The Great General Manager Debate: NL Central Edition

The trade that made me lose faith in the Pirates suckitude...


Part of my reaction to the Aki Iwamura trade was realizing how surprisingly competent the Pirates front office has become. They picked up a cost-controlled player for a replaceable part and improved their infield defense in the process. How is that a bad thing?

The funny thing is, the Pirates have been bad for so long, and it's so easy to dismiss their hires as actually being good baseball people, I had forgotten what Pittsburgh was actually getting in Neil Huntington. Here's another post from FanGraphs about what this trade means for the Pirates executives and here's an interview with Dan Fox, their database guru. Basically, the Pirates have a guy that gets to play with computer simulations all day until he can accurately evaluate and forecast players. I can get that job how?

It also made me start thinking about all the general managers in the National League Central. Which ones was I most afraid of? Which ones were a joke? Were there any teams that were run competently from year to year?

The thing that surprised me when I did my research was not that Ed Wade is probably the weakest GM in the Central, it's that so many of them have changed in the past two seasons. Justice loves to harp on how the organizational chaos Houston has gone through is affecting the club in many ways. Still, to see that so many of Wade's peers have also changed jobs recently is refreshing.

It's also scary, especially when at least four of these guys are competent-to-really good. After the jump is a look at each GM. Feel free to share your thoughts on who worries you the most in the comments...

Chicago Cubs

GM Jim Hendry

Tenure: Since July, 2002  ( 7 1/2 seasons)

Notes: The longest tenured general manager also has the biggest payroll of any team in the division. What does he do with all that money? Waste it. As scary as the Cubs lineup and rotation can be, Hendry alone makes me feel good about the Astros chances against Chicago in the near future.

This was a man who overpaid for guys like LaTroy Hawkins and Ted Lilly (though, to be fair, Lilly was excellent). He also spent a ton of money for Alfonso Soriano to play center field, and then promptly bumped him to left. Then, he spent a ton of money to bring in notorious pot-stirrer Milton Bradley, adding to the dangerous clubhouse dynamic that Lou Piniella always brings.

Funny thing, though, 134 million can buy you a damned good team. Hendry may have made mistakes in the past, but has done a good job of at least correcting them. He admitted failure with Rich Hill, shipping him off to Baltimore. He did turn Ryan Dempster into an effective pitcher in his new role with the Cubs. Hendry also has a productive farm system, with guys like Carlos Marmol and Geovanny Soto picking up the team on the cheap.

Would Hendry be this good without all that money? Probably not. In his market, though, it's tough not to make a big splash each season and have the fans be happy. Of all the GMs, though, I'm least afraid of Hendry.

 

Cincinnati Reds

GM Walt Jocketty

Tenure: Since 2008 (2 seasons)

Notes: The interesting thing about Jocketty is he went from a winning team to one that is continually frustrated by not being able to get over the hump. He also went to a team that walked away from a more progressive-thinking GM in former Twins assistant Wayne Krivsky for the more traditional Jocketty. Of course, Jocketty also followed Tony LaRussa from Oakland to St. Louis, so it's unclear how much of his philosophy is tied to LaRussa's.

The Reds haven't exactly been dramatic in making over the club, but Jocketty has shown a willingness to be aggressive with the team's prospects and not trade off valuable assets for overhyped players (I'm looking at you, Jim Bowden). Still, Jocketty hasn't shown the same level of success as at his previous two stops. It will take a little more time to see whether his player evaluation method transfers to the Reds scouting department. If Jocketty can hit a few home runs in the draft, the rest of his record in the Queen City will be moot.

 

Milwaukee Brewers

GM Doug Melvin

Tenure: Since September 2002 (7 seasons)

Notes: One of the two longest tenured GMs in the NL Central, Melvin has had an up-and-down career in Milwaukee. Yes, he did draft Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder. Yes, he did trade for CC Sabathia. But, what have the Brewers actually won? This team seems to consistenly play for second place, which isn't bad, but until they can get over the hump mentally, Melvin may not be viewed more positively.

All indications are that Melvin is a more traditional GM. The Brewers don't leap out at you as a very sabermetric-friendly team, but they do have a little bit of the Oakland A's philosophy for a small market. The Brewers under Melvin consistently make unpopular decisions with players to avoid locking them up to bad contracts that hurt the team. Instead, they'll buy out arbitration years for a player, insuring cost certainty and rewarding young guys before they may be overpaid. Exhibit one is Ryan Braun.

