#7 — Buzzie Bavasi

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.

Buzzie Bavasi and Walter O’Malley

Buzzie Bavasi masterfully presided over a Dodger team that won eight pennants (plus twice lost pennant playoffs) and four World Series titles.  He was an organization man in an unparalleled organization, filled with talented men like owner Walter O’Malley, farm director Fresco Thompson, scouting director Al Campanis, manager Walter Alston, the game’s best scouts and instructors and many of its best players.  But O’Malley hired Bavasi to run the Dodgers and generally left him alone to do so for 18 years.  He would not regret it. “[Bavasi] learned [baseball] under Larry MacPhail and Branch Rickey,” Jim Murray once wrote. “That was like learning war under Genghis Kahn and Machiavelli. And Bavasi never knew what it was to work under a dilettante owner, some millionaire who wanted a ball club instead of a yacht.”

Bavasi grew up in a wealthy family in Scarsdale, earned a business degree from DePauw University, and took a job working for MacPhail in 1939.  He spent the next decade (save for two years in the army) working in the Dodger system, eventually running their Triple-A club in Montreal.  After the 1950 season, Rickey (who had taken over the team in 1942) left the Dodgers for the Pirates, and O’Malley (now in complete control) made Bavasi the new general manager (though he did not get that title for several years).

Rickey left behind a great team, a group that would win four pennants in Bavasi’s first six years — Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Don Newcombe, Gil Hodges and others — players who would later be known as “The Boys of Summer.”  Bavasi did not have to add core players, but he did quite a bit of maintenance to keep the team running at peak performance.  He acquired Andy Pafko during the 1951 season, which ended with a playoff loss to the Giants.  The same year he purchased Joe Black and Jim Gilliam from the Baltimore Elite Giants — Black gave them one great year, and Gilliam a decade of solid play.

After the 1953 season, Bavasi hired manager Walter Alston, who filled the position for 23 years.  Having lost World Series in 1952 and 1953, Brooklyn finally won its first (and only) title in 1955, led by heroes (and recent signees) Sandy Amoros and Johnny Podres.  The next year Bavasi acquired Sal Maglie in May, and Maglie finished 13-5 with a 2.87 ERA and helped get them back to the Series again.

After the 1957 season the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, a move which also acts as a useful historical divide for the team and for Bavasi.  While it is fair to consider Bavasi the capable caretaker of Branch Rickey’s old team in Brooklyn, that is no longer true by the late 1950s.  All of the old “Boys of Summer” were gone or fading, and the team’s continued success in LA should be credited to Bavasi and his organization, and to a masterfully rebuilt team.

The new Dodgers including Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Tommy Davis, signed while the team was still in Brooklyn, but the Dodger scouts (and O’Malley’s bankroll) really went to work once they relocated to LA, landing Ron Fairly, Willie Davis, Frank Howard and more.  The 1959 Dodgers won a surprising championship with a blend of the past, future, and a few short term solutions, though without star performances.  For his efforts Bavasi took home the Executive of the Year award, but he did not rest on his success — by 1961 Howard, Fairly and both Davises had joined the lineup.

From 1962 through 1966 the Dodgers won three pennants (losing a playoff for another), and two World Series.  The key to most of these teams were the power pitching of Koufax and Drysdale, and a good offense led by the young players, plus Maury Wills, who also joined the lineup in 1960.  It was a remarkable team, and no one deserves more credit for it than Buzzie Bavasi.  One man who appreciated him was his boss.  “The wheels are always turning in Buzzie’s head,” O’Malley once said. “He’ll work for you 24 hours a day. This is because the man doesn’t sleep.”

As good as the Dodgers were, Bavasi is perhaps underappreciated because he made fewer trades than his contemporaries. “Why play poker,” he said, “when you’re the only one in the game with any money?”  The Dodgers developed their own talent, and Bavasi was rarely called upon to find more.   In fact, several times every year Bavasi sold players to other teams, and his trades usually included cash sent his way.  This income, often well over $100K per year, was reinvested in the organization.

After 18 years as GM, Bavasi longed to get into ownership, which in 1968 caused him to buy into the new San Diego franchise and take control as president and GM.  This proved to be a mistake.  The principal owner of the Padres, C. Arnoldt Smith, a multimillionaire businessman and close friend of President Nixon, was immediately beset with financial difficulties — including the collapse of his United States National Bank, at the time the largest bank failure in US history.  Smith later spent time in prison for embezzlement.

For the first four years Bavasi had to run a team with no money.  In late 1972 Bavasi turned the GM duties over to his son, Peter, while remaining as president.  In 1974 Smith, facing financial and legal problems, sold the Padres to Ray Kroc, and the team began to improve.  Dave Winfield, drafted in 1973, joined the lineup immediately and became their best player.  Randy Jones was a star pitcher for a couple of years.  Kroc was willing to spend money — Buzzie was apparently the high bidder before Catfish Hunter signed with the Yankees as a free agent at the end of the 1974 season.  He stayed aggressive when wholesale free agency started in 1976, landing Gene Tenace and Rollie Fingers.   In 1977 Bavasi left the Padres to become president of the California Angels, assuming the GM duties when Harry Dalton left after the season.

The Angels had some talent when Bavasi arrived, but he enhanced things considerably.  Within a few months he had traded for Brian Downing and signed Lyman Bostock.  The 1978 team won 87 games, the most in club history.  After the season Bavasi traded for Dan Ford and Rod Carew, and in 1979 the team won its first division title.  Bavasi brought in more talent in the coming years, landing Fred Lynn, Rick Burleson, Doug DeCinces, Bob Boone and Reggie Jackson, enough to cop another division crown in 1982.  Both teams lost in the LCS.  Bavasi ran the Angels until 1984 when he finally retired.

