By Ken Davidoff
Royals fans cheered after claiming the World Series trophy on Nov. 1 at Citi Field.
With the general managers’ meetings having wrapped up Thursday, and with the vast majority of the Hot Stove season still ahead of us, let’s do our annual rankings of the top 10 GMs.
Well, almost annual. From the 2013 list, two have since lost their jobs — the Tigers dismissed Dave Dombrowski this past August, and the Braves did the same to Frank Wren following the 2014 season. Now Wren works for Dombrowski in Boston. A third, Andrew Friedman, switched employers from the Rays to the Dodgers in the fall of 2014.
Last year, I didn’t do the list because the GM meetings were held in Phoenix, and I spent a good amount of time profiling local Arizona Fall League players — one of whom, Greg Bird, proceeded to make a significant impact in the major leagues and the other three (Aaron Judge, L.J. Mazzilli and Brandon Nimmo) not so much.
So the list is back, and in light of baseball’s “title inflation” trend, there are more specific guidelines than in the past:
1. For the purposes of these rankings, each team has only one candidate, and it is the person — regardless of title — who has the final say in the baseball operations department. For many organizations, that now is the president of baseball operations. For many others, it’s still the GM.
A team president whose background happens to be in baseball operations — I’m thinking specifically of Philadelphia’s Andy MacPhail and Toronto’s Mark Shapiro — are not the candidate, because those two also are involved in business matters. Neither man attended the GM meetings this past week.
(By the way, no GM or president of baseball operations has sheer “autonomy.” Ownership, be it through the president or the owner himself, always has the final say and often drives the bus when it comes to a strategic course of action or a specific large transaction.)
2. I grade on total body of work, with an emphasis on the recent and how the team looks going forward; team payrolls factor into this, as you score higher for getting more bang for your buck. Reaching the playoffs is the most important accomplishment; advancement in the playoffs is more of a tiebreaker. There’s just too much randomness in October to derive huge conclusions from what happens.
Going back to the first point regarding autonomy, I try to grade the GM only for those things he controls. Many large decisions are made by owners.
3. Two years ago, I invented a rule by which a GM had to serve a minimum of three years to qualify for this list. I should’ve called it “The Cherington Rule” because I couldn’t figure out what to do about then-Red Sox GM Ben Cherington after Boston bombed out in 2012 and won the World Series in 2013, giving him quite the spectrum in two seasons. We’ll retain The Cherington Rule, though it really doesn’t affect any of this year’s candidates.
OK? This explanation long enough for you yet? Here we go:
1. John Mozeliak, Cardinals
St. Louis is the only team to qualify for the playoffs each of the past five seasons, and that’s primarily because arguably no team drafts and develops as well as the Cards, who consistently integrate high-impact homegrown talent despite selecting annually in the lower half of the first round as a result of their winning records.
Furthermore, Mozeliak, who succeeded Walt Jocketty as the club’s GM after the 2007 season, found a worthy successor to retired manager Tony La Russa (who subsequently gained induction into the Hall of Fame) in unlikely candidate Mike Matheny, who has kept the winning culture going. Other teams have followed this trend of hiring managers without substantive experience of either managing in the minors or coaching in the big leagues. None of those teams has come close to the Cardinals’ success with Matheny.
2. Jon Daniels, Rangers
Placing Mozeliak atop the list felt easy. Sorting out the rest felt quite challenging. Daniels gets this spot because, in his 10 years on the job, he has taken a licking and kept on ticking like quite no one else. He has worked for two different ownership groups and has reported to more people than that; he even outlasted Texas legend Nolan Ryan, who now helps out the Astros.
But office politics alone won’t keep you on the job. Daniels now has four playoff appearances plus a 2013 near-miss on his resume, and he has pulled this off by dramatically remaking the team throughout the years. Drafts, trades and free agency all have been Daniels’ allies, and the Rangers rebounded from an injury-fest, last-place 2014 with an American League West title in 2015 behind first-year manager Jeff Banisters, who looks like a strong hire.
3. Theo Epstein, Cubs
As we’ll get into more with other people on this list, it sure is nice to have the luxury of a full teardown. If you make your intentions clear to fans at the outset, as Epstein did with the Cubs, you can go about your business with less pressure and reap the benefits — July trades of veterans and high draft picks — that come with being terrible.