Certainly, the biggest deficiency with the club is starting pitching. Melvin has shown a knack for making big moves (CC), regardless of his position as a small market team. He's also done a good job of drafting by talent and not positional needs (Matt LaPorta, anyone?). The obvious plus side of this is Melvin can then trade for pitching with his talent surplus. It will be interesting to see if Melvin can keep the pipeline going for the Brewers and tinker around the edges enough to get a winner.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

GM Neil Huntington

Tenure: Since September 2007 (2 seasons)

Notes: Here is the crux of my argument. The Pirates are without a doubt the worst-run franchise in the National League. For years, they have been incompetent, both in the draft, in trades and in fielding winning ball clubs. Who can forget Randall Simon viciously attacking that poor Bratwurst in Milwaukee? Just horrible. Still, Huntington has done a great job of reversing this trend. He correctly indentified assets that were expendible, seems to have valued his minor leaguers correctly and his only big misstep so far has been the Bay trade. The big deal with the Yankees netted the Buccos a solid starter in Ross Ohlendorff and a young outfielder in Jose Tabata (who hasn't panned out). The Bay deal saw an iffy Andy LaRoche, a reliever (Craig Hanson) and a fourth or fifth outfielder (Brandon Moss) traded for one of the best left fielders in baseball.

Of course, if the Pirates had let Bay walk after the season like the Red Sox have, they'd be roundly criticized. The organization seems to be headed in the right direction. Count me as still skeptical, though, even with present evidence to the contrary.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

GM John Mozeliak

Tenure: Since 2008 (2 seasons)

Notes: Mozeliak took over a team that didn't have much to work with outside of a couple big money players (Pujols, Rolen, Carpenter) and a ton of farm talent. He's tinkered around the edges well and leaned heavily on his manager and pitching coach's reputations to slot in marginal guys into productive roles. Mozeliak stuck by Colby Rasmus through early slumps and made a big-ticket acquisition of Matt Holliday.

There are conflicting reports about his style, but it seems like he appreciates what the stats can tell him about the game and uses it to some degree. Yet, his philosophy seems to be grating on the older school ideas of Tony LaRussa. Combine that with his cold-blooded trade of Dave Duncan's son, Chris, and he's done quite a bit to alienate two of the most important cogs to the Cardinals machine for the past decade. Not that I'm complaining.

There are both good and bad qualities here, but I don't think we can judge Mozeliak fairly until he's out from under LaRussa's considerable shadow (the man's a genius, after all).

 

Houston Astros

GM Ed Wade

Tenure: Since September 2007 (2 seasons)

Notes: So, the thing about Ed Wade is he can't trade. I said some nice things in the past about the job he did leading up to this past season, but after reviewing his track record in Philly, I have a suggestion. Ed Wade needs to hire some smart, baseball-savvy mind to be his trade manager. Like a salary-cap manager in football, this person would handle all the ramifications of trades (scouting players, balance, contracts, etc.) and give his best recommendation to Wade. Only then could the big man sign off.

If you think I exaggerate, look at his transactions. Here's a link to Baseball-Reference's transaction page starting in 1998. Wade took over in January of that year. In his entire Philly tenure, he made two good trades: Billy Wagner and Kenny Lofton. Every other trade he made was a bloodbath. Eric Milton? He gave up Nick Punto and Carlos Silva. Scott Rolen? He got Placido Polanco and that's it. He traded Curt Schilling for nothing. He traded away a young Adam Eaton for a declining Andy Ashby. He traded two young pitchers for two relievers and Ron Gant. Who thought this was a good idea? In fact, Wade's history is chock-full of trades for relievers. It's the position he enjoys tinkering with most on the team. Unfortunately, relievers are fungible, and trading for them wastes cheap assets.

Thus, why I had the idea of a trade manager. I'm sure someone like Paul DiPodesta or Kevin Towers wouldn't mind being the Astros full-time trade scout, right? Either one would be imminently more qualified than Wade to make these kinds of decisions. And yes, I realize that Wade has made some decent trades with the Astros. Sticking to the numbers, though? That streak may not last forever.

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