Although he had some success in Anaheim, Bavasi’s place in history rests with his 18 years running the Dodgers.  The Dodgers had a strong organization before he became GM, but Bavasi unquestionably made it stronger and led the club to some of its greatest successes, including four of the six World Series titles the franchise has won in its history.

— Mark

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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.



#8 — Harry Dalton

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.


Harry Dalton was the GM for three teams over a 25 year period, winning five pennants and contending for several others.  His claim to fame was his work in Baltimore, where he made a series of moves to turn a very good team into one of the greatest ever assembled.

When Dalton went to work for the Orioles in late 1953, he was a 25-year-old Amherst grad just back from serving in Korea.  He spent the next seven years working as a key lieutenant for farm director Jim McLaughlin.  Though the Orioles organization made progress in the 1950s, things might have gone better without the ongoing battle between McLaughlin and manager/GM Paul Richards, each with his own autonomous scouting staff.  Richards relinquished his GM duties to Lee MacPhail in 1958, and by 1961 both Richards and McLaughlin were gone.  MacPhail promoted Dalton to run an extraordinarily productive farm system.  Dalton’s talented team of scouts became known as “The Dalton Gang,” and his organization included legendary coaches and instructors like Earl Weaver and Cal Ripken, Sr.  After the 1965 season MacPhail left to work in the commissioner’s office, and Dalton became general manager.

The Orioles had been a good team for several years by this time, winning 97 and 94 games the previous two seasons.  MacPhail’s last act was to work out a trade with the Reds that would land Frank Robinson.  He left approval of the deal to Dalton, who tried to extract another piece from Reds GM Bill DeWitt.  DeWitt balked, but Dalton sensibly chose to authorize the deal in its original form.  Robinson became the leader of the team, and won the Triple Crown and MVP while he was at it.  The Orioles won the 1966 World Series.

The Orioles fell back in 1967, largely due to injuries to Robinson, Jim Palmer and Dave McNally.  When the club failed to rebound adequately in 1968, reaching the All-Star break at 43-37, Dalton fired manager Hank Bauer and gave the job to Earl Weaver, who had spent many years in the organization as a Minor League manager.  Weaver was not shy about making changes, playing Don Buford (a great Dalton acquisition) and Ellie Hendricks, and taught the Oriole Way that Dalton had long championed in the minors.

After the 1968 season Dalton traded outfielder Curt Blefary to Houston for pitcher Mike Cuellar, who won 125 games over the next six seasons.  The next three years the Orioles won over 100 games, waltzed to division titles, and swept the ALCS.  That they only were able to win one World Series masked how great this team was.  So good, in fact, that Dalton only had to make one trade of note — he dealt some unneeded players to the Padres for Pat Dobson, who won 20 games in 1971.  In six years Dalton won four pennants and two World Series in Baltimore.

After the 1971 season Dalton left the Orioles and took a job as GM of the Angels.  The difference in the situations could hardly have been larger — the Angels had just come off a fourth place finish on the field and a much worse one off of it.  Picked to win the AL West by many pundits, they endured the emotional breakdown of their defending batting champ, Alex Johnson, the breakdown and retirement of newly acquired slugger Tony Conigliaro, a gun confrontation in the clubhouse, additional turmoil between teammates, and more.  Not surprisingly, the manager and general manager both lost their jobs.  Owner Gene Autry hired Dalton to straighten it all out.

A few weeks after taking over, Dalton traded the longtime face of the franchise, Jim Fregosi, to the Mets for four players.  One of the players, Nolan Ryan, became a star, making this the best trade in team history.  Unfortunately, this proved to be the high water mark of his six years in Anaheim.  A year later he made another big deal, trading star pitcher Andy Messersmith to the Dodgers for Frank Robinson (returning to the AL to utilize the new DH rule), pitcher Bill Singer (who would win 20 games the next season), and Bobby Valentine.  The key to the deal for Dalton was Valentine, a talented 22-year-old who could hit, run and play centerfield.  Unfortunately, in May 1973 Valentine tore up his knee on Anaheim’s chain link fence trying to catch a fly ball.  He never recovered his former speed, and never fulfilled the promise many had for him.

Dalton continued to make deals, but he just never really had enough talent.  The team had drafted Frank Tanana in 1971, and a few years later he and Ryan were their best two players.  The only impact player drafted on Dalton’s watch was Carney Lansford, who did not help until Dalton had left.  Desperate for offense, in late 1975 he traded Ed Figueroa and Mickey Rivers for Bobby Bonds, in what turned into a great deal for the Yankees.  Bonds had a great year for the Angels in 1977 before he moved to his next stop.

With the advent of free agency in 1976 Autry was ready to go all-in, and Dalton made an unappreciated, canny move.  The rules in the first year of free agency stipulated that a team could only sign two players, unless they lost more than two themselves, in which case they could sign as many as they lost.  The Angels played the 1976 season with two unsigned players: seldom used utility men Paul Dade and Billy Smith. On September 9, the Angels purchased infielder Tim Nordbrook from the Orioles, an unusual transaction for a team that was in fifth place. What made this deal interesting was that Nordbrook was also soon to be a free agent, giving the Angels a total of three. The Angels made no effort to sign Nordbrook, so they ultimately “lost” three players who combined for 25 at bats and 4 hits in the 1976 season.  Having lost three players, Dalton was able to sign Don Baylor, Joe Rudi, and Bobby Grich.

The Angels looked to be a contender for 1977, but Rudi and Grich both got hurt and the team stumbled to fifth place.  Rudi was through, but Grich recovered to continue his great career the next season.  Too late for Dalton, who left after the season to become GM of the Brewers.  Dalton likely could have stayed on, but he was unhappy when Autry hired Buzzy Bavasi to be team president, Dalton’s boss.  When Bud Selig offered him the job in Milwaukee, Dalton was assured that he would be in charge.  The squad he left behind in California would capture its first division title two years later.

