers? Many believe it's Antonetti, his right-hand assistant GM. Antonetti has impressed with his quantitative work while remaining versatile enough to handle serious contract negotiations and other duties. Said Dodgers assistant GM Kim Ng, "Everything you hear about the Cleveland organization, they have such high standards for the research they do, the whole decision-making process. From talking to him, you know that Chris has a great handle on the analytic part of things, as much as what he sees on the field."
RELATIONSHIPS & COMMUNICATION
DEALING WITH AGENTS
Communicating with agents is vital for free-agent pursuits, and fellow executives say no one does it better than KEVIN TOWERS
(Padres), who is able to be friendly without being too chummy, and approachable while remaining professional. "He has the personality and an ability to understand the other person's position," Astros president Tal Smith said. "He has patience and tolerance, and is able to establish a good rapport. Not everyone looks at it that way—there still are some GMs who are adversarial with agents."
Also receiving significant support here were Mark Shapiro
(Indians), Walt Jocketty
(Cardinals), Jim Hendry
(Cubs) and Brian Cashman
(Yankees). Brewers GM Doug Melvin said of Jocketty, "That's why he was able to trade for Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Mark McGwire, and re-sign them all. Some teams trade for big guys but can't keep them."
, White Sox. After breaking into baseball by working for Jeff Moorad's successful player-agent practice, Hahn received high marks for relating to player representatives and understanding that negotiations need not be win or lose. Said Padres special baseball-operations assistant Paul DePodesta, who dealt with Hahn with the A's and Dodgers, "Honestly, I don't know if his having worked for an agent plays that much of a role, because Rick has always seemed very fair and very honest in his dealings, very conscientious. He knows that negotiations don't have to be adversarial. It's about getting the deal done. You're an agent too—for your owner. You both are representatives."
DEALING WITH PLAYERS
GMs tend to distance themselves from players, but having a strong professional relationship can assist in handling contract negotiations, ego flare-ups and other matters. KEVIN TOWERS
(Padres) won this category as well, in addition to agents, because his personality can adapt to both groups. "Kevin was a former player, and he still has a player's demeanor," said A's GM Billy Beane. Added Mike Arbuckle, the Phillies' assistant GM, "Kevin has always maintained the ability to be viewed as a field guy, a baseball guy. The players relate to that and they respect that, just as scouts and minor league people do." Also mentioned on many ballots, in part for his ability to personally relate to (and sign) top Latin American talent, was Omar Minaya
DEALING WITH OWNERSHIP
(Tigers) fared well in most personality-based categories, but rose to the top in dealing with ownership because of his business background and appreciation for higher-level enterprise concerns. "He's had a very versatile career—he understands everybody's view whether it's someone who works for him or he works for," Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said. "He's worked for franchises where his role was to really think like an owner—so he understands them and he thinks along with them." As Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes put it, "Dave's worn the president's hat, so he has a daily feel for the business side."
Other voters highlighted Bill Stoneman
(Angels), John Schuerholz
(Braves) and Walt Jocketty
(Cardinals) for their ability to handle demanding ownership situations. A's GM Billy Beane joined many others in admiring Brian Cashman
(Yankees): "It's a huge undertaking being GM of the Yankees. No one else has to deal with a club president who negotiated a labor contract, a boss who's the highest-profile owner in American sports, in the biggest city in America, and completely separate baseball operations in Florida for all those years. For Brian to handle it this deftly, you have to be pretty Machiavellian."
Using the press not just to deliver messages to a demanding public but also to disseminate and receive information is a fine art, with BRIAN CASHMAN
(Yankees) being rated the master for handling this in New York's hurricane. "Honesty, integrity, volume," Nationals GM Jim Bowden said. "He's extremely impressive." Added Astros counterpart Tim Purpura, "I don't know how he does it. Brian is very honest and very direct. There's no dancing around. When he can't answer he says he can't. That's the only way to do it, particularly with that kind of volume in that city."
Also receiving multiple votes here were Pat Gillick
(Phillies), Billy Beane
(A's), Omar Minaya
(Mets) and John Schuerholz
(Braves). Marlins executive Orrin Freeman admired Schuerholz for his ability to keep private matters just that: "You never know what John's thinking or doing. When they make a big splash, they just do it."
DEALING WITH MANAGERS AND COACHES
When you've worked with your manager for much of the last three decades—in the White Sox minor leagues, with the Oakland A's and now in St. Louis—you're bound to develop the strong working relationship that WALT JOCKETTY
(Cardinals) has with manager Tony La Russa and his longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan. "In the good times and bad, even when things are difficult, he's had stability and no issues within the ranks that other clubs deal with," Astros president Tal Smith said. "Walt has a knack for handling all these things internally in a way that promotes teamwork and organizational stability."
