|Saturday, December 28
Astros' Purpura burns to one day become a GM
By Rob Neyer
In a recent, decidedly non-scientific survey, Baseball America senior writer and ESPN.com contributor Alan Schwarz asked 41 baseball executives, "Who is the best GM candidate in the game?"
It's probably no surprise that Athletics assistant GM Paul DePodesta finished tied for first place, with six votes. Also garnering six votes was Mets assistant GM Jim Duquette, who while not a household name is fairly well-known for various reasons.
But right behind DePodesta, with five votes apiece, were a pair of relative unknowns: Astros assistant GM Tim Purpura and Phillies assistant GM Mike Arbuckle.
Who are Tim Purpura and Mike Arbuckle? That's what we wanted to know, and so this week we'll be running interviews with both men. Leading off is Purpura, who I interviewed via e-mail from Dec. 17 through 21.
Rob Neyer: Tim, you're regarded as one of the top GM candidates in the game, and yet somehow you seem to have kept a pretty low profile compared to some of the other top candidates. Have you wanted a low profile, or did it just sort of happen? And do you think it makes a difference as your career moves along?
Tim Purpura: I guess I really have never considered whether I was a "high-profile guy" or a "low-profile guy." I certainly have never tried to keep a low profile, so I guess it must have just evolved that way. I feel pretty confident that I have a good reputation in the game and among my peers (and that a number of other execs mentioned my name would seem to confirm that). I think maybe the fact that I work for a club in a rather small media market may have something to do with it, although I certainly know, and have good relationships with, our local media, as well as with many members of the national media.
In many ways what we have done here in Houston goes largely unnoticed nationally. That includes performances by our star players like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman, and the caliber of our scouting and development system, which we feel is among the best in the game.
I think we surprised a lot of people last year when we swept the Organization of the Year Awards given by all the major baseball publications. We have a pretty impressive record of winning and developing players without having the resources that other clubs have. Another reason may be the role I play in our organization. As you may or may not know, in addition to performing all the typical assistant GM duties, I am also the director of player development and spend a great deal of time performing those duties. So sometimes I may not be as visible to the national media as the others you noted. In addition, our approach here is to pretty much speak with one voice on many issues, and that voice is (GM) Gerry Hunsicker (as I think it should be).
As to the effect on my future, I don't necessarily think it will make a big difference to those in the game who do their research when hiring a general manager, although having a higher profile certainly wouldn't hurt. When I look at people like J.P. Ricciardi, who didn't have a real high profile going into his interview with Toronto, it gives me confidence that those doing the hiring will do their homework. I would hope that the work I have done in my career would speak for itself, and that I would be judged accordingly. I will admit that sometimes it is difficult to get doors to open for one to interview for a GM job, but I have been interviewed for a couple of positions already, and I would hope I'll get other opportunities in the near future. Obviously, there is a lot that goes into the hiring process for a GM, and there has to be a fit on both sides for the situation to work, but I feel confident in my abilities and I look forward to the day when I am given the opportunity to build an organization and win a World Championship.
Neyer: Well, since you mentioned that you've interviewed for positions as general manager with other clubs, that leads perfectly into my next question ... A few weeks ago, I talked to a number of GM's about what happens during interviews of prospective (field) managers. So let me ask you, what happens during an interview of a prospective general manager?
Purpura: It varies by club. One of the clubs I interviewed with had the candidates meet with a series of individuals: owner, club president, VP of business operations, etc. The other was a joint interview with the owner and the team president.
The interviews focused on questions regarding philosophies on scouting, player development, major-league roster composition, management skills and abilities, etc. There were a number of "what if" questions, which related mostly to management issues.
One interviewer asked me to compare his club to each club in the division as far as offense, defense, pitching, etc. An interesting approach. I was also asked what I would do to improve the club, which is a difficult question when, for example, you don't know the budget they might have in mind. But as far as the needs of the club, those areas are pretty obvious.
I was also asked to evaluate the current manager, coaches, and the farm and scouting systems, and talk about which individuals I would be interested in bringing into the organization in the various operational roles. I got a little nervous on this one when one interviewer started writing the names down. These were particularly difficult questions to answer since you only have an outsider's view of the organization and can't really accurately evaluate what is going on.