In Milwaukee, Dalton inherited some talent: Robin Yount, Cecil Cooper, Sixto Lezcano, and Paul Molitor (who would debut in 1978).  That said, the team had won 67 games in 1977, and had not finished .500 in their nine-year history.  That would change quickly as the Brewers won 93 games in 1978, advanced to the playoffs in 1981 and to the World Series in 1982.  The six-year period from 1978 to 1983 remains the best in Brewers history.

Dalton made some good moves to get this team over the hump and keep it there.  He traded for Buck Martinez and Ben Oglivie soon after he arrived.  He made a huge deal in December 1980 with the Cardinals, landing Rollie Fingers and Pete Vukovich (who between them won the next two Cy Young Awards), and catcher Ted Simmons, their new cleanup hitter.

After a few down years, the Brewers came back to contention in the late 1980s with a new team centered around Molitor and Yount, plus players Dalton’s staff had signed or drafted,  like Teddy Higuera, BJ Surhoff, and Chris Bosio.  Milwaukee won 91 games in 1987 and finished just two games back in 1988 but failed to get back to the post-season.  Dalton was released from his contract after the 1991 season after 14 years in charge.

That Dalton was not able to repeat his Baltimore success in his next two stops is not surprising — his Oriole squads were among the best teams ever, a team he helped put together in the minor leagues and helped turn into a juggernaut as the GM.  He inherited a mess with the Angels, and while he improved the talent level, he was not able to win the division.  In Milwaukee he had more talent to work with and he made some key additions that helped the Brewers capture their only pennant.

— Mark

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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.


#9 — Dave Dombrowski

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.


After the 1996 season Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizinga—angling for a new publicly financed stadium–asked general manager Dave Dombrowski what it would take to produce a winner the following season.  Dombrowski didn’t prevaricate.  He told his boss that he would deliver if allowed to take the payroll from around $31 million (in the lower third of the league) to roughly $44.5 million (near the top).  Huizinga told him to go for it, and Dombrowski went to work, pulling the levers masterfully.  In the end he overspent his projection by a couple of million but brought South Florida a World Series champion in only their fifth season of major league baseball.  Once in a while you really can deliver on demand.

When he first took over the Expos in mid-1988, the 31-year-old Dombrowski was the youngest GM in baseball.  Three years later he moved on to Florida where he assembled the World Series champion before salvaging a respectable return when forced to dismantle it.  Finally, in Detroit, his third and current GM job, he rebuilt a struggling franchise, delivering two pennants and a recent string of division titles.  Overall, Dombrowski’s won-loss record as a GM is less than stellar because he spent much of his time building up from the bottom.  But at his two stops of any length, Dombrowski turned hapless franchises into winners with staying power—though only in Detroit was he allowed to execute on his longer term plans.

When Dombrowski told his eighth grade teacher as part of a student survey that he wanted to be a big league GM, she told him, “I can’t put that down.  Nobody wants to do that.” But Dombrowski was persistent.  His college thesis at Western Michigan was titled “The General Manager: The Man in the Middle.”  After graduation, White Sox GM Roland Hemond appreciated Dombrowski’s passion and brains and gave him a job.  A decade later he was in charge of the Expos.

Immediately after taking over in July 1988 Dombrowski pulled the trigger on a couple of trades, showing that he would be aggressive despite, or possibly because of, his youth.  The next year Charles Bronfman, the original Expos owner, was thinking of selling, but wanted one more crack at a championship.  Accordingly, with the team in contention at mid-season, Dombrowski made a couple deals for veteran pitchers, one of which turned out regrettably when he included a young Randy Johnson in a deal for ace pitcher Mark Langston.  The Expos finished 81- 81 for the third consecutive year and many of their best players, such as Langston, Hubie Brooks, Pascual Perez, and Bryn Smith, left as free agents.  They also failed to sign their first round draft pick, catcher Charles Johnson.

Bolstered by three rookies in 1990—Marquis Grissom, Larry Walker, and Delino DeShields—Montreal overcame its free agent losses and jumped to 85 wins.  Rule 5 pickup Bill Sampen led the team in victories; free agent pick up Oil Can Boyd started 31 games with a 2.93 ERA; and Dombrowski acquired Moises Alou in a midseason trade. For his efforts Dombrowski was named UPI baseball executive of the year.  Unfortunately, the team dropped back to 71 wins in 1991, despite a similar lineup (though Dombrowski had swapped Tim Raines—past his dominant prime–for Ivan Calderon and Barry Jones before the season).

As the 1991 season dragged on, Dombrowski grew more frustrated with his financial constraints.  In September he joined the expansion Florida Marlins to build an organization and team for the inaugural 1993 season.  The Expos organization he left behind contained many of the players that would contribute on the 1994 squad that would have the best record in baseball.  Drafted and signed amateurs during his three plus years at the helm included Rondell White, Ugueth Urbina, Chris Haney, Cliff Floyd, Mark Grudzielanek, Matt Stairs, and Kirk Rueter.

In Florida, Dombrowski set about building the club’s system, bringing in a bevy of veteran scouts from Montreal and elsewhere.   With his first pick in the 1992 amateur draft Dombrowski again nabbed Charles Johnson, whom he drafted and lost in Montreal.  At the expansion draft Dombrowski picked up a number of useful players  to either play or trade: Brian Harvey, Trevor Hoffman, Carl Everett, Jeff Conine, Greg Hibbard, and Danny Jackson. Dombrowski also made a huge trade that first season, landing 24-year-old Gary Sheffield and also dealt for future closer Rob Nen.

By 1995 Dombrowski realized that the team’s pitching was not as far along as its hitting, so in December he signed two quality undervalued hurlers: Kevin Brown and Al Leiter.  For 1996, he also introduced 19-year-old Columbian signee Edgar Renteria. Their fourth season was the Marlins most successful in team history (every year they had won more games than the year before).  But Huizenga wanted to accelerate the process.