Other GMs to receive significant mention included John Schuerholz
(Braves) and Kevin Towers
(Padres), though Towers' longtime affiliation with manager Bruce Bochy just ended. Rangers GM Jon Daniels joined others in choosing Pat Gillick
(Phillies): "He's had success with so many managers—Davey Johnson, Lou Piniella, Cito Gaston, Charlie Manuel. Bobby Cox, too. That says a lot about how he works with them."
OTHER GM DUTIES
No one works the phones to find potential matches and piece together deals like BILLY BEANE
(A's), who loves devising three- and even four-way swaps to snag the pieces he's looking for, like the massive 2002 deal for DH Erubiel Durazo—whom he'd pursued for years—that made NATO talks look straightforward. "He has a real good feel for what he wants," Padres GM Kevin Towers said. "His people do a great job of preparation, identifying what fits, what doesn't fit, and he goes right after it. If it's not a direct fit but an indirect fit, he's relentless. If he wants it, he gets it."
Other significant support came to Omar Minaya
(Mets) and wheeler-dealer Jim Bowden
(Nationals), as well as the less spotlighted Dan O'Dowd
(Rockies). Said Beane, "Dan and I started doing it together when he was in Cleveland in the early '90s. He's a hyperactive thinker in a positive sense. He doesn't accept the first 'no.' He keeps going till he finds a 'yes.' Then he finds another 'yes' and tries to get those pieces together."
, Rangers. It's no surprise that Levine, now Jon Daniels' top assistant in Texas, learned how to work the phones under O'Dowd in Colorado and uses it to ferret out potential deals. Said Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, "Thad's got a real good handle on the landscape. He has a great mix of creativity and level-headedness."
PULLING THE TRIGGER
Decisiveness apparently breeds decisiveness, because most executives immediately chose one man—KENNY WILLIAMS
(White Sox)—for moving with conviction without any hemming and hawing. Said Royals assistant Dean Taylor, "A lot of guys, you just sit there waiting for them to call and you're like, 'What's going on?' With Kenny he's just, 'I'm ready to do it. If you're not, fine.' " Added Rangers GM Jon Daniels, "There are some guys who talk in hypotheticals, and it makes for a much longer process before it's done. Kenny's prepared from the start of the first conversation."
Also receiving support were J.P. Ricciardi
(Blue Jays) and John Schuerholz
(Braves), though Mariners GM Bill Bavasi chose nobody, saying that no one can move quickly anymore. "Those days are gone—the margin for error is so small, so many things you have to check with ownership on, you can't do anything right away," Bavasi said. "I guess there are guys who will pull the trigger right now, if they beat the —-- out of you."
Most GMs have to retain an assistant to help machete through baseball's thicket of waivers and convoluted roster rules. But DAVE DOMBROWSKI
(Tigers) apparently could do it in his sleep, winning this category going away. "He knows the rules, he knows waivers, he knows all the timing," Twins GM Terry Ryan said with decided awe. "David's good at what many of us who are personnel guys have more trouble with. He's bright and well-organized." Added Mets assistant GM John Ricco, "Dave's chairman of the Rules Committee. That's good enough for me."
Two former rules experts recently hired as GMs, Wayne Krivsky
(Reds) and Ned Colletti
(Dodgers), also received multiple votes.
, Dodgers. Throughout her long career with the White Sox, Yankees and Dodgers—while also spending one year in the commissioner's office overseeing transactions—Ng has had as much trouble with waivers as Newton did gravity. Said White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn, "She worked in the league office, and has worked for three different clubs in different situations. She has the intellect. She's the gold standard."
How universal is the importance of juggling budgets and structuring contracts deftly? A whopping 17 different GMs received votes here—including Dave Littlefield (Pirates) and Jon Daniels (Rangers). But LARRY BEINFEST
(Marlins) won out, in large part for his building and now rebuilding the Marlins into contenders in a financial environment no one envies. Said Twins GM Terry Ryan, "He never gets much publicity. But he knows who he is and what his market is, where he is going. There's no fluff. He doesn't pretend to be someone he's not." Added the Padres' Paul DePodesta, "He's very dexterous with his roster and where he divvies up all the dollars. He has an outstanding understanding of players and contracts."
Coming up right behind Beinfest were Billy Beane
(A's), Terry Ryan
(Twins) and Wayne Krivsky
(Reds), who made his reputation as a financial whiz in Minnesota.
