How necessary is it for an MLB front office to pick a direction and stay the course? Based on the responses of 10 general managers I queried on Tuesday, there isn’t a simple answer. A lot of factors go into the decision to rebuild, especially when it’s a complete teardown. Ditto going all in to win now. That typically costs money — a bigger issue for some organizations than others — and often involves trading top prospects, which compromises the future.
A third option is to remain a middle-of-the-road team, not good enough to seriously contend, nor bad enough to seriously build for the future. Addressing short-term needs to go from 80 wins to 82, more often than not, is a recipe for baseball purgatory.
Here is what the executives had to say on the subject.
Chris Antonetti, Cleveland Indians: “Each team has its own opportunities and challenges within its market. It’s incumbent upon the leadership within that organization to develop a path to success, and that path could look very different in one market than it will in another.
“A team in larger market has different avenues available than a team in a smaller market, or even a middle market. [Finances and expectations] both factor in. There may be certain tolerances within a particular market for going through a less competitive cycle.”
Jon Daniels, Texas Rangers: “It goes without saying that it’s important, but I think the duration of the course is different for each one. You can be in a rebuild mode and committed a little longer, versus if you’ve got some short-term contracts, you’re going to make a shorter-term push. If you look around the league, there’s so much competition from an infrastructure standpoint right now.
“Something our management team has talked about a lot is the mistake we made our first year here, in 2006. We were caught in the middle. We convinced ourselves that if A, B, and C went right, we had a chance to win, and I think you can make the case that, for any team, it’s not a sustainable strategy.”
Jerry Dipoto, Seattle Mariners: “You always want a plan, and we’ve not varied. Our roster has varied, but the plan we instituted the day I took the job has… I don’t want to say it’s come to fruition, but this is about as close as we’ve been to that. We wanted to control the strike zone, we wanted to be more athletic, we wanted to be deeper on the pitcher’s mound, and we wanted to improve our overall organizational depth in our minor-league system. To some extent, we’ve accomplished all of those things. Now we have to see if it actually results in wins on the field.
“To me, the middle ground, say 80 wins, isn’t the place to be. But I will say this: having gone through rebuilds with two different franchises — once as a player, and then as an executive — it isn’t very comfortable. It’s an exciting time to be a scout, and sometimes it’s enjoyable to be in player development, but it’s hard to rebuild. It’s hard to put the fan base through that.
“With all the young players we have, we don’t feel we’re operating in a small window. We feel we’ve added enough sustainable young players that can add to that core, and help us win now, and help us open a window that can stay open.”
Bobby Evans, San Francisco Giants: “Between a team president — in the case of our organization, Larry Baer — and me as general manager, we’re very tied to economics. A lot of times, I’m the outgoing and he’s trying to generate the incoming. You’ve got to be in concert. You’ve got to be in unison about what you’re doing.
“As the head of the baseball part of our organization, I have to be realistic and draw those conclusions, and give a sense of clarity for Larry. If for some reason I’m having some doubt about our competitiveness in a given year, I’ve got to be able to articulate what our needs are.
“We’re a little different in the sense that we’re expecting to compete year in and year out. We’re not intending to roll it back. Circumstances can dictate that, but it is our job — it’s my job as a general manager — to set that course of direction. It has to be in concert with your ownership, as well. That’s a must.
“There are significant expectations from the fan base, your revenue streams, your television deal. As a general manager, you’re not on an island. You’ve been entrusted with the baseball operations of the franchise by your ownership, but there has to be that strong clarity with the course you’re setting. Our clarity is longstanding — we’ve been working together for a long time — so it’s pretty well understood, year in, year out, what our goals are.”
David Forst, Oakland Athletics: “I would say it’s important. At the same time, it’s tough for us. We’ll put the best product on the field we can, but also commit to our young players. We’re coming off an offseason where we didn’t trade any young players. We recognized that, particularly on the pitching side, this young group is the key to us competing again. At the same time, we’re not in a position to tear it down. Neither Billy [Beane] nor I wants to do that. Ownership isn’t interested in a complete teardown, like how the Cubs and the Astros did.
“A total rebuild in that style is really hard for an organization. Losing 100 games three years in a row is not an easy thing on a fan base, it’s not easy on an ownership group. Like I said, it’s not something we’ve ever been interested in doing. Ultimately, we’d like to get to a new park where our resources change and we don’t have to take that step.
“We’ve had success at times, certainly going into 2012, where we… I wouldn’t say we were treading water, but we toed the line and kind of did both, and things came together. That’s what we’re hoping for now, that the young players mature together and we have the right pieces around them. We’re constantly balancing that. Is it the perfect strategy? No, but it’s ultimately what we have in Oakland.”