To put the Marlins over the top, Dombrowski bolstered his squad with three of the top free agents on the market, Alex Fernandez, Bobby Bonilla, and Moises Alou, and several key role players.  He also hired manager Jim Leyland, who had recently resigned from the Pirates.  The team qualified for the postseason as the NL wildcard and went on to win the World Series.

But Huizenga did not get the stadium he wanted, claimed to be losing money, and wanted out of baseball.  He gave Dombrowski the opposite directive of the one he had given twelve months earlier: drastically reduce payroll to make the team more saleable.  If the rise of the Marlins was steady and unrelenting, the fall was startlingly swift. By Thanksgiving, Dombrowski had traded Alou, Nen, Conine, and Devon White.  By New Year’s Day, Brown, Dennis Cook, and Kurt Abbott were also ex-Marlins.  The 1998 team, the defending World Champions, finished 54-108, one of the worst records of the expansion era.

After the team’s sale, Dombrowski began to rebuild the team’s talent level under new owner John Henry, though the team maintained one of baseball’s lowest payrolls. At the conclusion of the 2001 season, with the team’s future in doubt, Dombrowski moved on to the Detroit Tigers as team president.  He left behind a nucleus that would become (or used as trade chips to build) the 2003 world championship club.

In 2001 the Tigers had finished below .500 for the eighth consecutive year, and owner Mike Ilitch wanted a strong hand in charge.  In April 2002 Dombrowski assumed the GM mantle as well.  He quickly realized that his rebuilding task was even more daunting than it appeared on the surface.  The Tigers were burdened with a number of bad contracts with injured or non-productive players.  At an ill-advised “private” venting in front of some season ticket holders, Dombrowski named Craig Paquette, Dean Palmer, Damion Easley, Matt Anderson, Danny Patterson, Bobby Higginson, and Steve Sparks.  Basically untradeable, these seven players, under contract for roughly $40 million, accounted for a huge portion of the payroll. The 2002 team finished 55 – 106, with little payroll flexibility. Dombrowski had his work cut out for him.

The next season was even worse.  The 2003 Tigers started 3-25 en route to 119 losses, one shy of the 1962 Mets all-time record. Once again, however, Dombrowski was slowly rebuilding his team at a steady pace, using many sources.  And as in his early days in Florida, his owner would pay up for scouts and front office executives. Dombrowski also brought in Jim Leyland, his World Series manager in Florida, after the 2005 season.  His rebuilding culminated in the 2006 pennant.

Nearly all the key 2006 players were acquired under Dombrowski’s reign. Fireballing hurlers Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya and center fielder Curtis Granderson came from the draft; infielders Placido Polanco and Carlos Guillen were trade acquisitions; Ivan Rodriguez was signed as free agent in February 2004, as much to make a statement as for his abilities, and Magglio Ordonez was signed a year later, overpriced but useful nonetheless; Todd Jones was signed as a free agent for 2005, and Kenny Rogers for 2006; Chris Shelton was a Rule 5 draftee; and Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman were both acquired as youngsters early in Dombrowski’s tenure as part of veteran for prospects deals.

When several players suffered injuries in 2007 the team fell back, and Dombrowski realized he needed to again retool his squad.  In December he made a huge trade, sending top prospects to Florida for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. The latter was coming off of a Cy Young runner up season, but was never healthy or effective in Detroit.  Cabrera, however, became one of the best players in the game.  Dombrowski’s trade record for the next few years was uncanny—he always seemed to know when to trade prospects for veterans or vice-versa.  Moreover, he once again needed to maneuver around large contracts with players who no longer justified them, such as Willis and Ordonez.

In late 2009 in a three-way swap he surrendered Curtis Granderson, but received Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer. Going back the other way, at mid-season in 2010 and 2011 he landed first Jhonny Peralta and then Doug Fister for prospects.  In another great trade at mid-season in 2012 he landed Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez for several more farm hands.  Enough of the prospects Dombrowski didn’t trade, such as Alex Avila and Rick Porcello, developed into quality major leaguers, injecting some youth into the team.

Dombrowski also showed a knack for finding undervalued free agents and signing them for reasonable contracts, including Jose Valverde (before 2011), Victor Martinez (2011), Brad Penny (2011), and Torii Hunter (2013). After appearing to overpay for Prince Fielder, Dombrowski swapped him for Ian Kinsler to regain some payroll flexibility.

Dombrowski’s astute roster manipulation led to four consecutive division titles and one pennant from 2011 to 2014.  Several recent more suspect trades, free agent losses, and an apparently thin farm system give some pause as to how much longer the string can continue.  But Dombrowski has demonstrated an uncanny knack for both rebuilding teams and keeping them competitive. With Dombrowski in charge Detroit should remain a relevant and competitive franchise.

— Dan

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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.


#10 — Frank Cashen

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.

Frank Cashen 010714

Frank Cashen had two stints running a big league baseball operation.  In his first job he oversaw a budding great team as president and later kept it contending in the GM role as well. At his second stop he took over a long struggling franchise that needed a complete transformation.  He succeeded at these two opposite challenges masterfully, meriting his status as one baseball’s best baseball ops executives.

Cashen spent 17 years as a sportswriter in Baltimore, earning a law degree at night.  In the late 1950s he went to work for Jerry Hoffberger, first running a couple of race tracks and later working as the advertising chief for Hoffberger’s brewery.  When Hoffberger, a longtime minority owner of the Orioles, assumed control of the team in 1965, he asked Cashen, a brilliant and trusted executive who nonetheless had no experience in the business of baseball, to oversee it.  Not long after, general manager Lee MacPhail left to work in the commissioner’s office, and Cashen promoted Harry Dalton to be the Orioles GM.  Cashen was Dalton’s boss, but he needed the talented Dalton to run baseball operations.  The team won four pennants and two World Series during the six years (1966-71) of this arrangement.

