Are Baseball General Managers foolishly unselfish?

omar minaya

It’s a question posed to me in an e-mail, once again, by Fus, who is becoming a regular muse for me on this blog. During the All-Star game the TV crew was discussing Toronto ace Roy Halladay,  and the possibility of a trade that would send him to a team back in the States.

This led Fus to consider the following situation: Prospects in baseball are cheap, plentiful and great bargaining chips. Yet, these young players are far from sure things when it comes to producing at a major-league level. Still, baseball GM’s savor these prospects, waiting for them to ripen and become Hall of Famers, even when the large majority of them are out of baseball by the time they reach their mid-20’s. So the question Fus posed is this: why do GM’s, most of whom have relatively shaky job security, insist on hanging on to these prospects when trading a couple of them for a veteran could get them to the playoffs and lock up a playoff spot, thus extending the GM’s shelf life? In other words, why aren’t GM’s selfishly bigger buyers at the trade deadline?

An excerpt from his email: “The best examples are the Rangers, Mariners, Tigers, and Rockies: those teams are all good right now, without any guaranteed lasting power. Why wouldn’t that GM trade a couple of prospects – who may or may not pan out – for a guaranteed ace. Think how good the tigers would be with a rotation of Halladay, Verlander, Jackson and Porcello. Maybe they won’t win it all, but they’ll lock up a spot in October, and extend the security of the GM. In 3 or 4 years when their prospects are ready, that GM probably won’t even be around, ya know?”

It’s a very interesting question, and I don’t think there is just one answer that prevents GM’s from doing this. Instead, I think a number of factors keep those in charge from selling the farm every July for short-term investments. Here is a list of reasons for you, my man:

1. Just as there are no sure-thing prospects (except Matt Wieters), there’s also no sure-thing when it comes to making the playoffs. Remember, the Yankees and Mets both missed the playoffs last year. Teams collapse and injuries occur. It’s hard to assume a team in July is a lock for the playoffs. And if the unforseen happens, and the team misses the playoffs AFTER trading away some of the organization’s best prospects, instead of securing a few extra years of employment, the GM may find himself looking for work immediately.

wieters

2. Being the GM who trades away a future hall-of-fame player lands you in the fan and media doghouse for the rest of your life, and sometimes even beyond. The move will forever plague you, and you will be asked about it on the streets by reporters and total strangers alike. Even if the move was a good one at the time, fans will rarely look at the history books to vindicate you. Instead, you’ll forever be known as the dimwit who “traded so and so away for washed-up veteran X,” even if washed-up veteran X helped the team reach the playoffs. GM’s are acutely aware of this, and this often causes them to act conservatively.

3. While the buck may stop with the GM when assessing a team’s success, a team of executives make player personnel decisions. While the job security for some of these executives may be tied to the GM, many have more stable positions, and thus are going to advise against trading away lots of homegrown talent, even if it means short-term success. And though a GM can get away with ignoring those other voices in the organization for some time, if the team isn’t winning, those other voices will eventually prevail, and the GM will be the odd man out.

4. (Most) owners are not stupid. If they see that a GM is mortgaging the future of the franchise for a quick-fix playoff run, they won’t be happy. If a team has the potential to be good for seven years down the line, or one year this season, the owner will take the seven-year run, no matter who the GM is. But the GM might not have time to wait for the prospects to develop, which, as Fus pointed out, should cause him to play his hand early. But if the GM makes the bold move and it doesn’t work out, he’ll have a hard time getting another job. A mistake like that is potentially career-damaging, and that reputation is tough to change.

5. Money. Prospects are cheap. Successful veterans are not. For a team to borrow a veteran for a couple of months, they are shipping away cheap talent that will need to be replaced at some point. For smaller market teams, they probably won’t be able to resign the veteran (see: Brewers, C.C. Sabathia) after season’s end. This might buy the GM a little time if the move works, but could also sacrifice the team’s future, which would presumably end the GM’s tenure prematurely.

sabathia

Still, despite the stated reasons above, there are convincing arguments for Fus’ position. For one, the goal each season for any team, GM included, should be to win the World Series. If the GM believes that he has an opportunity to put his team in a position to win it all, he should feel some obligation to make that happen. So many things change from year to year, and, as has been mentioned, prospects are risky. If the title is in sight, it only make sense to try to grab it. Nothing does more for a GM’s job security than a World Series ring.

And, when it comes down to it, GM’s are concerned about themselves, and rightfully so. If their jobs are in jeopardy, and they think they can make a move to extend their contract and get the media off their backs, it’s human nature to want to do that. Of course, then the reasons above come into play, but that desire, I would imagine, is present within many general managers.