Rick Hahn, Chicago White Sox: “Staying the course is essential once you pick a direction. The fact of the matter is, we’re going to be tested as an organization, and as a fan base, in the next season, season and a half, two seasons — whatever it takes — as we go through this process. We’re rebuilding, and we’re closer to the start of this than we are to the end of it. There are going to be some hardships along the way.
“By nature, we’re all competitive. We’re used to defining success by wins at the big-league level, and being in a rebuilding process, they may not be so plentiful early on. But it’s important that we don’t let that distract us from what we’re trying to do long term, from the greater good of what we’re trying to build. I can see people getting frustrated and wanting to move the thing along more quickly than it makes sense to do, but we need to remain diligent and focused on the larger picture.
“We won 78 games last year, and based upon where we were as an organization, and what was likely available to us through free agency and trade, and the resources we had, we couldn’t envision going from 78 to 90. You can envision going from 78 to 81, or 83 if things go well, but that isn’t what we’re about building. You ultimately want to build a 90-plus-win team that’s sustainable, so we chose to go the other direction.”
“How should other organizations approach it? That’s up to each individual club, based on their own position, based on where they are from a resource standpoint, where they are in terms of pressures they might feel from ownership, the revenue side, or whatever. Everybody knows how to look at their own watch and see what time it is. It’s not so easy to judge from the outside.”
A.J. Preller, San Diego Padres: “In any organization it’s important to have a sense of what you want to get accomplished, and which direction you’re going. But there is no much that can happen over the course of time. Sometimes your progress gets accelerated. Sometimes things happen that you don’t foresee. You have to be adaptable, and be able to adjust, no matter what ‘direction’ you want to go in.
“In our case, two years ago we added to our big-league club, but we always knew that, ultimately, if you’re going to be successful, you have to build a foundation. You have to hit it on the amateur and international side, sign your own players, and have guys who are sustainable.
“Again, it’s always important to have a direction, but you also have to be flexible. You have to be able to read when it’s time to go, when it’s time to back off, and when it’s time to head in a different direction. That’s a big part of management.”
David Stearns, Milwaukee Brewers: “A philosophy is essential for any front office. I think if we’ve learned anything from watching successful organizations, it is that they have a philosophy, they have a strategy, and they stick to that strategy. The consistently successful organizations, regardless of market size, are incredibly disciplined. They believe in their strategy and stick to it.
“If you were to talk to Theo or Dave Dombrowski — a large-market general manager — they still have a set philosophy they stay disciplined in. It’s different than the philosophy we may institute in Milwaukee, or that varying markets may implement, but they have a core set of beliefs around which they’re going to build their organizations.”
Dick Williams, Cincinnati Reds: “We’ve talked about it a lot. We’re obviously further along in that rebuild process than we were a couple years ago, and it’s a real gray area as to when you move to that next step. You’re constantly evaluating that situation. A lot of what we’ll learn over the next couple of months about our players will tell us about how far along we are. At the end of the day, so much is dependent on player performance.
“A lot of guys we expect to play this year will be making their big-league debuts. We have a lot of guys who have less than a year of service, less than two years of service. We think we know what those guys are, but only time will tell. The better they play, the faster we can tap the accelerator on moving out of the rebuild and into the building process.
“Under the current system, if you’re a team of more restricted needs, you’ve got to take advantage of the draft, international signings, and trades. Those are the only ways you can get players. Over the last couple of years, we picked high in the draft. In the international market, we went past our caps. We traded a lot of players. In the next couple of years, those aren’t going to be available to us. We don’t have as many well known, established veterans to trade. We’re going to be held out of the international market because we exceeded and now we’re in the penalty phase. And hopefully, as we start winning, we won’t be drafting as high.
“You almost have to be… that window opens when you have a worse record at the major-league level. It gives you the bigger draft pick. It gives you the bigger international signing-bonus pools. And it gives you an opportunity to trade stars. If you’re not doing one of those three, the only way to do it is free agency, which is prohibitive. So to open those windows, teams have gone through tough times at the big-league level.”
Farhan Zaidi, Los Angeles Dodgers: “I don’t think it is that necessary, or even doable, to be honest. There is so much unpredictability to this job in terms of how players develop, and what opportunities exist. You might be a team that is on the cusp of contention, and think it’s the best course of action, and suddenly you get a couple of unbelievable offers that are too good to refuse, for two of your better players.
“There are so many teams right now that have to operate cyclically, and make that difficult tradeoff. An important part of the equation for me would be, ‘What opportunities are out there?’ That’s not something you can necessarily predict.
“None of that is to say a team shouldn’t plan and plot out. This is a somewhat related point: every team has a Plan A in the offseason, and the commonality is that they never actually get executed. Some player that you wanted to pursue gets way more money, or there’s a trade target you’re after and the team says, ‘We’re not trading that guy.’ Circumstance dictates so much of your opportunities. Saying, ‘I have this five-year plan and this is how it’s going to unfold’… the real world just doesn’t work that way.”
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.