After the 1971 season, fresh off three straight pennants, Dalton left to run the lowly California Angels, saying he wanted a new challenge.  Rather than hiring a replacement, Cashen took over the GM duties himself.  This was not a big surprise — Cashen had been intimately involved in the day-to-day work that Dalton had been doing.

Although the Orioles were on a great run, the team was aging and would change rapidly over the next few years.  Just a few weeks after taking over, Cashen traded star and leader Frank Robinson to the Dodgers, a move that Dalton recommended before he left.  The team was stunned, and many blamed Robinson’s departure for their team-wide, year-long batting slump, dropping from a league-leading 4.70 runs per game to just 3.37, and a third place finish.

But Cashen got them back over 90 wins the next three years, making key deals that landed Tommy Davis, Ross Grimsley, Lee May, Ken Singleton, and Mike Torrez.  Together with youngsters Bobby Grich, Don Baylor, and Al Bumbry, and a few key holdovers (especially Jim Palmer) the team won division titles in 1973 and 1974, and took the Red Sox down to the wire before losing in 1975.

After the season Cashen resigned and went back to work in Hoffberger’s brewery. Cashen left the organization in great shape, and they remained the gold standard for excellence throughout the system.  Soon players like Doug DeCinces, Eddie Murray and Mike Flanagan would be joining the big club, keeping their great run going another decade.

Cashen spent a couple of years out of the game before working in the commissioner’s office for two years.  In early 1980 Nelson Doubleday, the new owner of the New York Mets, talked Cashen back into baseball, giving him complete control of the club (acting as both GM and the COO).  The Mets had been a woeful team for four years, and in 1979 played before fewer than 800,000 fans (still the low water mark for the team).  Cashen told ownership that he needed at least four years to turn the organization around, and he began by revamping the scouting and minor league systems.  Over the next several years the Mets developed Daryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Kevin Mitchell, Lenny Dykstra, Mookie Wilson, Rick Aguilera and several others.

Meanwhile, Cashen made some early high-profile attempts to improve the big league team.  He acquired sluggers Dave Kingman and Ellis Valentine in 1981, but neither helped much.  Cashen dealt for George Foster in 1982, but the slugger’s days of stardom proved to be over.  Cashen first hit the jackpot in June 1983 when he traded Neil Allen for Keith Hernandez.  Coupled with the debut of Strawberry a month earlier the Mets had arguably the two best position players they had ever had.

Cashen’s biggest decision for 1984 was the hiring of new manager — Davey Johnson, who Cashen knew from his Oriole days.  Johnson had managed in the system, and like Cashen wanted to play the kids rather than continuing to lose with veterans. In 1984 the Mets finally broke through, winning 90 games after having won fewer than 70 for seven consecutive seasons.  The biggest improvement on the club was the pitching, which featured three rookies: Ron Darling (acquired from Texas), Sid Fernandez (acquired from the Dodgers), and 19-year-old phenom Dwight Gooden.

In the following off-season Cashen landed third baseman Howard Johnson and catcher Gary Carter in separate deals, and suddenly the Mets had one of the game’s best offenses to go with their great pitching.  New York won 98 games and took the Cardinals down to the season’s final days before falling three games short.  While Carter, Hernandez and Strawberry had good years, it was Gooden who had a season for the ages — 24-4, 1.53.

After the 1985 season Cashen made another great trade, dealing unneeded players to the Red Sox for pitcher Bob Ojeda.  The resultant Mets made a mockery out of the league in 1986, winning 108 games and waltzing to the division title, then survived two brutal playoff series to win their first title since 1969.  It was an extremely well-balanced team, with the best offense and pitching in the league, and only one player accumulating 5 WAR (Hernandez).  The club was filled with young stars and seemed poised to win several more championships.

This did not happen, even with Cashen making two more great trades that winter, landing Kevin McReynolds and David Cone.  Gooden entered drug rehab in April 1987, and it was Gooden’s problems more than any other that foretold the Mets’ decline.  They remained a competitive team for several years, and won 100 games and the NL East in 1988, but were never again able to put it together as they had in 1986.  Gooden and Strawberry, their two bright young stars, had good years remaining, but both had long battles with drugs and crime, likely costing Hall of Fame careers for both.  Hernandez and Carter declined for more conventional reasons — aging, and the team appeared rudderless by 1990.

Cashen let Davey Johnson go during another second place finish in 1990, and resigned himself after the 1991 squad finished fifth.  He remained an advisor to the Mets for several years.

Cashen’s front office record is extraordinary.  He directed a great organization in Baltimore, and after taking over as GM, he made some great trades to keep the Orioles in contention and won two division titles in four years.  In New York he inherited a mess, and used the Oriole model to build the organization — scouting, player development, and excellent young pitching.  Although it ended sooner than he would have liked, the seven-year run (1984-1990) averaged 94 wins per season, finishing first or second every year, and captured a title.  This was the most successful period ever for the club, on and off the field — coupled with a down period for the Yankees, the Mets were by far the most popular team in New York for several years, giving hope that they could be so once again with another great team.

— Mark

(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.


#11 — Billy Beane

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.

Billy Beane

Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball depicted Billy Beane as the leading figure in the spread of analytics (more broadly: the use of data and evidence) in baseball management.  Twelve years later all front offices combine analytics and scouting, and the dwindling number of people who decry this revolution have tended to blame Beane and like-minded GMs, while those who applaud it have treated Beane like their heroic surrogate.  His ranking here would indicate that we believe the introduction of analytics has advanced front office decision making, which we do, but we also believe his impressive record fully justifies his standing.

A former first round draft pick of the Mets, Beane spent parts of six seasons in the big leagues without earning regular playing time.  In 1990 Beane finally gave up and took a job as an advanced scout with the A’s.  Beane spent the next seven years working with Sandy Alderson in Oakland, learning to view the game the way his boss did — using sabermetric principals to find undervalued players.  After the 1997 season Alderson resigned, and Beane took over.  The A’s had been going through a rough patch — new ownership had ordered Alderson to slash expenses, and the team has been on the low end of baseball payrolls ever since.  After a great five-year run, the club had been under .500 since 1992.

