Is a GM Gap Behind the AL/NL Disparity?

The American League’s current superiority (as a whole) to the National League is well-established. Here is one brief illustration of the gap. In short: if someone asks why you think the AL is better than the NL, ask them why they think a 90-win team is better than a 70-win team.

The more interesting issue is source of the disparity. One can imagine various explanations with different degrees of credibility: money, the DH, luck, and so on. It’s likely a combination of a number of different factors. I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but I will suggest that the relative quality of front offices (represented here by general managers) plays a major role.

Rather than going through every team, I’ll avoid the illusion of being definitive and pick whom I see as the five best and five worst current general managers. I know that every choice is debatable, but I’ll try to be relatively uncontroversial. It is also worth looking back at the “Front Office” sections of Dave Cameron’s organizational rankings from last off-season, although the judgments presented here are my own. Keep in mind that this is merely a brief reflection. These are not rankings, but merely groupings the five best and the five worst GMs in baseball.

The best: Andrew Friedman (TBA) and Theo Epstein (BOS) work in very different situations, but would be on anyone’s short list for “Best GM” given the numerous ways in which their organizations excel. Billy Beane (OAK) is still one of the top GMs in the game, despite the current rebuild. It’s easy to forget just how good the As were from 1999-2006 on a shoestring budget. It’s only been one full season and less than two off-seasons, but Jack “Jack Z.” Zduriencik (SEA) has vaulted himself into this conversation. As for a fifth member in this group… well, that’s tough. I’d like to put Brian Cashman (NYY) here, given his metamorphosis the last few years from the Yankees’ Tom Hagen into their Michael Corleone, but I’m trying to avoid too much controversy and people always get hung up on the budget. Mark Shapiro (CLE) would also be a good choice, but given Cleveland’s recently struggles, I can understand why some would object. Josh Byrnes (ARI) would be another good candidate, but if Shapiro doesn’t make it, neither should Byrnes. For #5 I’ll go with Doug Melvin (MIL), who does a good job of blending traditional and contemporary methods, but any of the other guys could make it. In no particular order: Friedman, Epstein, Beane, Zduriencik, and Melvin.

Best GMs Tally: AL 4, NL 1

The Worst: Oh boy… This was surprisingly (and depressingly) easy. In no particular order, the Frightful Five are: Dayton Moore (KCA), Omar Minaya (NYM), Ed Wade (HOU), Ned Colletti (LAN), and Brian Sabean (SFN). Seeing those names together gives “Murderer’s Row” a new meaning. I’ll pursue the increasingly uncanny Moore/Minaya dynamic at length some other time. Suffice it to say, no one would blink an eye if tomorrow Minaya lectured Mets fans about “trusting the process” while Dayton Moore held a press conference at which he accused Joe Posnanski of gunning for a player development position with the Royals. Ed Wade’s Brandon Lyon contract aside, his organization is sort of like the Royals except older and without the glimmers of hope in the minor leagues. Some may feel it is unfair to put Colletti on this list given his team’s success, but look at the cash he has (or, more accurately, had) at his disposal relative to his divisional rivals. Then there’s Colletti’s mentor, Brian Sabean… That I’m so impressed that he’s restrained himself from resigning Bengie Molina sort of says it all.

Worst GMs Tally: AL 1, NL 4

The NL only has one of the best GMs (and again, there were other candidates in the AL that could have taken his place), and all but one of the worst. One or two changes would not alter the overall point: front office excellence seems slant heavily toward the American League, and the opposite of excellence toward the National League. Neither the selections nor the “method” employed are definitive, but I do think there is something here.





Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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R y a n
12 years ago

I don’t want to come off like a jack*** here, but how could Jim Hendry be left off of the “Worst GM” list?! I’d put him in there instead of Colletti, I personally think Hendry is the worst GM in baseball.

And in the AL, I would put Cash instead of Melvin (thought I understand the not wanting controversy part). It isn’t just the money (though it certainly helps) – Cash has pulled off some really nice trades lately, the Nick Johnson/Andy Pettitte signing.

Just my opinion.

David MVP Eckstein
12 years ago
Reply to  Matt Klaassen

No really. Hendry needs to get fired…out of a cannon

The Boomer
12 years ago
Reply to  Matt Klaassen

I don’t know, I would have though Hendry was a no-brainer. Literally.

shawndgoldman
12 years ago
Reply to  Matt Klaassen

I’d say Hendry is an above-average GM. He’s done well for himself in trades, and was responsible for building up the Cubs farm system in the late 90’s into the #1 ranked system in baseball… most of those guys didn’t pan out, but he turned them into MLB talent in the form of Lee, Ramirez, Harden, and in the past Nomar and Lofton. He’s done a good job re-building that farm system, and it’s on the upswing. He has his weaknesses: too many restrictive long-term deals and a focus of middle relievers. But most of the people that think he’s amongst the worst GM will point to moves like his trade of DeRosa last offseason (a good move), the trading of Kerry Wood (again, somewhat prescient) and the signing of Bradley, which was a bit of a disaster.

Overall, he’s a good GM.

For more on Hendry, check out this post:
http://www.anothercubsblog.net/2010-articles/january/jim-hendry-trades.html

Darkstar
12 years ago
Reply to  Matt Klaassen

shawndgoldman,

Seriously? Two good trades in 2003. He was not responsible for building the system, he was a lap-boy for MacPhail and everyone else Andy had hired around him is what really built the system up. Since Hendry took over, he has added a whole lotta zilch to it (the most productive player drafted under Hendry’s watch has been Sean Marshall!)

