When the Seattle Mariners fired general manager Jack Zduriencik in August and embarked on the task of hiring his replacement, team president Kevin Mather called the MLB commissioner's office for input on potential candidates who might be worth interviewing. This is a customary procedure among clubs that want a head start on the executive hiring process.
"One of their questions was, 'We're assuming you're looking for a younger, analytic guru, computer nerd type,'" Mather said. "I paused, and they said, 'Well, everybody else is asking.'"
Mather, who is known for his dry sense of humor, was joking about the exchange. But the imaginary encounter appears to have mirrored the experience of at least one MLB competitor.
The Milwaukee Brewers became the first team with a general manager vacancy to spring into action when they hired former Houston Astros assistant GM David Stearns to replace Doug Melvin, who is moving into an advisory role. To the folks who worked alongside Stearns in Houston, it's both dismissive and inaccurate to brand him as a computer nerd. One colleague describes Stearns as a "fantastic communicator" with the ability to blend the analytical and scouting ends of the operation and articulate a vision to help the Brewers compete in the demanding National League Central.
Stearns just happens to be 30 years old and a Harvard graduate, which makes him: (1) easy to label; and (2) the baby-faced embodiment of the next generation of baseball executive.
As the Mariners, Boston Red Sox, Philadelphia Phillies and Los Angeles Angels also proceed with their GM searches (and the Miami Marlins determine precisely where they're headed as they prepare to move manager Dan Jennings back to the front office), Stearns isn't the only wunderkind dominating the industry buzz.
Progressive, millennial candidates abound in daily speculation. Billy Eppler, the New York Yankees' assistant GM, is a hot commodity these days, while Boston's Mike Hazen, Oakland's Dan Kantrovitz, Tampa Bay's Chaim Bloom and the Angels' Matt Klentak have emerged as names to watch. Eppler, who recently turned 40, is the resident geezer in the group.
Even the outliers hardly qualify as "grizzled." Jerry Dipoto, a GM candidate in Seattle and possibly Philadelphia, is 47 years old and spent eight years in the majors as a relief pitcher. But he's also a strong advocate of analytics and the role they play in roster-building.
As front-office hierarchies skew younger, some more established names are less prominent in the conversation. The list includes Ned Colletti, who guided the Los Angeles Dodgers to five playoff berths in nine seasons before moving to a role as a senior adviser last fall, and Frank Wren, whose Atlanta teams averaged 91 wins over a five-year span despite moderate payrolls. Larry Beinfest won a World Series with the Marlins in 2003, but hasn't worked for a club in nearly two years. Erstwhile big league GMs Jim Hendry, Kevin Towers and Wayne Krivsky are all with teams in scouting and/or advisory capacities, and longtime Colorado Rockies executive Dan O'Dowd is now an analyst with the MLB Network.
It's fashionable to characterize MLB's old-guard general managers as "dinosaurs," but their portfolios look more impressive with the benefit of hindsight. Colletti laid the groundwork for a Dodgers team that's about to clinch its third straight NL West title. And Omar Minaya, who went to work for the Major League Baseball Players Association in January, assembled much of the roster that will likely produce the New York Mets' first postseason berth since 2006.
It's hard to drum up much sympathy for a return to the Old Boys' Club. But some observers wonder if the pendulum is swinging too far away from executives with lengthy track records.
"To see such a dramatic shift away from what most would suggest are baseball people is a head scratcher to me," said one MLB official. "Everything in moderation makes sense. I'm not going to sit here and suggest that sabermetrics or some form of it doesn't have value. But it has more value if you take it combined with baseball people and then make an educated decision. There are a lot of good baseball people sitting at home and a lot of kids fresh out of college that seem to be making a lot of baseball decisions."
The changing dynamic says a lot about the cyclical nature of baseball and the complexities of the modern-day front office. New-age thinking has taken the lead over old-school ball as the way to go. But the tug-of-war continues to play out in résumés sitting on desks throughout the game.
The general manager position has changed a lot since the "good old days," and some stories seem awfully quaint in hindsight. Longtime Yankees executive George Weiss squeezed a nickel so hard it cried out in anguish, and former Big Red Machine architect Bob Howsam made sure that Cincinnati's scouts drove nice rental cars and had them washed regularly to make a positive impression. Frank Cashen signed on as an ad man at Jerry Hoffberger's Baltimore brewery before building powerhouse teams with the Orioles and Mets. Like Fred Claire and Ned Colletti, Cashen broke in as a sportswriter, of all things.