The rise of the A’s is the early Beane years is due primarily to their great use of the amateur draft throughout the 1990s, when they selected Jason Giambi, Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito, and the signing of Miguel Tejada from the Dominican Republic in 1993.  When Beane took over the big league team was struggling but this help was just around the corner.

But Beane also made several low-cost deals that had short term dividends, dramatically enhancing this core.  Among these acquisitions were Gil Heredia (28 wins in two years), Kenny Rogers (16-8 in 1998), John Jaha (35 home runs in 1999), Jason Isringhausen, Randy Valarde, Terrence Long, Kevin Appier (15-11 in 2000), Cory Lidle, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Scott Hatteberg, David Justice, and Billy Koch.   Most of these players were bought cheaply and moved on if they attained free agency or got expensive.  Beane was one of the first to believe that closers were fungible assets, and he was quick to move players like Isringhausen and Koch if he found a buyer who overvalued their save totals.

Armed with his emerging core and his shrewd short-term patches, the A’s won 91 games and the division in 2000, and followed that up with 102, 103, 96, and 91 the next four years.  They made the playoffs four times and lost in the division series (in the full five games) all four seasons.

In 2003, when the A’s were coming off their two best seasons, Moneyball was released, and a debate ensued as to why the A’s were successful.  The principal premise of the book– that Beane was winning with low payrolls at last partly by finding market inefficiencies, players undervalued by other clubs–was undeniable.   In 2001 the A’s had the second lowest payroll in baseball and won 102 games, and did basically did the same thing the next year.  Yes, Beane was fortunate to have inherited a young core, but Brian Cashman inherited a great core in the same year (1998), had more than three times the payroll, and won fewer games in these two seasons. Beane was clearly doing something better than everyone else.

The controversy surrounding the book arose because Lewis depicted Beane as being at war with the scouts, who were often mocked as out-of-touch and unable to recognize good players who did not have obvious “tools”.  As Lewis wrote: “[Beane] flirted with the idea of firing all the scouts and just drafting kids straight from [assistant GM Paul DePodesta’s] laptop.”  Many baseball people were appalled — particularly because it should have been obvious that Beane’s A’s were a reflection of great scouting.  His long-time scouting director Grady Fuson, who deserves much of the credit for their drafts and signings, left the club in 2001 to take a promotion with the Texas Rangers before the book came out depicting him and his scouts as dinosaurs.  (In the movie Beane is shown firing a clueless Fuson, which did not happen.) Pat Gillick, whose Mariners competed with Beane in these years, also took offense at the book’s depiction of scouts, suggesting that Beane was going to have a tough time competing unless he paid his young players when they became free agents.

And in fact this is what happened.  In the ensuing years the A’s lost all of their great players one by one and gradually slipped out of contention, with only one playoff appearance the rest of the 2000s and no more than eighty-one wins between 2007 and 2011.  Much of the fall off can be attributed to the lack of success from Oakland’s college-centric drafting philosophy. From 2002 (the year after Fuson left) to 2009 the A’s drafts produced only three players who have turned in more than 10 career WAR, and no stars.  Moreover, due to their small market size and intelligent use of expiring contracts to land compensatory picks, Beane had amassed a total of twenty-one first round picks (including supplemental choices).

In 2010 Fuson returned to the A’s as a special consultant to Beane, surprising many observers, at least partly because he was persuaded that Beane had begun to blend analytics and scouting as many successful teams had been doing.

In 2012 the Athletics returned to the top with back-to-back division titles and posted their best two records since the year Moneyball came out. It was a team filled with players Beane had acquired cheaply in trades (Josh Reddick, Josh Donaldson, Jarrod Parker) or in free agent signings (Coco Crisp, Brandon Moss, Bartolo Colon), a testament to the A’s ability to discover under-appreciated talent.  Beane occasionally spent money, like on Yoenis Cespedes and Scott Kazmir, but their 2014 payroll was twenty-fifth of thirty teams in baseball.

Unlike the team from the early 2000s, the recent A’s have not have the benefit of a great core of developed talent.  But the drafting of AJ Griffin and Sonny Gray early in the 2010s suggests that the A’s are again receiving value from the draft.   Overall, their recent success, including a 2014 wild card appearance, testifies to Beane, his scouting organization, and his analytical staff, all working together.  Seventeen years after taking over, Beane was still playing with less money, and he was still winning.

— Mark

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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.


#12 — Sandy Alderson

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.

Sandy Alderson

Sandy Alderson’s three pennants and one World Series championship, while a first-rate achievement, may not be quite enough to justify his ranking at number twelve.  But Alderson’s place in history is enhanced by two considerations: he was the first modern GM to actively introduce analytics, though rudimentary by current standards, into a team’s decision making, and he was the first young executive of the modern era hired to run a major league team’s baseball operations without coming from a baseball background.

After Alderson had his success in Oakland baseball front offices would never again be the same.  Before Alderson, general managers had been hired after a long apprenticeship in the game (unless they were related to the owners).  Alderson was different: he was Ivy League educated and an attorney.  The Haas family saw Alderson’s potential and put him in charge of the teams as a 35 year old after only two years in baseball.  His success changed the conventional wisdom of what was considered necessary in a general manager. Today there are many young, top-level front office executives sprinkled throughout the game with high-test degrees and little previous baseball experience.

Alderson went to Dartmouth, served in Vietnam as a Marine infantry officer, and graduated from Harvard Law School.  He was working at a law firm where he got to know Roy Eisenhardt, Walter Haas’s son-in-law, who became team president when the Haas family bought the Oakland Athletics in 1980.  A year later Eisenhardt brought Alderson aboard as general counsel.  In September 1983 the team gave Alderson the general manager’s duties.

