So, you’re an experienced fantasy player and you’ve read Moneyball cover-to-cover and you’re convinced that you’re ready to be a Major League Baseball general manager. Because you just know that you’ll show those guys how to succeed without trying all that hard.
Let’s have a real-case scenario from a couple of years ago. We’re going to put you in charge of a team that went 92-70 before losing in the first round of the playoffs. You’re in excellent position because the team you inherited was very good, you have an experienced manager whom the players respect and trust, the farm system is among the best in baseball and you have a new owner who is not afraid of spending cash and who maintains a payroll in the top five.
However, you do face some problems which require decisive action. Your manager moved your best defensive outfielder to first base, because injuries were limiting the amount of time he could play in the field. This created a void in center and a lack of offense at first base. The manager moved his left fielder over to center, where he is stretched defensively. Also, the manager had some run-ins with the new left fielder and has made it known that he will no longer tolerate that player on the club. Your once-promising third baseman has become injury-prone, is a free agent and has declared he does not want to DH. And the team’s closer the past nine years is also a free agent. Finally, while you have a high payroll, you’re pretty much at your limit.
The good news is that you have a youngster who you think can handle the closer’s role, so you’re ready to let that free agent leave. You have a starting pitcher who you have no plans to re-sign which will free up some additional cash. Two of your top prospects (and top 10 prospects in the game) play first and third base, giving you tremendous flexibility. And there are two attractive center fielders available on the free agent market.
What do you do?
Your hand gets forced when your free agent third baseman tells you that he has a three-year offer from another team that will pay him more per year than he received from your team last year. So, no home-town discount or injury rebate will be available. Do you pay market rate and hope for a healthy year, do you give the job to the top prospect or do you make a trade for a new third baseman? And if you trade, what do you give up? The fans love the veterans on this team and your prospects are potential impact players.
Next, which center fielder do you pursue? The young star is coming off a monster season and figures to be the highest-paid free agent while the older star can be had for slightly less than what the team paid the starting pitcher you are letting walk. But while this player shows no signs of slowing down, he is very old for an outfielder, especially a center fielder. There are no trade options available and your internal options are keeping the same guy you were unhappy with last year, moving your defensive stud back from first base and risking further injury or playing a super-sub. Your decision in center will affect what to do with left field. If you get a different player for center, you can slide last year’s starter back to left. But if not, you have to get a new corner outfielder and the only internal option is the super-sub.
Next, do you keep the defensive stud at first base and take the offensive hit? His contract makes him untradeable, even if the fan base wouldn’t lynch you for trying it in the first place. You can play the prospect or make a trade, although the same caveats apply in regards to veterans and prospects that were mentioned before.
You have an opening at DH. Last year, the position was a revolving door, with the injured third baseman getting the most at-bats there, while the super-sub played third. Do you let one of the prospects break in at DH or do you look to add more offense to make up for the weak-hitting first baseman?
And just to make your job a bit more challenging, your incumbent shortstop is arbitration eligible and you don’t think he’s worth the money that he’ll make through that process. There are two attractive free agents available but are you ready to take the public relations hit for cutting loose a popular player?
Finally, you’ll have to find a new starting pitcher to replace the one leaving via free agency, make the usual bullpen/bench moves and fit it all in under the same payroll as the year before.
What do you do?
Perhaps you recognized the real-life scenario. These were the challenges facing Angels general manager Bill Stoneman following the 2004 season. The first thing he did was to trade his left fielder, Jose Guillen, for two bench players (Juan Rivera, Macier Izturis), the types that wouldn’t kill you if you had to play them, but not people you would want to enter the season with as your starters.
Next, he let the injury-prone third baseman, Troy Glaus, leave as a free agent and planned to give the job to the rookie, Dallas McPherson. The same day, he signed the older center fielder, 40-year-old Steve Finley, to a two-year deal. Three days later, he added free agent Paul Byrd to fill the vacant spot in the rotation.
A week later, he cut the incumbent shortstop, David Eckstein, and the following month signed free agent Orlando Cabrera, nearly tripling the expenditure on shortstop from the previous season.
The Angels left the defensive stud, Darin Erstad, at first base and used the DH slot on numerous people, just like they did in 2004.
How did it work out?
The team won three more games than the year before but it was in spite of Stoneman’s moves, not because of them. Holdovers carried the heaviest load, with Bartolo Colon winning the Cy Young Award, Vladimir Guerrero putting up an MVP-caliber year, Francisco Rodriguez becoming a dominant closer and John Lackey becoming a top-of-the-rotation starter.
Troy Glaus put up a healthy season for the Diamondbacks, appearing in as many games as he did the previous two seasons combined, while hitting 37 home runs. Dallas McPherson battled injury problems of his own and was limited to just 61 games.
Steve Finley played hurt the majority of the year and was a bust.
Paul Byrd won 12 games and was an adequate replacement for Aaron Sele in the rotation at a cheaper cost.
Orlando Cabrera played solid defense but was even a worse hitter than David Eckstein, as the former Angel posted a batting average 37 points higher and had a 54-point edge in on-base percentage.
Darin Erstad played worse than he did in 2004. His OPS of .696 would be unacceptable for a shortstop, much less a first baseman. Kotchman became an everyday player the final two months of the season, when he hit .302 with a .360 on-base percentage and a .526 slugging mark, seeing most of his time at designated hitter.
For which moves should Stoneman have been second-guessed?
He had to trade Guillen and ended up getting a decent haul considering the circumstances. Nobody should have any problems here.
It was hard to commit that much money to Glaus given his recent history. That he played a full season and McPherson ended up getting hurt was just a cruel twist of fate. Again, nobody should be complaining.
A two-year deal for Finley was a poor decision. While they probably could not afford Carlos Beltran, it would have been much better if they moved Erstad back to center and played super-sub Chone Figgins whenever Erstad landed on the disabled list. This also would have opened up first base for Kotchman, who was ready.
Paul Byrd did everything that could have been hoped for by the team. No problems with this signing.
Dumping Eckstein for Cabrera was unnecessary. Macier Izturis, acquired in the Jose Guillen deal, would have done as good as Cabrera for a fraction of the cost, but few would have guessed this at the time.
Would you have done a better job than Stoneman? And is it fair to criticize the job performance of a general manager whose team won 95 games?
This was an easy example. The team was good, free agents wanted to play for you, and the farm system was packed. And Stoneman’s performance was routinely blasted by the team’s fans. Do you still want to be a general manager?