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The best general managers, 2009
Greetings from Chicago! Last year, as you can read here, I shared a flight to the general managers' meetings with Brian Cashman (among 100 or so other people). This year? The Notre Dame women's soccer team. Now I see why they were in such a good mood - and also why they were carrying "Big East champions" paraphernalia. Congratulations, Fighting Irish!
But let's not get sidetracked here; whereas last year's Cashman sighting and flight movie selections proved sort of cosmic, I can't think of any inferences to make from this year's random encounter.
The GMs' meetings are traditionally held at a luxurious resort in California, Florida or Arizona. This year? Not so much.
It's a nod to the economy, and to general efficiency's sake, that I'll likely return home Wednesday night without so much as breathing the Chicago air. The meetings site, a hotel, is connected to O'Hare Airport, so I got off my plane, followed the signs and came straight here. I'll just do the reverse route when it's time to leave.
For the third straight year, I'd like to kick off the proceedings with my rankings of the 10 best general managers. Last year's is the first link, in the first paragraph. The 2007 list, sadly, is no longer with us, an innocent victim of our Web site redesign.
In preparing this list, I try to balance a GM's entire history with his 2009 results _ for instance, Brian Cashman's '09 justified many of the decisions he made prior to this past year, but it's not like can just forgive him for Kei Igawa _ and also keep in mind the wildly disparate room for error among these folks. I've included their '08 and '07 rankings.
1. Billy Beane, Oakland (1 in 2008, 2 in 2007). He has sort of fallen off the radar, now that his A's have posted three straight losing records and have failed to finalize plans for a new home. Last year, he acquired Orlando Cabrera, Jason Giambi and Matt Holliday with the hopes of contending, and that didn't work.
Only Giambi, however, was an outright flop, and he didn't cost an outrageous amount of money. Holliday brought back a considerable return from the Cardinals, and Cabrera at least garnered a warm body from the Twins.
Beane has said that there's no point in trying to build an 85-win team, so that's why he has been more in the position of seller than buyer the past few years. But the A's farm system is highly regarded, and it shouldn't be long before Oakland is once again in a position to contend.
When you have as little room for error as Beane does, vis a vis your competition, you have to plan your charges methodically.
2. Larry Beinfest/Michael Hill, Florida (4 in '08, not ranked in '07). Once again, the Marlins did the most with the least in '09, spending about $113 million less than the Mets and winning 87 games. The Marlins consistently draft well, and they move quickly; look at how they unloaded Jeremy Hermida, whom they can't afford, well before the non-tender deadline.
With the shovel in the ground for the new Marlins stadium, set to open in 2012, Beinfest and Hill _ I list both, because Beinfest has the unique title of "president of baseball operations" while Hill is the GM _ Florida's future is very bright. Now, let's hope they start spending some money once the revenues increase from the new ballpark.
3. Theo Epstein, Boston (2 in '08, 5 in '07). It wasn't a great year for Epstein, as his one-year gambles on Rocco Baldelli, Brad Penny and John Smoltz didn't pay off. But the whole idea of such "low-risk" ventures is you can quickly forget about them, and Boston fans need worry no more about these three guys. Meanwhile, Clay Buchholz blossomed into a legitimate starting pitcher, and the Victor Martinez trade was a coup.
4. Doug Melvin, Milwaukee (5 in '07, 6 in '08). Honestly, this is the point in the rankings where it started getting difficult, and where you could probably mount a counterargument and I would say, "Good point." Seven of my top 10 from last year saw their teams perform worse in '09 than in '08, and one of those whose teams improved, San Diego's Kevin Towers, got fired anyway.
So I bumped Melvin up, even though the Brewers made the playoffs in '08 and didn't in '09. Why? Because Melvin - who did fine work with the Rangers last decade - operated very well within the framework of his small-market team, doing the best he can to ensure Milwaukee is always in contention.
His trade of J.J. Hardy for Carlos Gomez exemplifies that. No one would argue that the Brewers got the better end of the deal, baseball-wise. But by unloading Hardy's salary, Melvin now has the financial flexibility to compete in the free-agent market for a starting pitcher - if not John Lackey, then perhaps Randy Wolf, or Jason Marquis, or former Brewer Doug Davis.
And Melvin has overseen a strong farm system that can promote Alcides Escobar to replace Hardy at minimum wage, and the lineup is strong enough - 785 runs scored last year - that it just might be able to withstand the replacement of Gomez for departing free agent Mike Cameron.
5. Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay (8 in '08, NR in '07). Another case of bumping up someone whose team played worse in '08 than in '07, and Friedman followed a sublime '07-'08 Hot Stove League with a very human one, signing a bust in Pat Burrell and trading Edwin Jackson for Matt Joyce.
Yet you look at the Rays, and you still see a ridiculously talented team that the Yankees and Red Sox rightfully respect. The proactive trade of Scott Kazmir positioned Tampa Bay so that it can bring back Carl Crawford for a final run in '10 before surely losing him to a higher bidder in free agency.
