The General Managers meetings provide a great opportunity to check in with executives from across the game. A pair of hour-long media sessions are held, with the majority of the GMs, and/or Presidents of Baseball Operations, making appearances at both. I spoke to a large number of them, with the goal of addressing a cross section of subjects.
Here are snapshots from six of those conversations, with more to come in the ensuing days.
The Toronto Blue Jays are coming off a 67-95 season, but their fans have a lot of reasons to be excited. Some of those reasons have names. Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Nate Pearson are the sort of building-blocks that can one day deliver postseason glory. Heading into 2019, the Jays’ farm system ranked amongst the best in the game.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the cadre of young talent will meet its lofty expectations. And even if it does, contention in the AL East is likely a few years down the road. While 2020 should be a step in the right direction, it’s hard to envision Canada’s team leap-frogging New York, Tampa Bay, and Boston.
Tempered expectations are one thing, Rogers Centre attendance having fallen by an average of 7,063 fans per game in 2019 is another. Ross Atkins recognizes the conundrum.
“The hardest thing to do in this job is to be patient,” said the Blue Jays’ VP of Baseball Operations. “Our fans are extremely important to us, and it’s not as though [GMs] don’t feel the same things. It’s very tough on us, physically and emotionally, to not be winning.”
A Hall of Fame executive who helped lead Toronto to a pair of World Series titles is a role model for the 46-year-old former minor-league pitcher.
“I always think about Pat Gillick, and the importance he put on having that core come up together, then making sure that when he did aggressively add, it was the most optimal time,” said Atkins. “This offseason will be very important as we look to add, but so will the [trade] deadline, and next offseason. We hope to build around, and complement, that core on a year in, year out basis. And we’ll have the support of our ownership to do that.”
What does that mean in terms of the immediate future?
“For us, managing expectations is about turning the youngest team in baseball, which is coming off a sub-.500 year, into an AL East contender,” said Atkins. “That’s very difficult to do in one offseason.”
The San Diego Padres have changed pitching coaches, swapping out Darren Balsley for Larry Rothschild. I asked A.J. Preller if a philosophical shift was behind the decision, or if there was simply a need for a new voice in that position.
“Darren and Larry are two of the most-accomplished pitching coaches in the game,” answered San Diego’s GM. “They believe in similar fundamentals, a lot of the basics you need to execute as a major league pitcher. Organizationally, we’ve started to develop some good major league pitchers, and we have strength in our farm system with some of our prospects, so we believe in the philosophies that have been in place. This is more about a different voice than it is a change from a philosophical standpoint.”
Simply a different voice, or also a different set of eyes? Unlike Balsley, a longtime member of the organization, Rothschild will be viewing each member of the pitching staff through a fresh lens.
“I think that’s a part of it too,” acknowledged Preller. “You get a fresh opinion. When you’re looking at guys who have come through the system, sometimes it’s good to have that outside perspective — a fresh set of eyes and ears coming into the equation.”
Chaim Bloom, whom Boston hired as its Chief Baseball Officer in October, was asked about the club’s priority needs. His response suggested that the Red Sox could go in a variety of directions.
“At this stage, I don’t think it makes sense to impose an order,” Bloom told reporters. “To look at it in terms of Need A, Need B, Need C, might be a little limiting for us. To zoom out and take a look at… our objective is to prioritize sustainability [and] competitiveness, not just this year, but also in the long term. We’re thinking of moves through that lens, rather than trying to arrange an order of needs. That should open up more options for us.”
Teams are often reluctant to trade within their own division. I asked the 36-year-old exec where he stands on that front.
“I never like to think that way,” responded Bloom. “It’s our job right now to make contact with 29 other clubs, and to get the best sense we can of what everybody is trying to do, and go from there.”
Could he envision a scenario where the trade partner was the New York Yankees? Bloom’s answer to that question was a short and sweet, “It would be irresponsible of us to dismiss that.”
The Oakland A’s make roster decisions with significantly different financial parameters than do the Red Sox. That doesn’t mean they don’t think alike in many ways. Evidence of that comes in David Forst’s response when I mentioned Chaim Bloom’s “Need A, Need B, Need C” comment.
“I agree with what Chaim said,” said the A’s GM. “I think when we list priorities, it’s probably more for [the media], to give you some talking points. When I look at the roster, I just want to get better. Whether that comes in the form of an addition or a subtraction, or looking at a particular part of a team, we focus on ways to improve.”
Asked to clarify what he meant by “a subtraction,” Forst told me that “Dollars could be better allocated for Player X instead of Player Y. Maybe it’s the bullpen versus the starting rotation. There are a lot of ways you might slice that up.”
In other words, dollars remain a big part of the equation.
“They do,” acknowledged Forst. “Quite a bit. Dollars are part of everybody’s equation, but they’re obviously always a part of our conversation.”
Talking to Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto, I learned that 24-year-old outfield prospect Kyle Lewis had the highest exit velocity among Mariners’ minor leaguers this year. That’s been the case since Lewis entered the organization as a first-round pick in 2016.
The prospect with the second-highest exit velocity? That would be 23-year-old first baseman Evan White, a player whose power potential has been his biggest question mark. According to Dipoto, the slick-fielding University of Kentucky product has made strides with his swing, and while there are still groundballs in his profile, he’s begun driving more balls in the air. White went deep 18 times in 400 plate appearances for Double-A Arkansas, despite playing his home games in a pitcher-friendly venue. The 2017 first-rounder slashed a solid .293/.350/.488.
Evaluators from the outside the organization have begun to take notice. Dipoto told me that a handful of teams have brought up White’s name in trade talks more than once.
One GM that I hoped to connect with, but was unable to, is Pittsburgh’s Kevan Graves. Currently in that role on an interim basis, Graves wasn’t made available during either of the media sessions. Per The Athletic’s Rob Biertempfel, Graves was likely “under orders from above to dodge reporters.”
The decision to not have his team represented at the media sessions suggests (among other things) that Pittsburgh owner Bob Nutting has no plans to hire Graves on a permanent basis. Per Biertempfel, the most-likely candidates to replace the deposed Neal Huntington appear to be Blue Jays VP of Baseball Operations Ben Cherington, and Brewers assistant GM Matt Arnold.
David Stearns was addressing a question about the hiring process when I approached him at the first of the two sessions. That inquiry served as a good lead-in for what I wanted to know.
“The goal is to find the right candidate for your situation, and the right candidate in one market may not be the right candidate in another market,” Milwaukee’s President of Baseball Operations told the scribe. “You start by compiling a really big list, and then you whittle it down.”
Stearns hasn’t had to do much whittling in recent seasons. Personnel changes within the Brewers organization have been at a minimum.
“We’ve been pretty stable,” Stearns told me. “For a lot of teams, this time of year turns into a little bit of a human resources adventure. You lose some people to other teams, and have to backfill them — there’s a little bit of a cascading effect — but we’re fortunate in that we’ve had some stability. We have a group that’s been together three, four years, and they work very well together.”
Asked if his team has recently added staff within the analytics or scouting departments, his response was, “Not substantively.” As for implementations, or process changes, within player development, Stearns said the following:
“We’re constantly trying to learn and evolve. Player development is clearly an area of great attention for our industry right now, so to the extent that we can get better in that space, we’re certainly going to try. I’m not going to delve into the specifics of what, or how, we’re trying to do that.”
My response to that not especially forthcoming answer was a wry, “GMs never like to divulge specifics, do they?”
Stearns, ever-adept with wit, countered with a one-word answer: “Shocker.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.