To maintain tradition - if you check the 2009 rankings and 2008 rankings, I somehow wind up discussing who was on my flight en route to the general managers' meetings - the answer this year is Frank Robinson.
(He's working full-time as Major League Baseball's senior vice president of major-league operations. I didn't realize he reported to Major League Baseball's Manhattan headquarters all the time - I thought he spent a good portion of his days at his Los Angeles home - but he's always in Manhattan, he told me at baggage claim, living in a midtown hotel. He shows up at 8:30 every day, a co-worker told me. 75 years old. Love it.)
Anywho, it's indeed time for the 2010 rankings. As always, I try to balance a GM's most recent season against his entire body of work, and also look ahead to see how the team is situated this winter.
I also attempt to consider, via reporting, how much a GM actually did, rather than just look at all actions under his watch. For instance, I wouldn't blame Brian Cashman for the Jaret Wright signing, because Cashman had nothing to do with it. And in Kevin Towers' later years in San Diego, some of the changes - for better and worse - had less to do with Towers and more to do with the Padres' CEO at the time, a fellow named Sandy Alderson.
Without further ado:
1. Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay (5 in 2009, 8 in 2008, not ranked in 2007). Yes, he has surged up this list, in just five years on the job. I just think he has been that good, even while noting that his predecessor Chuck LaMar deserves some credit for leaving Friedman with a pretty good talent base.
But whereas LaMar never could figure out how to leverage that talent base, Friedman, with the consultation of veteran GM Gerry Hunsicker and support of owner Stuart Steinberg and president Matt Silverman, moved the organization forward with advanced thinking and all sorts of flexibility. The Rays have now won two AL East titles in thee years, which is amazing when you consider the payroll disparity between Tampa Bay and the Yankees and Red Sox.
My favorite Friedman move is his 2009 trade for Rafael Soriano, because it shows his ability to slam the brakes on an offseason vision and turn in a completely different direction. Tampa Bay certainly did not enter the '09-'10 winter with the intention of acquiring Soriano, a free agent, as its closer. Then, the perfect storm hit: The Braves, despite having already acquired Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito for a bullpen reboot, offered Soriano arbitration, with the hope of recouping a draft pick when Soriano signed elsewhere.
But Soriano, a Type A free agent, was concerned that teams wouldn't pay him good money and give up a draft pick. So he accepted arbitration, putting the Braves in an unexpected mess.
Enter the Rays, who capitalized on the opportunity and acquired Soriano for Jesse Chavez, whom the Braves used to get Rick Ankiel and Kyle Farnsworth at the trade deadline. That's how they wound up with one of the game's best closers in '10.
Just as good, now the Rays will offer Soriano arbitration and, because he boosted his value considerably, Tampa Bay will get two draft picks for him. If you look at the list of classified free agents, you can see five - Soriano, Carl Crawford, Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit and Randy Choate - to whom they could conceivably offer arbitration. That means a wealth of draft picks coming their way for 2011; even if they offer just to Soriano and Crawford, both certain to reject and sign elsewhere, that's four.
The Rays are going to lower their payroll in 2011, and their future is still in doubt because they have a lousy home stadium. But as long as this management group is in place, the Rays figure to out-kick their coverage, to mix metaphors.
2. Billy Beane, Oakland (1 in '09, 1 in '08, 2 in '07). Yes, I'm still pretty bullish on Beane, even though the A's haven't made the playoffs since 2006. I dropped him one because I think Friedman's work is amazing, and also because I thought Beane deserved a hit for the Ben Sheets signing, which paid off neither with good pitching nor with a beneficial July trade.
Yet you can see the A's putting another run together as soon as 2011. The pitching staff is largely in place. The lineup received one re-enforcement in David DeJesus and figures to get at least one more this winter through free agency.
And I still think the greater body of work counts for something. What Beane did in the early 2000s - with Alderson there for the beginning of that construction - was shoot a hole in Bud Selig's contention that small-market teams had no chance. Selig dismissed it as "an aberration." I say, Beane and the A's were just that much smarter than everyone else.
And now, with the help of the revenue-sharing that Selig instituted, we know that if any small-market team is a perpetual loser, it has only itself to blame.