You have to nail those trades and those picks, though, and that’s what Epstein and his crew (including Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer — Epstein is the president of baseball operations) accomplished in getting the Cubs back to the National League Championship Series after overseeing four straight fifth-place finishes. The Cubs appear to be very well-positioned for a long run, and it would be surprising if they didn’t sign at least one big-time free agent this winter to supplement their core. Throw in Epstein’s previous success with the Red Sox, and here he is.
4. Brian Sabean, San Francisco
He’s an interesting one to rank for two reasons. First of all, Sabean is now the Giants’ executive vice president of baseball operations, with his longtime protégé Bobby Evans the general manager, and it’s not as simple a hierarchy as the Cubs’, in which Epstein and Hoyer conduct themselves quite similarly to when they were Boston’s GM and assistant GM. Sabean now spends less time in the office and more time scouting. I spoke with Evans this past week at the meetings in Boca Raton about the Giants’ structure. He called it a gradual, organic transition in which he is increasingly becoming San Francisco’s baseball operations quarterback with Sabean serving as a Yoda of sorts.
But Sabean attended the GM meetings, so I’m still counting him as the guy. And that makes him the guy with seven appearances and three World Series titles in 19 years running the show.
And that gets us to our second area of intrigue with Sabean: How much extra credit does he get for winning it all three times (2010, 2012 and 2014) in the past six years? Does the fact the Giants have missed the playoffs altogether in each season following the titles, including 2015, count against him?
The answers are: Some, and not much. Three playoff appearances in the six years is quite good. That the Giants went all the way each of those seasons speaks well of their organizational culture and of the clubhouse stability instituted by Sabean’s longtime manager Bruce Bochy and a coaching staff that has largely stayed intact.
5. Brian Cashman, Yankees
Ah, yes. Mr. Cashman. The mere refusal to advocate for his immediate firing draws venom from many fan corners. The Yankees haven’t won a playoff game since 2012, for crying out loud!
Look at the other names on this list. Only Mozeliak can relate to Cashman on one very important career track: In 18 years on the job, not once has Cashman made a “sell” trade, nor has he picked in the top half of the draft. Every other man ranked here has benefited greatly from playing the long game. Never has Cashman enjoyed an opportunity to do that. The decision to go crazy two winters ago, bringing aboard Carlos Beltran, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Masahiro Tanaka — as opposed to ramping it down upon the retirement of the Core Four — was driven by ownership, and it also reinforces the considerable financial room for error that Cashman possesses.
What Cashman re-established last winter, though, is he has a pretty good feel for what he’s doing as he tries to balance the Yankees’ short-term and long-term ambitions. The acquisitions of Nathan Eovaldi and Didi Gregorius both look strong, as does the call to let David Robertson go to the White Sox, get the compensation draft pick and sign Andrew Miller for less money; the Yankees now have 15 postseason appearances in Cashman’s reign. And the farm system is producing again after its notable drought. The Yankees probably will never replicate their 1996-2000 postseason success; the Core Four will go down as the best quartet to debut in the same season in the history of professional sports, and the other teams have gotten smarter and richer. Yet Cashman has the Yankees on a track to be back in the mix every season.
6. Dave Dombrowski, Red Sox
The most seasoned baseball operations guy on this list, in terms of years running baseball operations, and it’s preposterous he’s no longer with the Tigers just because they never made it to a parade; owner Mike Ilitch is the same one who pushed for overaggressive free-agent signings such as getting Prince Fielder and re-signing Victor Martinez. Kudos to the Red Sox for pouncing on Dombrowski, who lasted about two weeks in unemployment.
Dombrowski’s trademark attribute is his aggressiveness. He regularly boosted his Tigers teams with July moves of prospects for veterans, and he put together the champion 1997 Marlins with a hyperactive winter (before being ordered to disassemble the club the very next winter). Right before Ilitch let him go from the Tigers, he was aggressive one last time; on the bubble of contention in late July, he pushed to trade assets Yoenis Cespedes (to the Mets), David Price (to Toronto) and Joakim Soria (to Pittsburgh) in order to reload the farm system. So the Tigers are in decent shape moving forward with Dombrowski’s successor Al Avila, while the Red Sox figure to benefit from Dombrowski’s scouting acumen and fearlessness.