, Diamondbacks. After learning the ropes in the Red Sox system under Theo Epstein and Josh Byrnes, in addition to an apprenticeship in MLB's labor relations department, Woodfork continues to shine in the contract department under Byrnes in Arizona. Said Mets assistant GM John Ricco, "He's very comfortable with numbers. He's well versed in contract evaluation. I worked with him at the Commissioner's Office on revenue sharing and luxury taxes, and he's carried that over to the club side really well."
DEVELOPING A PIPELINE
A lot of general managers talk about the importance of scouting and player development, but no one has fostered organizational cohesiveness and consistency like TERRY RYAN
(Twins), whose organization has developed Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and many others just in the last five years. Said Padres GM Kevin Towers, "Terry's background is a scouting director. The continuity he has developed up there is outstanding—with Jim Rantz, Mike Radcliff, other guys, they've been together forever. There's a Twin-type player, and they do a good job identifying them."
Two other GMs who have proven themselves over even longer periods than Ryan also received significant support: John Schuerholz
(Braves), who shined in Kansas City long before moving to Atlanta; and Pat Gillick
(Phillies), who made his mark first with the Astros in the 1960s before moving on to Toronto, Baltimore and Seattle.
Widespread praise and admiration for TERRY RYAN
(Twins) continued here. While also being an astute talent evaluator and organization man, the Minnesota GM also was named the hardest worker for going well beyond the 70- and 80-hour workweeks his counterparts put in. "He scouts the fall league, he scouts for the draft," Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty said. "He pays a lot of attention to detail, and follows up on a lot of that detail." Boston boss Theo Epstein shares the spring training city of Fort Myers with Ryan and said, "He never misses a single pitch, and he still gets all his work done, and still is accessible to all the other GMs."
himself came in second place, though one GM said quite seriously, "Wait 'til he has a wife and kids—that'll change." Yet the Indians' Mark Shapiro added, "Theo's mind is never off. He's constantly searching for creative and constructive ways to improve his team. He has very high internal drive and standards." Other GMs ranking highly here included Brian Cashman
(Yankees) and Jim Hendry
(Cubs), whom several GMs called "an animal."
, Rangers. Already admired for his astute scouting instincts on both the domestic and international fronts, Preller, Texas' director of pro and worldwide scouting, also inspires awe for his work ethic. "He doesn't sleep at all," Indians assistant GM Chris Antonetti said. "He used to get up at 4 a.m. to play basketball before starting work at 5 a.m., after getting home from the park at 2. You can't say that A.J. eats, sleeps and breathes baseball, because it's just eat and breathe. He doesn't sleep."
To make trades and other moves with confidence, GMs must rely on the truthfulness of others and offer it back. While some can get along despite a caveat emptor approach, it's not easy to survive without people on the other end of the phone trusting them about injury histories and other matters. Once again, TERRY RYAN
(Twins) drew universal praise here—his fifth winning category. Raved Phillies GM Pat Gillick: "If you ask him a question about a player, he's very honest and frank with you with regard to health and skills. He's very forthright."
Also ranking high was John Schuerholz
Who can think of new ideas and fold them into a fresh, effective philosophy? No one carries a reputation for free thinking both inside and outside the baseball industry like BILLY BEANE
(A's), who is constantly looking for business lessons to apply to baseball, whether from Wall Street or his current infatuation, the worldwide soccer talent market. "I've known Billy since I scouted him as an amateur—he's not afraid, he knows personnel, and he's not insecure," Twins GM Terry Ryan said. "It has nothing to do with circumstances in Oakland. That's the way he is: aggressive and creative. There's nothing that Billy Beane wouldn't present because of embarrassment."
Also receiving a good deal of support were Omar Minaya
(Mets) for his international overhaul of the Mets, and Mark Shapiro
(Indians). Said Royals GM Dayton Moore, "Mark's a really quick thinker. I find myself on the other side of a lot of his opinions, but he's challenged me to open up my thought process and go down some other avenues. He's willing to put his ideas on the line."
, Cardinals. An entrepreneur who entered baseball just three years ago, Luhnow has kick-started the Cardinals' international scouting operation while refusing to handle talent acquisition in traditional ways. Recently promoted to vice president of player procurement, Luhnow tinkered with specialized scouts for pitchers, high school players, etc., and has integrated traditional scouting, quantitative analysis and video review into one comprehensive, player-development approach. "He asked permission of one of our guys to expand his scouting staff, and I could barely understand what the position was," Red Sox assistant GM Jed Hoyer said with a laugh. "It takes some guts to reorganize scouting and try something different, and Jeff has some really interesting ideas."