3. Theo Epstein, Boston (3 in '09, 2 in '08, 5 in '07). Yes, the Red Sox missed the playoffs in '10, but if you followed the season, you know that it's a tribute to Epstein and his crew that the Sawx still managed to win 89 games when they were absolutely decimated by injuries.
The Adrian Beltre signing paid off handsomely, and now Boston will either get draft picks upon his departure or just re-sign him (I'm guessing the former). The John Lackey signing? Not looking as good, but not terrible. The Mike Cameron signing? Looking worse than Lackey.
Letting Jason Bay go? Looking pretty, pretty, pretty good.
In any case, the Red Sox are still extremely well-positioned, moving forward, with an excellent starting rotation, core players like Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis and the financial flexibility to make a major buy (or more) this winter. And potential draft picks coming back with Type A free agents Beltre and Victor Martinez.
4. Larry Beinfest, Florida (2 in '09, 4 in '08, NR in '07). Now I'm taking titular GM Michael Hill off the list altogether because Beinfest, as the president of baseball operations, is the real GM. He's the Marlins' representative here, and from speaking with other GMs, it's clear that Beinfest still functions like other GMs do. He just has the fancier title, is all.
Anyway, the Marlins couldn't solve the back of their starting rotation, resulting in an 80-82 record, and while ownership was clearly very involved in the two failed courtships of Bobby Valentine to manage the team, Beinfest also has to be accountable for helping to create a culture in which the manager is the perennial fall guy here. Edwin Rodriguez is the Marlins' fifth manager since 2002, when Jeffrey Loria purchased the team and brought Beinfest with him from Montreal, and no one would be surprised if there's a sixth manager (Ozzie Guillen?) in 2012, when the hew ballpark opens in downtown Miami.
On the plus side, no small thing, the Marlins promoted three exciting rookies to the big leagues in Logan Morrison, Gaby Sanchez and Mike Stanton. They're well-positioned, looking ahead.
5. Brian Cashman, Yankees (6 in '09, NR in '08, 8 in '07). The toughest one to rank, always, because of the Yankees' massive payroll advantage. What would other teams do with this sort of dough? You wonder.
Yet there is more to the job than just spending the Steinbrenners' money. There's dealing with the Steinbrenners, and with the massive media following, and - like running any team - keeping everyone together as a cohesive unit in a culture that still carries remnants of the late George Steinbrenner's "If we don't win the World Series, we're absolute failures!" thinking.. I don't know how many GMs would do those parts as well as Cashman does them.
Now let's do a 180 and go back to player personnel, which is - despite the previous paragraph - the job's most important part: I think the Yankees have a bright future. They might have the best outfield in the American League, and they have the young catching depth to handle Jorge Posada's move to DH (and the Posada contract, BTW, was not Cashman's doing. Neither was Alex Rodriguez's future albatross).
How much of the Yankees' current urgency to sign Cliff Lee can be attributed to the aforementioned "World Series or else!" culture and how much to the current travails of A.J. Burnett? I'll say 40 percent the former, 60 percent the latter. Also, the failed Javier Vazquez trade not only hurt the Yankees in 2010, but it also cost them a draft pick, since they now can't offer arbitration to Vazquez.
Ultimately, Cashman moves up a spot because the Yankees' farm system looks to be one of the game's best, and because the Yankees did have a successful 2010 campaign.
6. Jon Daniels, Texas (first time ranked). I toyed with where to put him. As is well- documented, he overcame some bad early decisions to put together a player-development dynamo, and now the Rangers are coming off their first-ever World Series appearance.
His 2010 was really quite remarkable, yet it resulted from his work of the previous three years. With the Rangers tapped out, Daniels essentially used his prospects as currency to acquire Cliff Lee and Bengie Molina. Nevertheless, the Rangers still have one of the industry's best farm systems.
And if the Rangers fall short to the Yankees in the Lee sweepstakes, they can use some of those prospects to trade for Kansas City's Zack Greinke, or go harder after a bat like Victor Martinez.
Daniels has proven both aggressive and analytical when he has needed to be, and isn't married to any one principle or notion. For example, the Rangers envisioned Neftali Feliz as a top-flight starting pitcher, but now that the AL Rookie of the Year has fit in so well as the closer, he's likely to just stay there.