7. Andrew Friedman, Dodgers
He was No. 1 the last time I did this. In my mind, at least, Friedman didn’t drop as much as others have risen. However, the Rays’ lack of draft success in Friedman’s final years in Tampa Bay — once the playoff appearances begat lower picks — led the cash-strapped club to finish under .500 in Friedman’s final season there. Now he enters his second season with the un-strapped Dodgers (he’s president of baseball operations, with Farhan Zaidi as his GM), who must find some starting pitching plus a manager this offseason.
Friedman and his lieutenants managed to clear the future payroll commitment to Matt Kemp (traded to the Padres), but they also dealt Dee Gordon to the Marlins, a move that seemed reasonable at the time, only to backfire. With his own manager soon to be in place, and what figures to be another active winter, we’ll see if Friedman’s Dodgers can get an even higher return for their considerable investment.
8. Billy Beane, Athletics
Beane should be a serious Hall of Fame candidate down the line. He has done remarkable work with shoestring budgets and with the worst stadium by far in Major League Baseball. The A’s have qualified for the postseason eight times in Beane’s 18 years, and that they haven’t advanced to the World Series says more about small sample sizes than anything Beane has done wrong.
He isn’t higher on this list because 1) again, the competition is fierce, and 2) he has endured a rough eight months or so. Whether you belong to the “He never should’vetraded Cespedes for Jon Lester!” or the “They wouldn’t have even made the playoffs if not for Lester!” camp, the bottom line is the tough A’s finish to 2014 was followed by their brutal 2015, during which they saw their old pal Josh Donaldson put up a season with Toronto that might get him the AL Most Valuable Player award.
The run differential of the 2015 A’s (694-729) shows they weren’t as bad as advertised, though, and Beane made some in-season trades (Tyler Clippard to the Mets, Ben Zobrist to the Royals) that could pay dividends soon enough. Only a fool would count out Beane — now the A’s president of baseball operations with David Forst the GM — from rising again.
9. (tie) Sandy Alderson, Mets; Neal Huntington, Pirates; Dayton Moore, Kansas City
Yep, this is one big copout. I’m including 11 GMs in my top 10 rankings. I wouldn’t be a bigger copout even if I changed my name to Coppy Copoutoff.
What can I say? I wouldn’t know whom to leave out of this trio, or from the group of 11 as a whole. I felt bad leaving out Baltimore’s Dan Duquette and Houston’s Jeff Luhnow; Washington’s Mike Rizzo has a chance to get right back in the conversation if he can rebound in 2016; and veterans John Hart of Atlanta and Terry Ryan of Minnesota seem to have their franchises headed in the right direction.
Anyway, as for these final three: Alderson is older than Dombrowski, yet his baseball journey features long gaps without running baseball operations. I doubt any sport has featured an executive winning pennants 25 years apart, as has Alderson, without reaching the promised land in between.
We know all about how much talent Alderson inherited from Omar Minaya, and for my money, Minaya should’ve been invited to throw out a ceremonial first pitch at a postseason game. He would’ve received huge applause. Yet Alderson and his people developed all of that talent, traded it properly (most notably Carlos Beltran and R.A. Dickey) and made decisions on whom to retain (Lucas Duda over Ike Davis) and built up a stockpile of young talent they used as trade chips when the club finally was ready to contend again. Needless to say, the Mets, with their studly starting rotation, look very well-positioned for the future.
Huntington has directed the Pirates to three straight wild-card berths on the foundation of strong, mid- to low-market acquisitions via trade and free agency to support homegrown stars Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen. Look how much Francisco Cervelli, J.A. Happ and Jung Ho Kang helped in 2015, and A.J. Burnett gave Pittsburgh his last bullets, good ones, because of how much he enjoyed his 2012-13 stay. Huntington and his staff seem to have an excellent feel for who will fit into their system.
Moore is on a roll for the World Series champions. Two superb trades, sending Zack Greinke to Milwaukee and getting James Shields from Tampa Bay — both of which I ripped at the time, naturally —laid the groundwork for two straight pennants, and enough high draft picks have worked. Two of those, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, have two years remaining before free agency, at which point the small-market Royals probably will struggle to retain them. So Moore has to keep it going. His outstanding work, including the institution of a strong organizational culture, should give Royals fans optimism he can do just that.