I guess the funniest circumstance I had in regards to an interview was one in which the owner told me that he was "hands-off" when it comes to baseball operations, and that the general manager would have the ultimate say in baseball decisions. Not two weeks after I did not get the job, I was on the road with our club in that city and the same owner, who was standing on the field watching BP, approached me to tell me that he would be interested in acquiring one of our outfielders. Maybe he had just recently decided to become "hands-on" ... but I doubt it!
Neyer: Just looking at your entry in the Astros media guide, one finds that you've been in charge of the organization's player development since 1997. That's pretty impressive, considering how many good players the Astros have developed over the last five years. Pitchers, especially. I know this is a lot to ask, but can you describe your philosophy of player development in a few sentences?
Purpura: Our core philosophy is that we are here to develop winning major-league players for the Houston Astros.
What we have tried to accomplish here is to set high standards for everything we do. We have high standards for the people we hire, we have high standards for the type of players we draft and sign, and we have high standards for how our players perform on the field and act off the field.
We have created a teaching plan for each of the basic areas of the game, offense, defense and pitching. We hire good instructors to implement the plans. We evaluate a player's strengths and weaknesses in those areas and communicate to the players very directly what our assessments are. We use our own internal statistical measures to emphasize the importance of the plans and how the plans are designed to help get a player to the big leagues.
We use the best resources we have, our managers, coaches and rovers to assess, evaluate and teach the Astros the way to play the game. We are obsessed with the details and playing the game the way it's meant to be played. One of our mottos, which was coined by Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, is Play hard or play elsewhere.
Neyer: But what about specific differences between the Astros and other organizations? For example, it's pretty well-known that for at least a few years, the Astros were basically the only club that wasn't afraid to draft right-handed pitchers who were not six feet tall.
Purpura: I think that our draft philosophy has been driven by two factors:
1. You can never have enough pitching.
2. Our position in the draft.
As to No. 1, we made a conscious decision in the drafts in the mid to late '90s to focus on pitching. We felt that we had a development program that would help almost any young pitcher, regardless of size, as long as they had arm strength.
As to No. 2, since we have usually been a first- or second-place club, our draft picks are near the bottom so we have to make sure that we focus on the players at that end of the draft. The scouts have done a tremendous job finding good arms and players at the lower levels of the draft. Player size is an issue for us, as it is for any club, but when you are drafting 26-29 in the first round, there aren't too many 6-foot-5 right-handed pitchers who throw 95 miles an hour.
So you have to do a better job projecting whether the six-footer who throws 92-94 in college or junior college will be able to sustain it once he starts throwing every five days (or more).
What I believe sets us apart is that to us, "make-up" is the sixth tool. We are obsessed with it. Our scouts are like private eyes when it comes to finding out what kind of person a player is. They conduct numerous interviews with the player, his coaches, his teammates, etc. to learn about a kid. Also, like many other teams we do use a standardized personality inventory. Mike Berger, who worked for us last year as a pro scout, told me that he had never been challenged on the makeup areas like he had been with us.
Neyer: With Jeff Kent in the fold, the Astros will have three potential Hall of Famers in the lineup next season ... but on the other hand, they're old potential Hall of Famers. Kent turns 35 next March, Bagwell turns 35 next May, and Biggio turned 37 last week. The Astros pitching staff is exceptionally young -- especially considering its quality -- but aside from Lance Berkman there aren't really any outstanding young hitters in the lineup. Does the farm system, which has produced so many impressive pitchers in the last few years, have any impressive hitters in the pipeline?
Purpura: As we look ahead, the following players would appear the closest to the Major Leagues. All have bat potential, although it might be a bit premature to list them with the Berkmans of the world ...
Jason Lane: Solid middle-of-the-order run producer with power. Good knowledge of the strike zone. Showed very well in a limited major-league look this past season. Plays all the outfield positions, average arm. Very highly desired player by other clubs. Great kid, great make-up.
John Buck: Future everyday major-league catcher. Good bat potential. Has shown power potential in the past, but not last season. Made the jump from low-A to Double-A last year because we didn't have a high-A team last year (that will be remedied this year with Salem in the Carolina League). A favorite of Tony Pena's while Tony was with us. Very good catch-and-throw guy with good game-calling ability.
Henri Stanley: Another example of the scouts we have doing their homework. A left-handed hitter with power to all fields. Aggressive hitter, outstanding runner, intense outfielder. Runs harder to first base than any other player in our system. Signed as a filler player from South Carolina, made the most of his early limited opportunities, got more opportunities, and this winter he was placed on the 40-man roster.