7. Dan O'Dowd, Colorado (7 in '09, NR in '08 or '07). Yes, the Rockies fell short of what would've been their third playoff berth in four years, yet they contended well into September, boosting attendance, and their biggest free-agent losses figures to be Jorge de la Rosa, who is interesting but wasn't essential in '10.
In Ubaldo Jimenez (signed as an international free agent) and Carlos Gonzalez (acquired from Oakland for Matt Holliday - a strike against Beane), the Rockies have two of the game's brightest stars. The Rockies also had what Baseball America called "baseball's best draft" in 2009, so more talent should be coming.
8. Kevin Towers, Arizona (NR in '09, 6 in '08, 4 in '07). He wasn't ranked last year because he didn't have a job, having been fired by the Padres. Now, he's back with the Diamondbacks, and I'm curious to see what he does with this talented yet flawed club.
Towers revels in being a "Gunslinger," as Padres CEO dubbed him upon his dismissal after the '09 season, and he does have quite the knack for making good trades. He relies on his scouting eye and those of his lieutenants to make beneficial deals. Under his watch, the Padres qualified for the playoffs four times in 14 years with a consistently modest payroll.
His biggest flaw? Player development. The Padres never excelled in this area under Towers' watch.
9. Ken Williams, White Sox (8 in '09, 7 in '08, 10 in '07). Like Towers, he revels in being aggressive. Like Towers, he hasn't shined in the player-development area. Like Towers, though, Williams manages to consistently put together competitive clubs.
In any case, the White Sox have the best starting rotation in the AL Central, and they figure to pick up an offensive piece or two this winter while also non-tendering Bobby Jenks. That leaves them a hole at closer, and I predicted they would shock the world and sign Soriano. If not, then impressive draft pick 2010 Chris Sale could be in the mix.
There is talent here, in other words, and Williams often makes moves to upgrade that talent.
One other item of note: The Guillen soap opera figures to be fascinating, with Guillen's contract up after 2011 and the Marlins appearing to want him. If it's totally Williams' call, then Guillen will take his talents to South Beach. Yet Williams has to yield some to owner Jerry Reinsdorf in this area.
10. Dave Dombrowski, Detroit (9 in '09, 10 in '08, 7 in '07). This is a big winter for Dombrowski and the Tigers, as they've managed to outlast some of Dombrowski's worst long-term commitments like Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson. Yet their 2010 season marked a positive turn toward the future.
While Curtis Granderson looks like a solid acquisition for the Yankees, the Tigers were the clear victor in that deal, as they shed payroll and picked up a couple of apparent keepers in Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer. Even Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth performed decently.
In short, the AL Central race should be exciting once again because Williams, Dombrowski and the Twins' Bill Smith are all quite good at what they do.
--Which brings us to the "Close call" category. Whom do I most regret keeping out? Smith, who has kept Terry Ryan's Twins machine going but is just three years on the job.
Other notable exclusions: I dropped Milwaukee's Doug Melvin, who made this the first three years, because the Brewers simply haven't gotten it done the last couple of years, and because Ken Macha proved an uninspiring hire at manager. Mark Shapiro left the list because he graduated from the Indians' GM to their team president (their real team president, not the Beinfest "president of baseball operations" thing). Longtime assistant Chris Antonetti now runs Cleveland's baseball operations.
World Series-winning GM Brian Sabean put together a terrific starting rotation and bullpen, but gosh, it sure seems like he got many great breaks with the lineup. The Giants' farm system is highly regarded, so maybe Sabean's stock will rise.
Cincinnati's Walt Jocketty built a World Series winner in St. Louis and guided the Reds to their first playoff berth since 1995, yet most of this Reds team was actually built by current Mets executive Wayne Krivsky.
I considered putting Alderson on the list, but decided against it, given the long span that has passed since he last held this title. Nevertheless, I've made it pretty clear that I think Alderson is excellent.
As for the annual question, "When will you do your '10 worst' list?" I won't. Because the worst GMs tend not to last for long, so your list becomes in large part inexperienced GMs who haven't done well, and because there is absolutely a wimp factor involved. I gotta deal with these people, after all.
--I'll check in throughout the day, as the GMs meetings are beginning in earnest.