For the Brian Cashmans and Theo Epsteins of the world, life is great.
The baseball universe is their oyster. Their budgets are limited only by the amount of revenue their respective teams generate, which is to say they are hardly limited at all.
Want Adrian Gonzalez or Mark Teixeira? Just wave an obscene contract at them and watch them sign on the dotted line. Need a decent outfielder? Go ahead and drop $142 million on Carl Crawford.
It’s all good. It’s only money.
However, most other MLB general managers live in a very different world—a world where hard budgets actually exist and drawing big-name talent is a challenge, not just another day at the office.
For a myriad of reasons, Los Angeles Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, as an example, has his hands tied when it comes to baseball operations. He is tasked with building a competitive team out of a shoestring budget and clever draft maneuvering. And he is not alone.
Here are the most “handcuffed” GMs in Major League Baseball—the men whose job is turning lemons into lemonade and chicken crap into chicken salad. For these men, the business of baseball is a fickle, challenging mistress.
It’s a tough job, but hey, someone’s gotta do it.
With Moneyball currently enjoying big-screen success, the story of Billy Beane’s money-saving, allegedly landscape-changing team-building tactics are becoming more and more well known.
But while the movie may make the A’s seem like scrappy underdogs led by a devilishly handsome matinee idol, the reality is that “Moneyball” is just a code word for “we don’t have any money—make it work.”
That pretty much sums up Beane’s job: No money. Make it work.
Not only do the A’s not have any money, but they’ve never had any money. At least not recently. Their stadium is...whatever the opposite of state-of-the-art is. Their merchandise sales and national recognition are nonexistent. And free agents aren’t exactly dying to come live in idyllic Oakland for half the year.
Despite all this, Beane has made it work. Generally. OK, maybe not so much recently, but overall, he’s done pretty well.
Given his minuscule budget, the glory days of Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson are practically unfathomable in the unlikelihood of their greatness. Even the modern-day version of Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey, Gio Gonzalez and Kurt Suzuki is pretty darn good, all things considered.
In fact, Beane has a remarkable track record, especially given the fact that he is remarkably handcuffed.
Andrew Friedman has done more with less than Gallagher and Carrot Top combined. That’s right—a Gallagher reference and a Carrot Top reference, right in the same sentence. Boom.
Despite one of the lowest payrolls in the majors, a stadium that is absolutely embarrassing and attendance numbers that would make a WNBA franchise blush, Friedman has created a perennial contender. He is consistently recognized as perhaps the best GM in the game and is at worst on par with Cashman, Epstein and other more fortunate GMs.
Friedman has done an astonishingly good job with a team that, by all rights, should be one of the worst in baseball. He has drafted remarkably well. He has signed his top-level young talent to long-term, team-friendly contracts. He has been exceedingly savvy in his free-agent moves and has shown the innate ability of knowing when to pull the trigger on a trade and when to hold on to his assets.
In the Tampa Bay Rays, Andrew Friedman has created a team full of young superstars who are poised to contend in baseball’s toughest division for years to come—and he has done so with 20 percent of the budget of his rivals.
Florida’s Michael Hill has all the same limitations as his in-state mate Andrew Friedman—only Hill has found his obstacles much more difficult to overcome.
Don’t get me wrong—given their payroll, attendance and general aversion to spending money, the Marlins have some nice pieces to build around. As foundations go, you could do much worse than Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson and Logan Morrison.
Unfortunately, the Marlins have whiffed on many of their secondary moves.
They are overpaying three mediocre starters in Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez and Javier Vazquez (although Vazquez’s deal is short-term and shouldn’t hurt the team going forward). Former big-name prospects Chris Coghlan and Chris Volstad haven’t been total disappointments but haven’t developed into real difference-makers either.
Hill’s story is more typical of a handcuffed GM than Friedman’s is. When you don’t have much money to spend, there is no room for error.
Theo Epstein could afford to pay Javier Vazquez $7 million a season. Hell, he could afford to pay him $17 million a season. He could afford to pay him $17 million a season to sit on the bench or in the trainer’s room, for that matter.
But for Hill, a $7 million mistake is a very, very bad thing—and two $7 million mistakes can ruin your chances to compete.
Such is the life of a handcuffed GM.
Somewhere, Ned Colletti is sitting in front of a rainy window thinking about the good old days—a single tear most likely falling down his cheek.
When Colletti first arrived in Los Angeles, it was Studio 54 in 1978. Anything went. There were no limits.
$21 million for Juan Uribe? Great!
$33 million for Ted Lilly? Fantastic!
A combined $42 million to Rafael Furcal and Hiroki Kuroda? Put it on my tab!
Then, Frank and Jamie McCourt got divorced, and the bubble popped. For the team that credit built, the well had run dry.
Now, Colletti must decide which of his young cornerstones he wants to keep. He must stay quiet on the free-agent market and hold on to the various horrendously bad contracts he signed. In a way, he is handcuffed by his own poor decisions just as much as he is by his team's lack of money. Almost.
Dayton Moore is in a relatively unique position with the Kansas City Royals.
Unlike other teams, there is literally no chance of K.C. landing a free agent of any real value. Not only do the Royals not have the money to offer, but the prospect of playing for a perennially uncompetitive team in front of half-empty crowds isn’t exactly the stuff that free agents dream of.
As a result, Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur have to become K.C.'s version of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford.
Moore has been forced to build his team almost solely through the draft. Although it has taken, well, since the '80s, K.C. is finally starting to see some results...kind of.
Moore specializes in drafting talent that is elite..in college or high school. But the thing about elite college and high school baseball players is that their success rate in the pros is incredibly low, especially in comparison to other sports. So while the Royals' farm system may look good on paper, it has not yet translated into, you know, actual wins for the Royals.
Most teams can increase their chances of success by adding free agents or making trades that require them taking on extra payroll. Moore can’t do any of this. He must rely completely on the fruits of the amateur draft, which even for draft savants are often underwhelming.
Let’s say you were a general manager, and you were exceedingly good at your job.
You developed young talent into legitimate superstars. You built starting rotations and elite bullpens seemingly out of thin air. You took in aging vets and mixed them with young talent to create a legitimate division contender.
Then let’s say that one day your boss came to you and said, “Hey, we love your work. You’ve been doing a great job here. But here’s the thing: We’re gonna need to you to go ahead and trade Jake Peavy and Adrian Gonzalez. Get whatever you can for them. Also, they’ll basically get to veto any deal they don’t like, so make sure they go to a contender who can pay them.
“And you know that bullpen that everyone loves so much? Get rid of them too. I mean seriously, it’s time to rebuild. I know that this team is just scratching the surface of what it can do, but we literally can’t pay any of these guys. Thanks a lot.”
Would that frustrate you?
Welcome to the world of the Padres general manager. While the Gonzalez, Peavy and many other forced trades fall on former GM Kevin Towers, they are now the sort of problem that Jed Hoyer faces on a daily basis.
San Diego is a great city, but the people there just don’t care about baseball. When the Padres are bad, their attendance is among the worst in the league. Even when they are good, people don’t really care. In 2005 and 2006, when the Padres last made the postseason, they finished fifth and eighth respectively in the National League in attendance. Not great.
Heath Bell seems to be on his way out of San Diego, and the prospects the Padres received from the Red Sox in exchange for Gonzalez haven’t exactly been lighting the world on fire. I’m looking at you, Anthony Rizzo.