Editor's note: This is the first in Jonah Keri's series of Q&As with top players and executives from the Cactus League.
Josh Byrnes spent more than a decade working his way up the ladder in the front offices of the Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies and Boston Red Sox. Under John Hart, he helped the Indians become one of the most successful teams of the 1990s. He then spent two years under Dan O'Dowd devising ways to battle Coors Field's altitude while planting the seeds for a farm system that would produce an NL pennant-winning team years later. In Boston, Byrnes served as assistant general manager under Theo Epstein, helping the Red Sox to their first World Series title in 86 years.
Hired by the Diamondbacks after the 2005 season to be their new general manager, Byrnes inherited one of the best crops of minor league talent in the game. A young core anchored by Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, Chris Young, Mark Reynolds and Justin Upton, one of baseball's best pitchers in Brandon Webb, a lights-out bullpen and key acquisitions such as Orlando Hudson and Eric Byrnes fueled a division title for the D-backs last season. Arizona's GM then pulled off a blockbuster offseason trade, acquiring Dan Haren from Oakland to co-anchor the pitching staff. For his efforts, Byrnes and team president Derrick Hall earned eight-year contract extensions, giving them more job security than any MLB employee except Alex Rodriguez.
Byrnes recently sat down to talk about long-term contracts, the role of luck in baseball and the challenge of developing young players and contending at the same time:
Jonah Keri: I have to start by asking you about the Haverford College connection, since my wife went there and I spent more time on your campus than my own when she and I were dating. Among Haverford alums in the game, there's you, [Rangers assistant GM] Thad Levine ...
Josh Byrnes: Ryan Isaac with the Padres, Jim Thompson's a scout with the Mets; on the agents side, Ron Shapiro [father of Indians GM Mark Shapiro], Arn Tellem ...
Keri: ... So what is it about that small school, or maybe smaller liberal arts schools in general, that might produce careers in Major League Baseball?
Byrnes: Well, there are all kinds of other schools represented in the game, too. Haverford's just a great school, though. From my perspective, Ron Shapiro was the biggest influence on the front end, not just with his great advice, but also in helping me get that first interview, when Cleveland hired me as an intern. I think these things can just snowball. One person gets a job, helps someone else out, and that person then helps others out.
Keri: Fifteen years later, you've got a division title to your credit as general manager, and you just got an eight-year contract extension. Taking you specifically out of the equation for a second, what does that kind of long-term deal for a GM do for a team?
Byrnes: It gives you continuity in how you do business, in your philosophies, and in having discipline when it comes to long-term considerations.
Keri: Knowing there's more job security attached, does that reduce the temptation to make deals that could sacrifice the future for the sake of a marginal short-term gain?
Byrnes: Any general manager would hopefully take himself out of that equation and would hopefully make the best decisions for the organization. Even coming in, we were doing things in 2006 and 2007 where we felt like those were years where we might have had a better chance to win. Market size figures in. In a lot of markets, there's a risk of being too short-term oriented, where if you make mistakes, you can't recover from them.
Teams that have been really successful, large market or small market, they tend to have quite a bit of stability, in the front office, with scouts, coaches, everyone. That's very valuable. The goal is to make the playoffs year after year. In the long view, it's taking advantage of times when you can be competitive and having the fortitude to plan for it.
Keri: Would you ever give a player an eight-year deal?
Byrnes: Maybe. The jobs are different. There's volatility in both cases and the job is demanding 12 months a year in both cases. By the same token, age profiling is obviously less relevant if you're not talking about a player.
Byrnes: I don't really want to comment on other teams' players. Our right fielder [Upton] would be a candidate, though.
Keri: Would you ever give a pitcher an eight-year contract?
Keri: Last year, the Diamondbacks won 90 games, even though you allowed more runs than you scored. Can teams consistently rise so far above their run differential? Is there a way to outperform your expected record other than through luck?
Byrnes: The rule still applies -- it's hard to dispute the fundamentals of run differential as a predictor of wins and losses. Last year, we would talk about this a lot, debating how much luck was involved. There were a lot of negative, blowout games, where runs were being scored that were of little consequence, to that game or to the season. When there'd be a 6-0 score, we'd joke that we'd lose 11-1 if we were down 6-0, and win 10-6 if we were up. Late in the season, we started having success. That's really when the debate started: What's a better predictor at that stage, won-lost record, or run differential? I think that a lot of it was that we had a good team. We led the Cactus League in wins, and we were .500 or better in all six months.
Keri: One theory which I subscribed to about the Diamondbacks last year was that Bob Melvin deserved a lot of credit for the team outperforming its expected record, in the way that he managed his bullpen. It seemed like he was always giving high-leverage innings to the team's best relievers -- Jose Valverde, Brandon Lyon, Tony Pena, Juan Cruz -- and very few of them to the bullpen's lesser pitchers.
He's pretty unique in terms of talent, mentality and maturity, the way he performed as a 19-year-old. One of his real strengths for a young hitter was his plate discipline.
--Josh Byrnes, about outfielder Justin Upton
Byrnes: A lot of that luxury of usage was because of the starting rotation throwing a lot of innings. That really allowed Bob to use the bullpen that way. There was a pretty clear definition of roles for when the team was ahead, tied or behind. We were able to maintain that over a long season pretty well.
Keri: Were you surprised or concerned that many of the team's top young hitters failed to match some of the projections that were out there?