At the time, after the penurious final years of Charles Finley’s ownership and the manic administration of Billy Martin (who served as both manager and GM), the A’s organization was in disarray.   Alderson quickly set about rebuilding the scouting and minor league organizations.  For personnel decisions he not only relied on experienced baseball men such as Bill Rigney, but also canvassed the growing body of objective baseball research, predominantly that by Bill James, that was generally scorned within the game.  As an outsider Alderson was not burdened with baseball’s traditional biases and used James’s ideas to his advantage, particularly by understanding the importance of on-base percentage and power.

When manager Tony LaRussa was fired by the White Sox in mid-1986, Alderson snapped him up.  LaRussa was, and remains, decidedly old school. Alderson, though, was not afraid to have strong subordinates, and would often “defer to success” when his alternative ideas may not have meshed with LaRussa’s.

In the meantime, Alderson slowly assembled a true powerhouse.  From the farm system the A’s introduced Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Walt Weiss, who won consecutive Rookie of the Year Awards from 1986 through 1988, plus Terry Steinbach.  Astute trades brought in Dennis Eckersley, Bob Welch, and Storm Davis. Dave Stewart and Dave Henderson were both shrewd free agent signings.  After a .500 finish in 1987, the A’s won 104 games and breezed through the ALCS before being stunned in the World Series by the Dodgers. The fine tuning continued throughout 1989, as Alderson added free agent hurler Mike Moore and dealt for speedy on-base machine Rickey Henderson (whom he had traded five years earlier) at the trading deadline.  This time the A’s rolled through the postseason, sweeping the earthquake interrupted World Series over the Giants.  The team dominated the AL again in 1990 before being upset in the World Series.

For a little while it looked like it might go on forever.  The A’s drew close to three million fans in 1990, second in the league, and in 1991 they had the AL’s highest payroll.  Alderson used the team’s prosperity to lock up Canseco for a record contract and drafted phenom pitcher Todd Van Poppel when other clubs shied away from his record contact demands.  Alderson had also masterfully acquired a number of extra early draft picks that he used on high-profile hurlers.  In 1992 the team won 96 games before losing in the ALCS.

But then it all came to a crashing halt.  In 1993 the team fell to last place as the star pitchers aged with little to fill in behind them; McGwire was injured much of the year; and Ruben Sierra, the centerpiece of a Canseco trade in 1992, failed to live up to expectations, as did the ballyhooed pitching prospects. As the team bottomed out in the standings, attendance plummeted as well.  Maintaining a multi-year run is surprisingly difficult–injuries, bad drafts, and just bad luck can quickly derail an apparent juggernaut.  Nevertheless, as sudden as its end might have been, the A’s 1988 to 1992 run remains highly impressive.

Walter Haas died in 1995, and the new owners were less willing to aggressively spend on players, necessitating Alderson trading McGwire in 1997.  He finally moved on after the 1998 season, joining the commissioner’s office, leaving behind Billy Beane to run the front office and a decent nucleus of youngsters, such as Jason Giambi, Ben Grieve, Scott Speizio, Eric Chavez, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder.

After six years as the number three man at MLB, battling with umpires, overseeing the administration of major league rules and draft-pick bonuses, and exploring international issues, Alderson joined San Diego as team president in 2005. Owner John Moores wanted an improved approach in the Dominican Republic and the draft, the latter flaw highlighted by the disastrous selection of Matt Bush as the first overall pick in 2004.

Alderson did not clean house, leaving general manager Kevin Towers and his team in place.  But he was not satisfied.  He implemented a more systematic approach to management and bolstered the front office by bringing in Grady Fuson, a colleague from his Oakland days, and Paul DePodesta, the analytically inclined, recently deposed GM of the Dodgers, who reported directly to Alderson.  Under Alderson the team began to operate more analytically, and in first draft under his regime the team selected college players through the first 14 rounds, a notorious Moneyball strategy. For the first few years things went well.  The team won a division title in 2005 (albeit at 82-80) and then won at least 88 games the next two seasons.  The team fell back to only 63 wins in 2008 amid reports of dysfunction in the front office. In early 2009 Moores sold a controlling interest in the Padres to Jeff Moorad, who let Alderson go.

After spending some time back in the commissioner’s office, in October 2010 the Mets gave Alderson another shot running a team, but once again he would be operating with limited resources.  The team’s owners, battered financially in the Bernie Madoff scandal, hired Alderson to build a winner on a reduced budget.  The club he inherited was coming off two sub-.500 seasons despite a $134 million payroll, the fifth highest in baseball.  By 2013, the payroll was cut in half to $69 million, 25th highest. As of 2014 the club had inched up to 79 wins, and the future seemed to include several good young pitchers and position players. Still, Alderson is yet to get the Mets back to .500.  Several years into his tenure Alderson described his mission: “One is stockpiling talent.  The second is clearing payroll, and the third has been to be as competitive as possible—without compromising one and two.”

So far the jury is out on number one; he succeeded on number two; and has fallen short on number three.  But Alderson recently had his contract extended through 2017 and will go on trying.  “The beauty of this game is that there are no absolutes,” Alderson once said.  “It’s all nuances and anticipation, not like football which is all force and vectors.  The one thing I’ve learned is that you get in trouble if you don’t have a healthy respect for the subtleties, for the things you can’t control.”  When he had full control and a competitive budget Alderson built a great team in Oakland.  Both the fact of his successes and the nature of his methods forever changed baseball front offices.

— 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.


#14 — Brian Sabean

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.