6. Brian Cashman, Yankees (NR in '08, 8 in '07). Yup, he has the biggest budget and the most room for error, not even close. But for those of you who like some process mixed in with your results, this is your guy.
Since getting real power after the 2005 season - yes, his first eight years on the job were sort of weird - Cashman has had a very precise plan in mind, and it all came to fruition brilliantly, just last week.
Because he didn't trade for Johan Santana in the '07-08 offseason, he still had Melky Cabrera and Phil Hughes, AND he had CC Sabathia, acquired just for money and a compensatory draft pick. The pickups of Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher (acquired for Jeffrey Marquez, also part of the proposed Santana deal) all paid off.
We'll see, down the road, whether the Yankees wind up paying Sabathia, Burnett and Teixeira huge dollars for their decline phases. We'll also see, if that happens, whether Yankees fans accept the inherent tradeoff in such deals; "We'll win early in the deals, but we might struggle late." The fans were not at all accepting of that tradeoff when it came to, say, Bernie Williams in 2005.
7. Dan O'Dowd, Colorado (NR in '08 and '07). It's still difficult to fully digest that the Rockies have now made the playoffs in two of the last three seasons. That they did so in '09 after trading their best player (Holliday) from the '07 team - while changing managers - reflects O'Dowd's shrewdness.
Oh, there's no question it's amazing that O'Dowd still runs the Rockies, given how badly he performed when he first took over with the crushing signings of Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. But given how things turned out, kudos to Rockies ownership by sticking with O'Dowd, who not only has built a strong nucleus but also made strong in-season acquisitions this year in Rafael Betancourt, Jose Contreras and Jason Giambi.
8. Ken Williams, White Sox (7 in '08, 10 in '07). He seems to revel in being known as the maverick GM, the least predictable of the bunch. This is a guy, after all, who built up remarkable payroll flexibility while still putting together a playoff contender, and then, in an 11-day span, took on two huge risks in Jake Peavy and Alex Rios.
Peavy looked great in his brief White Sox stint, and Rios awful in his. And already, Williams has made another risky move in picking up Mark Teahen to play third base.
The team needs help on both the hitting and pitching sides, but you'd be foolish to bet against Williams figuring out a solution. That said, the solutions aren't obvious because the White Sox have a mediocre farm system.
9. Dave Dombrowski, Detroit (10 in '08, 7 in '07). He recovered from putting together the '08 Tigers, one of the biggest busts in history, by constructing the '09 club, which collapsed at the end but, when you take a step back, probably overachieved.
Edwin Jackson proved a good acquisition, and Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland figured out a way to control youngster Rick Porcello's innings while still getting optimal results from him - a stark contrast to the Joba Rules.
This team, however, is still haunted by some contracts on the books that currently look bad - Jeromy Bonderman, Carlos Guillen, Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson; you can see the grisly details here. Dombrowski gets on this list because he has been doing this for a very long time, and he built up the Marlins and Tigers from actually nothing in the first case and virtually nothing in the second.
10. Mark Shapiro, Cleveland (3 in '08, 3 in '07). Plenty of AL Central love on this list, and Twins GM Bill Smith also had a nice season getting Minnesota back into the playoffs. Shapiro dropped precipitously because, as much as you respect his process, the results just haven't been there, for three of the last four seasons.
After trading Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez right around the July 31 deadline, and replacing Eric Wedge with Manny Acta in the manager's office, Shapiro is looking at a likely rebuilding situation in '10. We'll see if the young players he has acquired in "white-flag" trades like Lee and Martinez last year, and Sabathia in '08 - as well as the Indians' own draft selections - start to pay off.
This is admittedly a subjective list, so poke away.
--In a complete non-shocker, Joe Torre is speaking with the Dodgers about extending his contract past 2010. This shows that Torre isn't concerned about the Dodgers' in-flux ownership situation - and that Frank McCourt is moving ahead in trying to keep his power. It also explains why Don Mattingly has to keep his options open, even as he seems to the obvious heir apparent to Torre.
--Interesting decision by the Phillies in not exercising Pedro Feliz's option for 2010. Feliz was a good fit in the Phillies' lineup; he played good defense and provided some pop (if not good on-base skills) from the bottom of the order. This appears to be a read on the baseball economy, that the Phillies can do better out there than paying Felix $5.5 million to play third base. Perhaps Feliz himself will return for a lower salary.
--Horrible story by Jon Heyman about former Met Victor Zambrano, whose mother was kidnapped in Venezuela.
--All right, it's about time to hit the lobby and see what's out there. I'll be checking regularly, today through Wednesday.
Oh, but to proactively answer to an annual question: No, I'm not going to do a list of the 10 worst GMs, because 1) many GMs don't have large enough bodies of work to fully and fairly evalute; and 2) let's face it - that's really not in my best interests. There's a wimp factor at play here.