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The best general managers, 2011

9. JON DANIELS When Rangers fans cheer the

9. JON DANIELS

When Rangers fans cheer the Queens native at functions, Daniels has been known to respond, "Hey, I'm still the guy who traded Adrian Gonzalez." He made a few bad trades when he took over Texas in October 2005, but granted freedom by former owner Tom Hicks, he has completely remade this franchise into one of the industry's elite teams.
(Credit: AP )

We always kick off this list, as per tradition, by revealing who was on my flight to the general managers' and owners' meetings - and seeing if there's any cosmic determinations to be made from that regarding the current Hot Stove League.

This year's answer is my former Newsday teammate Jon Heyman, Jon's MLB Network teammate Matt Yalloff and MLB public relations gurus Michael Teevan and Donald Muller.

Conclusion: Zero cosmic determinations.

OK, onto the rankings. Here are my 2010 rankings, my 2009 rankings and my 2008 rankings

My 2007 rankings are no longer. Same for any comments you made in response to any of these posts. May they rest in peace.

We always stress that, in ranking the GMs, we try to find a balance among 1) total body of work; 2) most recent performance and 3) tangential to number two, how the team is situated moving forward. This year, I found myself compelled to move a few people down significantly (or out altogether) because I had given them the benefit of the doubt for past moves that didn't work out, only to see the cycle of disappointing results continue in 2011. Conversely, some people moved up dramatically because they laid seeds in past years that blossomed.

It's go time:

1. Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay (1 in '10, 5 in '09, 8 in '08, not ranked in '07). The reigning best GM spent last winter losing seven ranked free agents, receiving 10 extra draft picks in the process. Then his retooled team, with its payroll cut by about $30 million from the prior season pulled off a September comeback for the ages, upending the Red Sox to capture the AL wild card.

The Rays have now made the playoffs three times in the past four years - as many times as the Yankees and once more than Boston in that time span. While spending just a fraction of the money to do so.

Friedman, aided by veteran GM Gerry Hunsicker and backed by a great owner in Stuart Sternberg - and also having selected in a terrific manager in Joe Maddon - once again saw low-level risks pay off in Kyle Farnsworth and Casey Kotchman. The Edwin Jackson-for-Matt Joyce trade, pulled off after the '08 season, looks very good now, after a rough first read. 

The Rays, in short, continue to defy the odds, and while there's immense internal frustration over the team's stadium situation, there's no reason to think that Tampa Bay can't continue to torture the clubs that spend much more than they do.

2. Jon Daniels, Texas (6 in '10, NR prior to that). Daniels has quickly surged to the top of the list thanks to his dazzling array of moves - at the major-league level most recently, but the organizational moves since 2007 made those possible.

Daniels wasn't particularly upset when Cliff Lee left for the Phillies a year ago, as the Texas GM fretted about committing six or seven years to the lefty and also thought he had the pitching to cover Lee's departure. The Rangers did just that, thanks to the surges of Matt Harrison and Derek Holland. They don't appear likely to commit huge years and dollars to free agent C.J. Wilson for the same reason, with Japanese star Yu Darvish on their radar.

Meanwhile, once Lee left, Daniels focused on free agent Adrian Beltre and plucked long-time target MIke Napoli from Toronto, just days after the Blue Jays acquired Napoli from the Angels. Those two moves uprooted franchise icon Michael Young, but Daniels  chose to confront such a mess head on, rather than not make moves to avoid it. The upshot was that Young, after initially expressing fury, stuck around and had a great year.

The Rangers seem positioned to do damage in the American League for a long time.

3. Brian Cashman, Yankees (5 in '10, 6 in '09, NR in '08, 8 in '07). It was a banner year for the Yankees' baseball operations department, even if it didn't end with a new banner to fly over Yankee Stadium.

(Sorry.)

After seeing their top target Lee bolt to Philadelphia, Cashman put his faith in the likes of Ivan Nova (whom he had refused to trade to Seattle for Lee in July of '10) and low-rent free agents Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia. No one could've anticipated how well those would work out, most of all Colon, but look: It's not like the Yankees pulled his name from the sky. Cashman listened to a recommendation from Yankees bench coach Tony Pena, who was managing Colon in Dominican winter ball.