And people dont just point to DeRosa/Bradley/Wood as his problems – people point to things like a new 3+ year contract to an OF every single season and the team constantly having a gigantic hole at one of the spots. 600+ MM in ballooning commitments given out from 06-09 to but a “winner” that went 0-6 in the two playoff spots it reached, and those ballooning contracts with their peak value height all coming together in the 2009-2011 seasons so the club has no financial flexibility over that time. That issue led to the stupid trades of Marquis and DeRosa, and ensured the team couldnt offer arbitration to guys like Wood or Harden because of the disaster their accepting would create on the payroll. Oh, and everyone and their mother gets a full no trade, so if we ever need to trade someone to clear payroll, we wont be able to. Not like we would anyway though, despite having no real shot at the playoffs last season Hendry somehow still refused to let the Twins give us prospects for Harden (and whatever team claimed Heilman! Why in the world didnt he at least trade Heilman!!!)

Hendry is a joke, plain and simple.

shawndgoldman
12 years ago
Reply to  Matt Klaassen

Matt,

I’m looking forward to your piece on Soriano! In my mind, that contract wasn’t /too/ afwul at the time. IIRC, I (and many others) knew it would be bad on the back end, but thought the value they’d get out of the front end would offset it. His rapid decline in 2009 makes the contract seem much worse at the moment. 8 figures for performance below replacement level is just horrendous. But there’s an open question as to how much of that falloff was due to injury he may yet recover from and how much was due to age that will continue to sap him of his power. And then there’s the question of how much his age will continue to lead to more injuries that will keep him from playing well, even if it was a recoverable injury that caused his falloff in 2009.

shawndgoldman
12 years ago
Reply to  Matt Klaassen

JoeyO,

You’re overestimating the importance of Hendry’s bad moves and underestimating the size of his good ones. Two good trades in 2003? That’s it? What about the trade for Nomar? What about the trade for Harden? What about the extensions of Lee and Ramirez, that have given the Cubs decent value so far? On the negative side, you criticized him for getting rid of DeRosa, Wood, and Marquis, even though the Cubs had serviceable replacements on the roster for those players that could play at a much lower cost. Plus, DeRosa’s value was probably at a peak when Hendry dealt him. He wasn’t the player in 2009 that he had been in the few years prior, and GM’s should be given credit for dealing players at that point, not criticized for it.

Yes, Hendry has made mistakes. He’s made good moves, as well. He’s not in the bottom-5 in the league. He’s not in the top-5, either. He’s average-ish. Maybe a little above average.

Darkstar
12 years ago
Reply to  Matt Klaassen

“Two good trades in 2003? That’s it? What about the trade for Nomar? What about the trade for Harden?”

Ok, so I should have said 3 good trades in 2003? And the Harden trade wasn’t that good of a trade. We were the only team interested in a pitcher that could no longer throw a slider without his arm falling off. Sure, he played well after the trade on his pitiful two-pitch arsenal but that’s it. And that good production seems to be from NL hitters expecting the pitcher written about in the scouting reports, but never seeing him twice they were unable to figure out in time that he was only a shell of himself. They figured it out by the start of the next season though! That resulted in him once again reintroducing the slider and subsequently missing the remainder of the season when the Cubs told him to stop using it a start or two too late.

And yes, I criticize him for getting rid of Marquis, Wood and DeRosa – but not for the reasons you give. 1st we didn’t have a replacement for DeRosa, Hendry went out and signed Aaron Miles to do that. (and don’t say Fontenot, everyone with half a brain knew he was going to tank). We also didn’t have an internal option for Wood and had to go out and trade a top-prospect for an unwanted Gregg making a small fortune to fill in for him. As far as Marquis, sure Wells eventually became the replacement but the plan was Marshall who was 2-5 with a 5.24 ERA and 1.446 WHIP in his 9 starts. Oh, and all those downgrades were made because Hendry had his back against the 130 spending limit and couldn’t afford his 5th new “star” OF in 4 years because of it so he had to trade contracts, replace them with lesser contracts for much lesser players and then blow his wad on 3 years to a Bradley that has never spend more then 2 in an organization before being run out of town.

Then yes, DeRosa’s value was at its high at the time of the trade – so what did Hendry get? 3 bullpen arms with horrific control problems. That’s the same thing he gets everytime he trades anyone, it seems to be all he knows. What did he trade Marquis for? And expensive reliever with horrific control problems! What did we trade the top prospect for? And expensive (forced into the role with poor results) closer with horrific control problems! What was the first contract given of 09? 2 year, 7.5 MM contract to mediocre reliever with horrible control problems…

“He’s made good moves, as well”

Since McPhail left in 2005, Hendry has made 3 good moves. 1, DeRosa signing. 2, Lilly signing. 3, hiring Wilken to correct the horrific drafting issues the organization has. Otherwise, everything has only been fair to downright pitiful. (with the occasional dumbluck move like Edmonds falling into his lap after being released from another club). In fact, do you realize that he has given out 87 years worth of contracts totaling 700 MM to only 32 players since Jan, 2005? That is an average of 8 MM cost per season of commitment, and an average player contract of 2.7 years at 22 MM!