The GM of yore was a jack-of-all-trades -- and destined to become obsolete over time. With the exception of Terry Ryan's Minnesota Twins and a few other teams, the mom-and-pop front office is as antiquated as relying on fielding percentage as a gauge of a team's defensive prowess.
"The key part of the general manager's job now is the 'manager' part. Look at the Red Sox's media guide, and there are 35 or 40 people in the baseball operations side of the business. It wasn't that long ago that it was like three people," said Mark Armour, co-author of "In Pursuit of Pennants: Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball."
When Andrew Friedman left Wall Street to run the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Cornell grad Jon Daniels took over the baseball operations in Texas in 2006, they were both 28 years old. Nearly a decade later, that youthful energy has become almost a prerequisite for survival. The modern-day baseball executive is besieged by texts and emails, agent phone calls, media inquiries and tweets, while simultaneously keeping ownership in the loop and monitoring the progress of minor leaguers in the pipeline. Other than the week between Christmas and New Year's Day, breaks in the schedule are nonexistent.
In the modern baseball world, you need a scorecard to keep track of the front-office players. Dodgers president Stan Kasten, who presided over 14 division title winners in Atlanta with John Schuerholz as his GM, lured Friedman away from Tampa Bay to replace Colletti last fall. The Los Angeles front office is now so jam-packed with talent, the team is running out of job titles. Farhan Zaidi is officially the general manager, while Josh Byrnes, formerly the GM in Arizona and San Diego, is heavily immersed in operations as one of five senior vice presidents.
Front offices have grown in part because of the deluge of information they need to process. Analytics departments play a pivotal role in everything from player acquisitions to compiling medical information, and expenditures need to be allocated shrewdly among the free-agent market, the first-year player draft and the international market.
"Over the last 10 years or so, there's been a tremendous influx of new information that you have to manage," Kasten said. "In addition to keeping track of all your players, coaches and scouts, there's all this new information for every single one of them, so there's a need for more specialization and division of labor than there's ever been.
"It's just growing, and whatever it is now, it's going to be more in five or 10 years. There's clearly a need for more people and systems and hardware and more analysts. Even if you don't like it, your competitors are using it and you're going to fall behind if you don't."
"Over the last 10 years or so, there's been a tremendous influx of new information that you have to manage. In addition to keeping track of all your players, coaches and scouts, there's all this new information for every single one of them, so there's a need for more specialization and division of labor than there's ever been."Stan Kasten, Dodgers team president
Even the nomenclature has a different meaning than it did 10 or 20 years ago. About a dozen teams now have a president of baseball operations, or someone with a similar title, who charts the long-term course while the general manager serves as a de facto assistant. Think of the Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer tandem in Chicago, or Tony La Russa and Dave Stewart in Arizona. Toronto's Mark Shapiro, Boston's David Dombrowski and Philadelphia's Andy MacPhail are all seasoned executives who have taken new jobs above the GM level in 2015.
Given the financial stakes, it's only natural that owners are more involved in decision-making. When Guggenheim Baseball Management buys the Dodgers for $2.15 billion, the team's TV deal is worth $7 billion and the 2015 Opening Day payroll exceeds $270 million, rest assured that decisions of any magnitude are going to involve the corporate suits.
The emphasis on analytics appeals to many owners because it parallels their personal business orientations. Ownership groups might not relate to the concept of Jonny Gomes' value as a clubhouse leader and a "gamer," but it's easy to embrace Mike Trout's 7.0 wins above replacement and the value he brings to Angels sponsors and season-ticket holders as a marquee name.
"When you talk to owners in data language, they understand it because the businesses they're in are data-driven," said an MLB executive. "Owners are also more involved in the baseball operations end than they ever were before, so they'll react to stuff in the media. They'll see something on the MLB Trade Rumors site and call you and say, 'Why didn't we know about this?' If you work for Arte Moreno, you better be ready for him to call you six or eight times a day."