So as the trading deadline in Major League Baseball nears and as deals are completed, take a look at the rationale and potential motivations that teams have for making the trade. It just might be a little more complex than it seems.

There might just be a man, sitting in an office, hoping he’s not moving his stuff out in October. More than just wins are riding on the deal.

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4 responses to “Are Baseball General Managers foolishly unselfish?

  1. Steve Phillips has a famous quote, “Prospects will get you fired.” Him and Fuss could be friends, but I disagree.

    1) “Yet, these young players are far from sure things when it comes to producing at a major-league level.” I think that line is a little too general – not all prospects are created equal. Every Mets fan can recall how much promise Kazmir had, he still got traded, and he still became a good Major League pitcher as many of us expected (may even become better). No prospect is a sure thing, but organization are very aware when they have a Ryan Howard, David Wright, or Joe Mauer in their farm system.

    2) I think it’s a little ironic that Fuss is the one pushing this swap of prospect for proven veterans when his own Bronx Bombers (and the Boston team they are chasing, for that matter) have built their teams around homegrown talent. The MASSIVE names that the Yankees, and sadly the Mets too, sign every year continue to produce lackluster results.

    Overall, I think it is extremely foolish to generalize a claim that trading prospects for one “win now” prospect is always a good way to go. Can it work? Of course. However, if you miss then you have just leveraged a bright future and steady growth for a one and out shot.

    Want a good idea for a post? I would be very curious to see these types of trades (prospects for a big name right at the deadline) in the last few years. I wonder how these teams ended up, what they look like today, and what the eventual WS team did during the same deadline.

  2. If you have a good farm system (like my Rangers), you’ll have more prospects than you can fit on a Major League roster. So you use them to get better players. Unfortunately, my Rangers have had a history of letting go of some of their best prospects (Adrian Gonzalez, John Danks, Carlos Pena) get away for the wrong guys.

    But, as you can see this year, the prospect-bargaining-chip method is working out for them now. Kevin Millwood’s a guy we got a couple years for a bag of future major leaguers, and he’s finally performing. If you do it right, and get the right player instead of the wrong one, it can work.

  3. Also, prospects that get traded for front-line talent, such as whatever package would be required for Halladay, include players that are less likely to flop. That is, they’re probably in AA or AAA at this point, meaning they’ll be ready to contribute soon if not now.

    Case in point, the Red Sox get Beckett and Lowell for Anibal Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez. I’d say the deal worked out for the Red Sox, but they still had to give up a guy who made the team next year. Because no one will give up a top-flight major league talent for a bunch of A-ball maybe-they’ll-pan-out type guys. They want guys that are almost definitely going to make it. Therefore, most of the GMs WILL be around in a year or two when these guys hit the majors. And they would like it to be with their teams.

    Look at the Futures Game roster from a year or two ago and see how many of them are starting for major league clubs today. Those are the guys that GMs would have to deal away for veterans. Nowadays, when you make a stupid deal (Victor Zambrano for Scott Kazmir) it shows up a lot quicker.

  4. My turn to chime in.

    EZ point taken; you KNEW Scott Kazmir (and his 7.11 ERA) was going to be a can’t-miss prospect. Didn’t you also KNOW that Lastings Milledge was a can’t miss prospect? In fact Sports Illustrated just came out, in honor of Strasburg, with a conversation between former “can’t miss” pitching prospects, that failed. You know that guy that Joe and Evan spend hours screaming about during the midday on the Fan, affectionately called “Ollie”? Well, he too was once a “can’t miss prospect,” and so the Padres dealt him and threw in a decent, not very highly regarded, outfield prospect named Jason Bay to get Brian Giles from the Pirates. Clearly organizations are very aware when they have a great prospect.

    Andrew, great job with the post. You made a bunch of great points, but one you left out is that the Brewers got two 1st round picks – as all teams do when they lose a type A (superstar) to free agency – when they didn’t sign CC. So they traded Matt LaPorta (a “can’t miss” prospect) to get 6 months of CC and two high picks.

    Also, I want to make clear that I wasn’t saying trading prospects for veterans IS a good idea, I’m just saying it is for the job security of a GM. Which is quite a paradox considering he is the one who makes deals.

    Oh, and EZ, thanks for reminding me of Steve Phillips. He got fired because the big league team just couldn’t get past the Braves. Maybe, if he had traded Reyes and Wright – two prospects that he drafted – and made a few more playoff pushes, he would have kept his job. Instead his patience is the lone reason you have any excitement on this year’s edition of the Metropolitan’s, in the form of a young superstar on the hot corner.

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