The 2014 baseball season is over for all but the 10 clubs that made the playoffs. The remaining 20 teams and their fans can look ahead to next year. But before rosters are remade and games on the field begin, there will be a number of changes in MLB front offices.
Two clubs that failed to live up to expectations have already begun the process of change. The Arizona Diamondbacks fired General Manager Kevin Towers and Frank Wren was axed by the Atlanta Braves. Both the D’backs and Braves have identified successors, Dave Stewart in Phoenix and John Hart in Atlanta.
Stewart is a former standout pitcher with the Oakland A’s who went on to a successful career as an agent. Despite being a rookie GM, Stewart is unlikely to be any less successful than his predecessor, Kevin Towers, whose career in Arizona never approximated the success he enjoyed as GM of the San Diego Padres.
Hart enjoyed successful stints as the GM of the Texas Rangers and Cleveland Indians. While building the powerhouse Indians’ teams of the ‘90’s, Hart pioneered the use of early long-term extensions. The practice of buying out arbitration and free agent years gives young players the security of guaranteed money while saving the club tens-of-millions of dollars over the long haul. Today, nearly all small market clubs have imitated Hart’s model to some extent.
So if one club turns their fortunes over to a rookie and another recycles an old hand, what does that tell us about the ideal qualifications for a GM of a MLB team?
The first prerequisite, of course, is a vast knowledge of the game of baseball, both on and off the field. A GM’s primary responsibility is to put together a competitive ball club. Every GM is familiar with the sport, whether he played it well or not. Stewart played baseball at the highest level; Towers earned his repetition as a scout extraordinaire.
Love of the sport is also high on the list of prereqs, considering that the job of a GM is all consuming, 24/7, 365 days a year. There’s a reason why telecommunications companies created cell phone plans with unlimited minutes. A GM must always be available – to his staff, agents, the media, his team president and owner. A background in finance, law, public relations, politics and psychology would be of benefit as well. And don’t forget statistical analysis to stay abreast of the analytical trends in baseball.
A GM must negotiate contracts with agents, scout players, broker trades with fellow GMs, and be a leader – preferably of the transformational variety, one who is adept at ushering in change. After all, the job wouldn’t be his if things had been going well, i.e., the team was winning, before he was hired. Some new GMs take over a team when the cupboard is half-full, others inherit an empty vessel – a lack of talent at the major league level and a dearth of prospects in the minors.
If it sounds like an impossible job description to fill, you’re right. No one person can do it all, which leads to another qualification for the position: Someone who is able to identify and hire talented people who can complement his own skills. And once those people are hired, a GM must also delegate responsibilities to them and trust their judgment, no easy task, but necessary when you can’t do it all by yourself.
But let’s assume a GM has all the necessary traits to be successful. Ultimately he won’t be judged on his own strengths and performance or the performance of his associates. The team has to win on the field, where key injuries can derail the best laid plans. If his team wins, the GM receives the accolades and a contract extension. If his team loses, at least consistently, he’ll likely get fired. A GM, not unlike the manager in the dugout, is hired to be fired. The only question is when.
So for the fans of all the teams who elect to make changes in the front office this fall, enjoy the optimism. But be aware that the hiring of a new GM is not guaranteed to change the fortunes of your team. That will only come if the players perform.
(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor in the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com Jordan can be reached at email@example.com.)