Calling all candidates
Ask scouts, executives or media members for their thoughts on who's best equipped to run a franchise, and you'll get dozens of recommendations and friendly suggestions.
Maybe it's an assistant general manager who serves as the main lieutenant to the man in charge. Texas' Thad Levine, Atlanta's John Coppolella, Kansas City's J.J. Picollo, Seattle's Jeff Kingston, Cleveland's Mike Chernoff, Toronto's Tony LaCava, the Mets' John Ricco, St. Louis' Mike Girsch, Arizona's Bryan Minniti, and Washington's Bob Miller and Doug Harris all fit that description. So does Oakland's David Forst, who is expected to ascend to the GM role when Bill Beane relinquishes that title for something more corporate-sounding.
San Francisco's John Barr, Cincinnati's Chris Buckley, the Yankees' Damon Oppenheimer and Miami's Jeff McAvoy are among the talent evaluators who have strong advocates in the scouting community. And MLB is constantly on the lookout for minority candidates to advance the cause of diversity. Kim Ng and Peter Woodfork, skilled executives with sterling reputations in the game, both work in the commissioner's office at 245 Park Avenue.
Somewhere, an ownership group is trying to unearth the next David Stearns who might be flying below the radar. Maybe it's the Cubs' Jason McLeod, who has helped nurture lots of talented prospects in the Boston and Chicago systems. Or Mets director of baseball operations Adam Fisher, a Harvard grad with an attractive blend of scouting and analytical acumen.
San Francisco Giants insiders speak glowingly of vice president Jeremy Shelley, who has been an integral part of three title teams. According to his media guide bio, Shelley oversees pro scouting at the major league and minor league levels. He is involved in player acquisitions, arbitration preparation and contract research, while providing support in statistical analysis and international operations. Shelley doesn't prepare the clubhouse food spread, but probably would if the Giants asked.
"He's a sleeper," said a Giants scout. "If you want to talk about honesty and sincerity and loyalty and work ethic, he's got it all."
Baseball's infatuation with young Ivy League-types obscures one harsh reality: Each new general manager needs a learning curve and is destined to face obstacles the average fan can't comprehend. In Los Angeles, Colletti kept the Dodgers on an even keel amid the Frank and Jamie McCourt divorce insanity. Beinfest assembled competitive teams with negligible payrolls under the notoriously impetuous Jeffrey Loria in Miami, and Hendry dealt with some major dysfunction in Chicago under Tribune Company ownership. Think they didn't have their hands full?
Kasten thinks baseball will always have a place for seasoned executives who understand the value of team-building, delegating authority and keeping an eye on the big picture.
"I'm sure Ned Colletti and Josh Byrnes will both be general managers again," Kasten said. "They've proven what they can do. If you go with someone who's doing this for the first time, you're taking quite a gamble. You never know how he's going to manage the pressure, or manage talking to the manager and coaches and the media."
In Philadelphia, MacPhail has vowed to be open-minded in his search and focus on the best person rather than a specific "type" of candidate. But if MacPhail ultimately decides on a number-cruncher, that person better understand the value of scouting. And vice versa.
Not long ago, Brian Sabean bashers dismissed him as a relic who was destined to be overshadowed by Billy Beane across the Bay. The Giants have won three World Series since 2010 in large part because of continuity and loyalty -- concepts that generally fall by the wayside these days -- under the steady leadership of Sabean.
"Fifteen years ago, a lot of people thought Sabean was this old-school guy who would never be able to adapt," said Armour. "After 'Moneyball,' the game had supposedly passed him by. Now you look at the Giants, and they're this well-oiled machine of people who are all pulling on the oars the same way. Even if Sabean isn't the guy commissioning the sabermetric studies or looking at the video data, he has people that do it. And he listens to them."
In the coming years, David Stearns might prove to be the savior for baseball in Milwaukee. But Brewers fans who expect his every move to be inspired and his transition to be hiccup-free are delusional.
"Knowledge in our game can be learned, but wisdom in our game can only be experienced," said O'Dowd. "And most wisdom comes through observation and failure. You can study and read all about it, but until you experience it, you'll never know how it feels."
Regardless of who sits in the hot seat, creating a winning culture in Major League Baseball is a challenge. And for computer nerds and traditionalists alike, one truism replies: Now more than ever, it takes a village.