Byrnes: In a lot of those cases, there were encouraging signs during the year. Chris Young's walk rates improved as the season went on. He had a great October, as did Stephen Drew and Justin Upton. And these guys helped us win games in other ways: defensively, on the bases, or with one high-end at-bat late in the game. It's funny. We were just talking today about how tough our road environment is, how we play a lot of games in big ballparks, how we only had one series in Philly and one in Cincinnati last year. We also have a lot of elite pitchers going against us in our division.
Then you have things like hitter's luck, batting average on balls in play. It seemed like the numbers didn't quite reflect the quality of Drew's season, for one. I would talk to scouts from other teams and they would say how shocked they were that his numbers were what they were, considering how well he was swinging the bat. Some things are undeniable and we do need to score more runs. But I feel like there were some unique circumstances last season.
Keri: Having said that, what does the club have Drew, Young and others working on to improve over last year?
Byrnes: That's ultimately up to the manager and coaches. We talk a lot during the season and in the offseason about benchmarks. That's one of the great things about working with Bob Melvin, [hitting coach] Rick Schu, [third base coach] Chip Hale, [bench coach] Kirk Gibson -- there's always good communication. When it comes to player improvement, some of it happens through evolution, some through instruction. I think our guys have a good feel for how to balance the two.
Keri: Last year Justin Upton came up to the big club at age 19. Sometimes bringing a talented young player up early can pay off, like it did with Ken Griffey Jr. Other times you can get something like what happened to Corey Patterson, where he was probably a little rushed and his career stalled a bit. What did you see as the pluses and minuses of bringing Upton up last year?
Byrnes: He's pretty unique in terms of talent, mentality and maturity, the way he performed as a 19-year-old. One of his real strengths for a young hitter was his plate discipline. Bringing him up to the majors without pretty good command of the strike zone would've been something we'd have guarded against. We felt his development would benefit from coming up. Just rattling off the pitchers he faced here, instead of in [Double-A] Mobile -- there's just no replicating that experience if he were in the minors.
Keri: What about the risk of starting the service time clock for a potential star player, especially for a mid-revenue team?
Byrnes: There's some consideration given. But if you'd asked us even 12 months ago, did we expect him to spend all of the 2008 season in the majors, we'd have said, "Probably." So it didn't shock us in terms of the overall planning structure.
Keri: The roof is usually kept closed at Chase Field until game time. That's supposed to be for the comfort of the fans. But when you talk to people in Texas for instance, there's some thought that players get tired over the course of the season because of the heat. Is there any thought given to the players on a hot day, when deciding whether or not to keep the roof closed?
Byrnes: It's really about fan comfort. I sit out in the fan bowl every night and I can tell you it makes a big difference. We never err on the side of excessive heat. We know what the temperatures are and we don't have games played where you're on the field and it feels like it's too hot. It works with baseball decisions, but not on purpose.
Keri: If you had a choice of playing in any type of park you wanted, pitcher's park, hitter's park or neutral, which one would you choose?
Byrnes: Pitcher's park. The hardest thing to do is find guys to throw 1,400 or so innings. Depth, defense, advance scouting, health, all of that and more goes into building a pitching staff, into getting all those outs you need to record over the course of a season. The stability of the pitching staff -- when you can gear your innings toward the right guys, starters and relievers -- that's easier to do in a pitching environment.
Keri: Last year you signed Eric Byrnes to a three-year, $30 million contract extension. Byrnes will be in his mid-30s by the end of the deal, and offensively he's about a league-average corner outfielder right now. You also had Carlos Quentin and Carlos Gonzalez in the organization at the time, waiting in the wings. How much of the decision to sign Byrnes was because of his popularity with the fans, or other off-field factors?
Byrnes: A couple of things about him as a player. Even if you think he's just average offensively, there are major pluses on defense and with his baserunning that overall make him a very good player. Not to discount some of the fan identification issues, but we really looked at it like this: At the time, we felt like Upton would be ready to play in 2008. With Quentin the debate was, would we be better off with him and $10 million of spending room, or with Byrnes plus the trade value of Quentin? In this market it was difficult to predict, but it was at least a fair debate. Also, in a lineup that at times was struggling, Byrnes gave us a bit more certainty of performance. What he and Hudson did in the first half while the young guys struggled helped us survive.
Keri: When you traded for Haren, was it a case of saying, 'We need to improve the team, let's see what we can do,' 'We need to acquire a front-line starting pitcher,' or 'We need to get Dan Haren?'
Byrnes: Kind of all of the above. We felt our position players were stable for the next few years. We liked our potential in terms of offense, defense and baserunning. Livan Hernandez was the only one with free agent rights and we had some young pitchers coming. But when we looked at our rotation, we figured if we could improve, we should try to make a move. Factoring in issues of age, cost and ability of the pitcher, to us Dan Haren was the No. 1 goal of the offseason. We gave up a lot to get him, but I think he's going to fit in very well for us.
Keri: How's Randy Johnson looking? What's his timetable?
Byrnes: He's looking really good. When we decided to do the surgery in early August, one of our goals was to get him to spring training. He's thrown some bullpen sessions, he looked great [Thursday]. We'll be smart about not asking him to do some of the extra things that pitchers can do. Right now, eyeballing it, he's about where everyone needs to be. He's not at midseason game velocity, but no one is right now. But last year he was the same Randy Johnson, still at 91 to 96. We feel like he'll do that again this season.