Tommy Whiteman: Outstanding shortstop prospect. Offensive potential is great. Makes good consistent contact, has power, has a big strike zone now, but as he matures we look for him to be an offensive shortstop with plus range, a plus arm and average speed.
Neyer: Not to bring up a bad memory or anything, but what about the one that got away? For all the good things that the Astros have accomplished since you've been with the organization, exposing Bobby Abreu in the expansion draft must still rankle just a bit. Was that a tough decision at the time?
Purpura: The decision to make Abreu draft-eligible was a difficult one, no doubt.
We had many internal discussions, we put together our individual draft lists a number of times, we tried to gauge the interests of other clubs, etc. What it came down to was that we all felt that (Richard) Hidalgo would end up with a greater overall skills resume than Abreu.
In particular, I think we missed on Abreu's power. We thought he would develop power, just not to the extent that he has. We knew Abreu's arm was probably stronger than Hidalgo's, although as far as accuracy, they were close.
We really felt that Hidalgo was your prototypical potential five-tool player as a center fielder. All his talent just flowed from him, and we all thought he was a can't-miss star. And while Hidalgo has demonstrated many of those tools, he hasn't come close to Abreu's consistency. We are hopeful that Richard will return to form this coming season, and if he does it would be a huge boost for us.
Also, Abreu at the time had a bit of red-ass in him that we worried might hold him back. In fact, the opposite has happened and that characteristic has probably helped him through the few dips he has had in his career.
Neyer: But did it have to be an either-or, either Hidalgo or Abreu. Granted, they were both outfielders with similar skills (as I remember them), but is there any reason you couldn't have protected both of them?
Purpura: I think it became an either/or proposition with the outfielders because, at that stage in our development, we were trying to hoard young pitchers. As I recall, we ended up protecting a Venezualan pitcher, Ramon Garcia, who we had taken in the prior season's Rule 5 draft. And he blew out his elbow the next spring. Not a very wise decision in hindsight, but that is what makes the expansion draft, as well as the Rule 5 draft, tough to handicap. You have to provide for the immediate needs of your club while balancing the future of players who are a long ways away.
Neyer: Tim, thanks a million for taking the time for this interview. It's been a real pleasure. I'd like to close with a question that people ask me all the time, but unfortunately I haven't the foggiest idea how to answer. So I'll ask you ... What's your advice to some bright college kid who desperately wants to someday become the general manager of a major-league baseball team? I know your career path was a bit unorthodox, but is there any good way for a young man (or woman) to prepare himself (or herself) for a career in baseball management?
Purpura: After they undergo a battery of psychological tests to figure out why they would want to do this, I would advise you tell them the following ...
First, they have to have a deep-seated love and appreciation for the game. Without that, the commitment, the hours, and the toll the game can extract wouldn't be worth it. Much like what you do, this isn't a job; it's a lifestyle.
Second, anyone trying to get into the game has to be persistent. In my office at home, I have a number of three-ring binders full of rejection letters I received from every major-league team. I call them my "humility files," because all I have to do is look at them to be reminded just how tough it is to get into this game, and then stay in it. To get into baseball, you have to be dogged in your pursuit. And to survive in baseball, you have to be a fierce competitor.
I really believe that that is why we are all in front-office work ... We can't compete on the field any more, so we compete in the manner in which we build our teams and our organizations. I can't stand missing out on a free agent we are pursuing, or even losing minor-league games. During the season I don't go to sleep very often without knowing how all of our teams did, from top to bottom.
I think spring-training internships, if you can get one, give you a pretty good idea of most aspects of baseball operations, with the exception of not being exposed to the amateur scouting arena. But in spring training you see it all, and if you can be a fly on the wall during the evaluation meetings it can be pretty educational. You see a lot of players, you meet a lot of seasoned baseball people, and you can pick their brains on evaluating and scouting. For me, the eye-opener when I was an intern with the Angels was seeing all the vast, non-baseball related BS that a farm director has to deal with.
It also would help if the person has wealthy parents or a trust fund, because the pay, relative to the hours spent, doesn't add up for a long time, and even then somebody could probably use their degree in a profession that pays more and has better job security ... But boy, is it great when you get the chance to feel that cold champagne on your head when you win!
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason.