#6 — John Schuerholz

This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history.  For an explanation, please see this post.

Schuerholz

John Schuerholz spent 26 seasons as a big league GM, winning 16 division titles, six pennants and two World Series. In Kansas City he oversaw that franchise’s only World Series. After moving to Atlanta he took over a team that had lost more than 90 games for four consecutive years and won the next 14 division titles (excepting the truncated 1994 strike season) and five pennants.  Schuerholz displayed an uncanny knack for retooling his team, knowing which holes could be filled by integrating prospects and which needed outside solutions.

A Baltimore native, Schuerholz left his junior high school teaching position to join the Orioles front office in 1966. Two years later he became an administrative assistant with the expansion Royals and worked his way up to farm director in 1975, and Vice President of Player Personnel in 1979.  Finally, in October 1981 the Royals named him GM, promoting incumbent Joe Burke to president.

The Kansas City team he inherited had won the AL pennant in 1980, but slipped below .500 in the strike-shortened 1981 season.  In one of his first moves he hoped to fill a couple of needs for his mostly veteran team by swapping several young players for Vida Blue and outfielder Jerry Martin. The team rebounded to 90 wins in 1982, but Blue and Martin proved a distraction in 1983, as a cocaine investigation dogged them and other players.  After the season those two, along with stars Willie Wilson and Willie Mays Aikens, pleaded guilty and were sentenced to three months in prison.

Rather than try to rebuild his aging rotation with veterans, in 1984 Schuerholz introduced a trio of young starters: Bret Saberhagen (20), Mark Gubicza (21), and Danny Jackson (22).  For 1985 he acquired veteran catcher Jim Sundberg to help his young staff acclimate, and in conjunction with offensive mainstays George Brett, Frank White, Willie Wilson, Steve Balboni and Lonnie Smith (the last two great trade acquisitions by Schuerholz), Kansas City won the franchise’s first and so far only World Series.

Over the remainder of the 1980s, the Royals remained at the margin of the division race but could not capture another title.  The team made some astute draft picks, such as Bo Jackson, but Schuerholz also made what he considered his worst deal, swapping David Cone for Ed Hearn, and some suspect free agent signings towards the end of the decade.  By this time the Royals executive suite was becoming a little unwieldy; the two owners were not in complete agreement, and Burke remained tangentially involved as well.

In October 1990 Schuerholz joined the Atlanta Braves as GM with full authority over baseball operations.  He inherited a franchise coming off a last place finish that had not been relevant for some time.  Nevertheless, the team had a solid core of young pitchers: John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery, plus outfielders Ron Gant and David Justice.  As he had back in Kansas City, Schuerholz went to work to support his young hurlers, acquiring four solid defensive players: Sid Bream, Rafael Belliard, Terry Pendleton, and Otis Nixon.  Pendleton had a great hitting season and won the league MVP, and the Braves won their first pennant since 1958 before losing in the World Series.  With pretty much the same line up the team captured the flag the next year but again fell short in the World Series.

Schuerholz was not typically a participant in the big name free agent auctions, but prior to the 1993 season, the Braves rocked the baseball world by signing free-agent Greg Maddux, the 26-year-old ace of the Chicago Cubs, to bolster a pitching staff that was already the envy of the league.  Maddux responded with the second of his four straight Cy Young awards.

The Braves could not have maintained their success for a decade without a continual influx of talent.  The team that won the World Series in 1995 was much different than the one that had lost four years earlier: five of the eight position players, two starting pitchers, most of the bench and all of the bullpen had turned over.  When the Braves lost the World Series in 1999, five of the eight position players, two starters, and all of the bench and bullpen were different from the champions of 1995.

Schuerholz made several impressive trades to keep his team competitive, but more importantly he continually addressed aging and ineffective players with internal solutions (if available) as opposed trading his prospects for aging veterans. Good teams are often reluctant to give significant roles to untested players.  The Braves of the early 1990s had several veteran journeymen that needed replacing within a few years.  What set the Braves apart from other great teams of the past generation is their willingness to give regular roles to the jewels of their farm system.  When Terry Pendleton or Ron Gant needed replacing, Schuerholz did not trade his young talent for veteran solutions.  In 1994 the Braves gave starting positions to Javy Lopez and Ryan Klesko, and within two years both Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones were key players.  Later still, Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles and Adam LaRoche claimed jobs.

Schuerholz often liked to note that the Braves on average turned over ten players on their roster every year.  “One of the key responsibilities we have as general managers is managing change effectively,” he said.  “I think it’s true in any business.  We exist in an environment where change occurs in a bizarre fashion at a bizarre pace.  We have to keep our antennas up and keep our minds open.  We have to understand that change in inevitable, especially in our business, where we rely on human beings to perform physically, and we have to be able to manage the changes that are required in an effective manner.”

A comparison to the Cleveland Indians of the 1990s under general manager John Hart (now Schuerholz’s GM in Atlanta) is instructive.  Hart built a great team in Cleveland that blossomed in 1994-96, but as holes emerged he seemed reluctant to fill them from within the organization.  Over the next few years he dealt such players as Sean Casey, Danny Graves, Jeromy Burnitz, Albie Lopez, Brian Giles, and Richie Sexon, often acquiring a veteran player who proved less productive than a possible internal solution.

One of the reasons the Braves magnificent run eventually ended is because the farm system could not continue to produce stars the way it had in the mid-1990s, putting additional pressure on Schuerholz’s trades and free agent signings. Nevertheless, even in 2002 and 2003, twelve years after Schuerholz’s first division title the team was still winning 101 games a year.

After the 2007 season Schuerholz was named team president, and he promoted Frank Wren to GM.  After a few mediocre years, the Braves returned to the postseason in 2010, making it again in 2012 and 2013.  After missing the playoffs in 2014 Schuerholz dismissed Wren and made Hart the GM.

The Atlanta Braves from 1991 to 2005 enjoyed one of the most impressive runs of success by a franchise in baseball history.  The team has been underrated because they navigated through the post-season unscathed only once, but Schuerholz’s maneuvering that kept this team at the top for fourteen years is truly remarkable. When added to his legacy in Kansas City, Schuerholz clearly merits a ranking among the best ten general managers ever.

— Dan

(We invite your comments below.)

To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.

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7 thoughts on “#6 — John Schuerholz

  1. Arguably, the single most overrated GM in history. He did not build the winning team in KC. He largely inherited it, and then proceeded to make some of the worst trades in franchise history. As for Atlanta, he came on board after Bobby Cox and Paul Snyder had already assembled the core of the team. Yes, Bream, Pendleton, Nixon and Belliard were deeply astute signings, and yes, getting Fred McGriff was a steal of a deal. But never forget that Chipper Jones as already in place, as were so many of the young players that would continue to fuel the Braves’ pipeline for the balance of the decade. What’s more, he made some deals, trading away young players like Adam Wainwright, Jermaine Dye and the four real prospects he sent to Texas for roughly a year of Teixeira were beyond deplorable. Given in two of those cases, he was trading for a Scott Boras client, they were insane. In fact, those deals almost make his David Cone for Ed Heard trade seem downright logical. The guy has been riding coattails for years, and all you have to do is ask real Royal fans and real Brave fans (whose knowledge goes beyond the headlines and extends into the low minor leagues) to discover just how fortunate JS and his reputation have been. The guy wasn’t as bad as, say, Randy Smith or Bill Bavasi, but to put him in the company of Dave Dombrowski and some of the guys at the top of this list is an insult to those titans of the game.

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    • Some good points, but not true about Chipper. He was drafted in 1990, after JS took over. However, getting Chipper was an incredible stroke of fortune. The Braves, having finished last, has the first pick and wanted to take Todd Van Poppel. The story is that Van Poppel told the Braves he would not sign with them; as a result, they passed on him and took Chipper, with obvious consequences. So, at least in that regard, the Braves (and JS) were more lucky than astute.

      Another point is that, while the Braves were never the big spenders that the Yankees were, they had a lot of resources in those early years; Ted Turner was flush because CNN was taking off and they were able to be one of the larger payroll teams in baseball. (They also got lucky, again, in that Maddux-even though a Borasl client, turned down more money, apparently, from the Yankees because he didn’t want to play there. ) But, even though the Braves weren’t huge players in free agency, they had sufficient resources to keep Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz together for ten years; very few teams could have afforded to do that and I guarantee that would not happen today under Liberty Media. Clearly, it was easier to be a GM in Atlanta in those days than it would be in KC.

      I’m not sure, though, that I would call JS so overrated; he still had to make the deals and he had to hire the guys that produced players through the farm systems. And, at least with the Braves-I can’t speak to the Royals- most of his deals were pretty astute; you cite Wainwright and Dye, but I could probably name a dozen deals where he traded supposedly top pitching prospects for players and you never heard of the prospects again. For example, people forget that the Braves were more than a Big 3; initially Steve Avery was almost as good as the others; when he hurt his arm, JS was able to get Denny Neagle when he as at the top of his game, for peanuts. Neagle had a couple of very good years with the Braves. Granted, it was easier to squeeze teams like the Pirates in those days, but most of JS’s deals were good. Even the Wainwright deal, while bad in retrospect, was not seen as so bad at the time. It was not clear that Wainwright would be more than a reliever and I believe he had had some injuries in the minors. JS traded him for JD Drew, who had his best year in the major-an almost MVP-caliber year, and the Braves would not have won the division without him. Obviously, looking back, they would have been better off keeping Wainwright but every GM will have some blemishes on his record. And Jermaine Dye, while he had a nice career, was hardly a difference maker.

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      • A few things: You should check your facts. Yes, JS was hired in 1990. But he was hired immediately after the season. Bobby Cox took over the team that year after he fired Russ Nixon, but the June draft of 1990 (and I know all about the Van Poppel backstage father story) was held while Cox was both managing the club and still acting as its GM.

        Also, make no mistake, Denny Neagle did not come for “peanuts.” Jason Schmidt, just like Kevin Millwood, was an absolutely electric arm and a stunningly talented pitcher that, just like with Cone, Wainwright, Danny Jackson, and others, JS traded away over the course of his career, often for the “peanuts” you refer to. In fact, had Schmidt not hurt his shoulder, there’s a good chance he may have been twice the pitcher Neagle — admittedly, no slouch — would have become. The kid had Cy Young written all over him. Just look at the year he had before he hurt his arm with Pittsburgh. He was utterly dominant with an otherwise bad ballclub.

        Finally, Jermaine Dye was infinitely better — even as a raw and unfinished piece — than Michael Tucker and Keith Lockhart were ever going to be. Ever. The fact he went on to hit 300 HR in his career and won a World Series MVP was really beside the point. Michael Tucker never had that level of potential. Everyone knew it then, but apparently JS. It was than, as it is today, an example of horribly bad judgement.

        And to your point on Drew. At the time of his deal from St. Louis, had never played a full season without being hurt. He was a Scott Boras client. And at that time he had already developed (as it turns out a well-earned) reputation for being as a player who never really engaged with his teammates, who almost seemed to be playing in a vacuum at time (and in fact only played when he felt 100%), and who always left an organization wanting much, much more. Yet, even with that body of knowledge, JS determined one year of Drew was worth an Hall of Fame-caliber arm and hometown hero like Wainwright. The fact he had an MVP caliber season was not the point. The point is JS traded far more value than he received, regardless of performance. (And c’mon, you can’t argue that Dye’s eventual performance didn’t matter, and then defend the Wainwright deal based on Drew’s performance.)

        Look, I’m not trying to say he was a bad GM — though, truth be told, that would not be an untenable position. I’m just saying he was vastly overrated. And you can make case for the guy all you want. I lived and died watching him make bad decision after bad decision — and not bad in retrospect, but like the Teixeira deal, bad at the time they were made. And yes, he had incredible talent evaluators around him, and he deserves some level of credit for that. But never forget, the two greatest and more important of all those evaluators, Bobby Cox and Paul Snyder, had been there and were laying the foundation for that 14-year run of excellence long before he ever showed up.

        And BTW, for what it’s worth, what few people realize is that when the Braves — clearly panicking when it became evident that Teixeira was not going to sign with them and was going to become a free agent, decided to flip him to the Angels for, of all people, Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek — while it was Wren who made that deal, JS clearly had to sign off on it. The sheer stupidity, of course, is that at the time (by MLB rules, which have since been revised) a player dealt during the season who became a free agent after that season entitled the team losing him to a compensatory draft pick. JS (and Wren) apparently felt they’d rather have two journeymen roster fillers than a first round sandwich draft pick. I say “stupid because” as few Brave fans still seem to grasp, the player the Angels picked with the draft choice they gained for having lost Teixeira was Mike Trout.

        Thanks, JS. Yet another example of baseball impeccable baseball insight.

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      • One of the more interesting parts of our research was discovering that almost every baseball fan hates their GM, and generally thinks that they themselves could do a better job. This is true of virtually every team. Theo Epstein actually mentioned this once, not really complaining, just saying it came with the territory.

        The idea that a GM could made the post-season 14 years in a row, with the best record in league several times, sign one of the best pitchers ever when he already had the best staff (luck), made one of very best trades of 1990s to get McGriff in the pennant race (luck), let veterans go to make room for star youngsters several times (no, that was Cox), create an atmosphere that eliminated drama and caused people to want to play for team (Cox), make deal after deal that were the envy of all of baseball (he made bad trades too!), the idea that this guy is not a Hall of Fame GM is hardly worth discussing.

        The team was a perennial last place team when he got there. You want to give Cox and Snyder credit for the young core he inherited, fine. But that’s still not a .500 team at best without JS’s moves, and, sorry, but that arguments goes away by 1993, let alone a decade later.

        I can think of 29 other teams that wish they had a GM so lucky as that.

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