Cashman also hit on veteran additions Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones, and in all, luck dictates that the Yankees won't do as well in the bargain bin this upcoming winter. But CC Sabathia is back, the lineup is largely intact and the Yankees have a farm system that appears poised to contribute even more in 2012 than it did this past season.

It also should be pointed out that the Yankees GM job, because it is the Yankees GM job, offers unique challenges both internally (the late George Steinbrenner's "World Series title or bust!" philosophy lurks) and externally (the media and fan pressure is greater than ever). Cashman, who just re-upped with a three-year deal, handles those demands quite well.

4. Dave Dombrowski, Detroit (10 in '10, 9 in '09, 10 in '08, 7 in '07). Dombrowski has been doing this job long enough that he has not only done it all, results-wise - the 1993 Marlins expansion club, the 1997 Marlins' World Series title, the memorably awful 2003 Tigers) but also has done it all, process-wise.

Aggressively going for it? Check, the '97 Marlins. Massive rebuilding? Check, the '98 Marlins and the Tigers when he took over in 2002. Horrible contracts? Check, Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman.

In all, Dombrowski has more than survived. His 2011 Tigers were a team born of farm-system strength; selling high in the 2009 trade of Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson; high-risk free-agent signings like Joaquin Benoit and Victor Martinez; and in-season acquisitions like Doug Fister (costly in prospects) and Delmon Young (a Minnesota salary dump).

The Tigers look strong, moving forward, and with owner Mike Ilitch backing Dombrowski with his wallet, you can count on Detroit to improve once more.

5. Kevin Towers, Arizona (8 in '10, NR in '09, 6 in '08, 4 in '07). Towers, in his first year running the Diamondbacks, got it done once again, leading the most surprising playoff entry of 2011. 

He did so by retaining manager Kirk Gibson, who helped improve the clubhouse (although ownership pretty much wanted any incoming GM to keep Gibson) and by stabilizing the back end of the bullpen by signing free agent J.J. Putz and trading Mark Reynolds for David Hernandez.

Towers' greater task will be to upgrade Arizona's farm system; while running the Padres, handcuffed by cheap ownership, he never could get a constant flow of talent coming in. But Towers clearly knows how to evalute talent, and Arizona should feel good about its future with Towers running things.

6. Billy Beane, Oakland (2 in '10, 1 in '09, 1 in '08, 2 in '07). It looked to some (very much including me) like the A's were ready to bust out in 2011. They didn't at all, thanks to terrible offense and early problems with manager Bob Geren, who ultimately got fired and will be the Mets' bench coach (yeesh) in 2012.

Beane still has his resume, the one that led to this year's release of "Moneyball." He was a groundbreaker. And the A's stadium situation is awful and makes it difficult to recruit free agents. Nevertheless, the Rays also deal with a brutal stadium, and they have thrived.

The A's still have some great pitching, and the team isn't handcuffed by any bad contracts, so there are possibilities for a quick turnaround. But when you experience five years without a winning record, then you lose some benefit of the doubt.

7. Theo Epstein, Cubs (3 in '10, 3 in '09, 2 in '08, 5 in '07). Yes, he's the Cubs' president of baseball operations - Jed Hoyer is the Cubs' GM - but we've established precedent on this issue in past years with Florida's Larry Beinfest. No matter your title, if you are responsible for baseball operations, then you're the person on this list; shoot, Tampa Bay's Friedman is technically the executive vice president of baseball operations.

Anyway, Epstein has to take a hit for the way things ended in Boston, and for the bad contracts - John Lackey and, for now, Carl Crawford - that loom over that organization. What's interesting about those two signings is that neither one made a great deal of sense at the time Boston committed to them; Lackey already was declining, and Crawford is a corner outfielder.

Of course, Epstein did some amazing work earlier in his Red Sox tenure, and his intelligence and open-mindedness lead us to think that the Cubs did well in hiring him., despite what happened the last two years.