NLCS - St Louis Cardinals v San Francisco Giants - Game Five

In his 18-year tenure at the Giants helm—the longest of any active general manager—Brian Sabean has witnessed the evolution of the very nature of team building.  Sabean has the mindset of a scout but eventually became open to new perspectives, even when they seemed to conflict with a scout’s approach.  As analytics began to make inroads in the game’s front offices, Sabean’s methods and practices adapted to meet these new challenges.  Sabean won his first pennant by building around an aging but still potent Barry Bonds and then three World Series championships by restructuring his team around a young core with undervalued pickups.  As much as any modern GM, he represents a successful bridge between the old and new approaches.

After several years coaching college baseball, Sabean jumped to the professional ranks, joining the Yankees as a scout. From 1986 to 1992 Sabean played a key role in the Yankees scouting and drafting, a period in which the team landed many of the players that would make up the great Yankees squads of the late 1990s.  He also observed first hand well-respected general managers Bob Quinn and Gene Michael in action. When Quinn got the general manager’s job in San Francisco in 1993 he hired Sabean as a key assistant.  In 1996, after two last place finishes, principal owner Peter Magowan promoted Sabean to general manager.

Other smart, aggressive front office personnel and scouts had also recently joined the Giants, and Sabean judiciously delegated authority, creating a team of trusted lieutenants.  Assistant GM Ned Colletti remained with Sabean for nine years before starting his own successful run as general manager of the Dodgers.  Dick Tidrow and Bobby Evans are still with Sabean 19 years later.

Despite inheriting a last place club, Sabean had one huge advantage to work with: Barry Bonds, still in the prime of his career.  Sabean revamped the team around Bonds using both free agent signings and trades, most notably swapping popular third baseman Matt Williams for infielders Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino.  A couple of young, previously lightly utilized starting pitchers (Shawn Estes and Kirk Rueter) were given a chance, both had good years, and the Giants won the division.

The farm system Sabean inherited remained relatively fallow, and over the next several seasons he filled in around Bonds and Kent, who had developed into a great hitter in his own right, with short-term veteran solutions.  Overall, these mid-market players (J.T. Snow, Ellis Burks, and others) delivered impressive returns, and San Francisco remained consistently competitive.  The Giants opened their new privately financed stadium in 2000 and attendance boomed, freeing up additional revenues for player signings.

In 2002 the team came within one game of winning the World Series before falling to the Anaheim Angels.  As a consequence of the Giants fill-in-with-veterans strategy, they were an exceedingly old team.  For the next several years, Sabean continued to use veteran free agents to plug holes and try to win before his stars could no longer contribute. Bonds’s tremendous late-career peak essentially delayed Sabean from rebuilding. In 2003 the team won 100 games and in 2004 they won 91, capping an outstanding eight year run in which they averaged just over 92 wins a season.

Inevitably, however, a win-now strategy with a veteran team can only work for only a limited time and eventually comes with a cost. Without the necessary influx of young players, the Giants lost at least 85 eighty-five games from 2005 to 2008. On top of the disappointing seasons on the field, Sabean and Magowan did not come off well in the Mitchell Report, devoted to the prevalence of steroids in baseball. Sabean also made some baseball moves that backfired: signing free-agent pitcher Barry Zito to a record-breaking contract; overspending on free agent Aaron Rowand; and surrendering a couple of future all-stars to the Twins for A.J. Pierzynski.

Sabean had nearly run out of chances.  Bill Neukom, named managing general partner in 2008, spent the 2009 season evaluating the organization–another sub-.500 season and Neukom might very well have brought in a new GM.  Fortunately, Sabean and his staff had been effective in rebuilding the farm system, the team rebounded to 88 wins, and Sabean received a contract extension.  And over the next five years the Giants won the World Series three times.

Much of the turnaround could be attributed to a stellar collection of pitching prospects from the Giants farm system: Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner.  But there is more to great pitching than simply drafting youngsters with live arms. Sabean put an organization-wide emphasis on the health of his players, particularly pitchers, and it paid off.  In 2010 their top-four starting pitchers all started at least 33 games, and in 2012 the team’s top five starting pitchers started 160 of the 162 games.  (Matt Cain’s 2014 injury shows that no emphasis is fool-proof.)

Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy (hired in 2007) were also willing to integrate young positon players into the team. Venezuelan signee Pablo Sandoval broke out in 2009 as a 22-year-old and anchored third base for the next six years. Catcher Buster Posey spent just over a year in the minor leagues before he became the club’s starter and franchise player and captured the 2010 Rookie of the Year award.  The Giants lacked the top prospects to rebuild the rest of the offense, however, and Sabean once again needed to rely on his staff’s savvy to fill holes cheaply and efficiently without surrendering any key contributors.

Before the 2009 season, Sabean signed Juan Uribe and Triple-A outfielder Andres Torres, and in mid-summer he traded for Freddy Sanchez.  For 2010 he signed Aubrey Huff, Pat Burrell (after his release in May), and claimed Cody Ross off waivers in August.  All these undervalued players contributed to the 2010 World Series victory.  But because most were temporary solutions, Sabean had to repeat this strategy, and for the team’s next championship he landed Melky Cabrera, Hunter Pence, and Marco Scutaro.  Similarly, he always seemed to have pieced together an effective bullpen.

To find this underappreciated talent during the Giants’ stretch of World Series victories, Sabean was both receptive and innovative when it came to the evolving tools for player evaluation.  For a man who spent his formative front office years in scouting and player development, and would naturally have resented the way Michael Lewis portrayed scouts in Moneyball, statistical analysis eventually assumed a meaningful part of the evaluation process.  At least as important, Sabean recognized that the Giants needed to take advantage of their location in the heart of the technology industry and were at the forefront marrying video downloads with high-powered computing. As the USA Today put it, the Giants “applied a mixture of tech and baseball savvy that helped the baseball and business side. . . . You might call it Techball.”

Over Sabean’s tenure the Giants have won four pennants and three World Series, an enviable record.  The team has produced some high-end talent, Sabean has proved adept at finding key contributors at low cost, and he and Bochy have kept the team winning and free of drama.

— 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.