8. Terry Ryan, Minnesota (first time ranked). It was Ryan's resignation in the fall of 2007, combined with the retirement of Atlanta's John Schuerholz and resignation of the Angels' Bill Stoneman, that led me to create my first such rankings. I figured it was time to reassess the GM talent pool, given the significant turnover.

Now Ryan is back, and I'm putting him here because 1) four years doesn't seem like that long a break and 2) he has been part of the Twins' braintrust in the interim period, a time that saw far more good results than bad.

The Twins became more aggressive under Bill Smith, Ryan's successor/predecessor, although that resulted a great deal from the opening of Target Field. Off this past season's terrible showing, you can expect Ryan to reel things in somewhat and to try to reinstitute a focus on internal solutions.

Ryan gets here because of the way he methodically made the Twins regular contenders, and also because of his personality. Being a GM is significantly about the relationships you form, and you won't find too many people more respected in the game than Ryan, whose integrity quotient is off-the-charts good.

9. Larry Beinfest, Florida (4 in '10, 2 in '09, 4 in '08, NR in '07). 2011 was a terrible year for the Marlins, and let's face it: If Josh Johnson and Hanley Ramirez produced characteristic seasons, then this team would have a different narrative surrounding it, and Beinfest would be higher on this list.

Johnson and Ramirez are now question marks, though, with Florida aggressively pursuing Jose Reyes to replace Ramirez at shortstop. And while the team is opening a new stadium, the franchise's reputation has been damaged by the actions of owner Jeffrey Loria and president David Samson, both of whom are ultra-involved in the team's day-to-day operations. The hiring of Jack McKeon as interim manager, for instance, looked silly to the rest of baseball.

That's not Beinfest's fault, per se. Yet it falls upon the head of baseball operations to manage above him, as well as below him, and Beinfest has failed to do the former.

There's a strong talent base here, and with a big free-agent signing and improved health from Johnson in particular, the team's fortunes could rebound. Maybe Ozzie Guillen will give the Marlins some much-needed energy. For the moment, though, questions remain about whether the club will be allowed to just go out and play, or whether Beinfest's superiors will further hurt the team.

10. Ruben Amaro, Jr., Philadelphia (first time ranked). As we discussed here just yesterday, Amaro is very aggressive, and I wonder whether it will eventually come back to haunt him.

It hasn't yet, although Ryan Howard's five-year, $125-million contract looks pretty awful as it begins next year. As awful as that looks? Having both Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee under contract for manageable deals trumps that.

The Phillies keep making the playoffs because Amaro keeps pulling the trigger on big moves. And because, in Lee's case, he helped establish a clubhouse culture that Lee loved so much that he worked his way back there, after the stunning 2009 trade to Seattle.

We are ultimately judged by our results. And you can't quibble, so far, with Amaro's results.

--So who's out:? Colorado's Dan O'Dowd endured a brutal year, which saw him trade away purported ace Ubaldo Jimenez (for a pretty good return, it appears). The White Sox's Ken Williams departed after spending big bucks for a club that finished 79-83.

Reigning World Series champion GM John Mozeliak of St. Louis? He had a great year, and the Mike Matheny managerial hiring is an interesting one. He's on the cusp. I'm curious to see how the team looks in defending its crown.

Toronto's Alex Anthopoulos is another GM on which to keep an eye. He has done some terrific stuff, and this could be a big winter for the Blue Jays. 

And to answer the annual question: "When will you publish your 'Worst GMs' list?" I won't. Because the list would reflect inexperience more than incompetence, and because, yes, there's a wimp factor in play.

--From Milwaukee, I wrote stories on where the Mets stand with Jose Reyes and the Yankees' continuing search for pitching.

I'll try to check in more today. Just depends on logistics of when I can actually sit down.
 

Tags: Andrew Friedman , Jon Daniels , Brian Cashman , Dave Dombrowski , Kevin Towers , Billy Beane , Theo Epstein , Terry Ryan , Larry Beinfest , Ruben Amaro , Jr.

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