So there’s pretty much a universal feeling of anger and frustration and sadness here regarding Sabean’s retention, mostly deserved. The man did engineer quite a few winning teams and pulled off several good trades, but the former were mostly the result of having one of the game’s all-time best players and the latter were overshadowed by the myriad of awful trades and free agent signings that marred the team and pushed it into several years of suck. Most of the blame for this period falls on Sabean (with a little distributed between various managers and owners), and again, there’s good reason for that: he’s the GM, probably the most powerful voice when it comes to who to sign and who to trade for and who to hold on to. This got me thinking: why are we entrusting this one man with the future of the team?
I’d like to suggest a fairly radical idea: replace the solitary GM with three co-GMs, a triumvirate whose decisions as a body will require the assent of at least two members (it has to be three if not one; two GMs would result in frequent and unproductive dissent). With one general manager, too much of the team’s direction is placed in one man’s hands; sure, he has plenty of scouts, assistants, and the manager giving him advice and altering his direction, as well as an owner who overrules him, but ultimately I feel the single GM has too much control; to say he holds the team’s future in his hands is a pretty accurate assessment. You don’t have to go far to find idiot GMs on failing teams (Dayton Moore, JP Riccardi until a month ago, Walt Jocketty, etc) or great GMs building contenders (Theo Epstein, Andrew Friedman, etc).
So here’s what you do: you replace the GM with the GMs, three equal individuals, each from a different perspective. One sabremetrician, one experienced scout, and one “baseball executive” (I’ll define that more later). This will balance theoretical and experiential knowledge to best judge which players are worth it and which players are not.
The sabremetrician is a pretty obvious role: one guy who knows what all those obscure, yet highly important, stats mean, how to calculate them, and how to apply them. This is the guy that reminds you not to sign Player X despite his coming off a career year, because his HR/FB rate is inflated and his BABIP is 50 points above his career average. It’s the guy that explains Matt Cain was a good pitcher last year, but he wasn’t 2.89 ERA good, he just had a crazy LOB% and generally got lucky. This helps guard against the eyeball signings and using irrelevant stats to evaluate players.
The scout is the guy who spent twenty years in the minor league system and can tell you the entire roster of every affiliate and what flavor ice cream they like most. He can tell you if a guy is going to go the Mark Prior route or the Tim Lincecum route (hopefully). The sabremetrician can tell you that Prospect X looks great because he posted a .250 ISO and a .400 wOBA in college, but the scout can point out that his swing has got holes in it, he can’t hit a curveball (ok, so the sabremetrician could figure that out too) and whether he’s a guy you can fix or a lost cause. This is an important role mostly for the draft and minor league system, but also for knowing which young guys you want and which ones you don’t (for trades/non-tendering), and which guys are ready for the big club and which ones need more seasoning. He’s the guy that will tell you Tim Alderson looked good, but he was generally overvalued and therefore expendable (but he still should’ve fetched more than just Freddy Sanchez).
The “baseball executive” is the negotiator, veteran player expert, and the guy who knows how to work the system. The scout and the sabremetrician aren’t going to be very useful when it comes to determining market value and swapping players; you need a guy who knows a bit about the farm system, and a bit about the stats, and a lot about what makes a player want to come to a certain team. He’s also going to be the authority on free agents, ideally in-between the sabremetrician and the scout. The sabremetrician would say to Lincecum, “We’re prepared to offer you $20 million a year because Fangraphs values your performance at $35 million and your FIP was this and your BB% was this and…”. The scout would say to Lincecum, “We’re going to offer your $2 million because that’s a big raise off you’re $400,000 salary and we’ve got these great prospects coming up and they’re going to be cheap and amazing and you’re replaceable” (Ok, so they wouldn’t be that extreme, but you get the drift; the scout, being focused on the farm system, would undervalue an established major league producer and overvalue the prospects). The “baseball executive” would say to Lincecum, “Look, we know you like San Francisco, and we would love for you to stay here. We also know that you’re really the first guy to put up numbers like this in his first year, but you have to know that we’re weighed down by the Zito and Rowand contracts, and we don’t have that much payroll space. We also have to be careful with pitchers, because they tend to be more unpredictable than other players. But you’re still going to get a great deal, because we realize how special a player you are we’d really like to lock you up long term. We can offer you Contract X based on what Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke got and where we feel we are as a team and where we think we’ll be in a few years.” He’s going to go the middle route between scout and sabremetrician, ideally be a guy who’s worked in baseball operations for a while and knows the business and knows the agents and knows the other executives, like Brian Sabean without the stupid. The “baseball executive” is a bit more difficult to define, but it’s certainly an important role.
I know the scout and the sabremetrician already exist within the system, and I know the “baseball executive” is essentially the current GM (he’s supposed to be), but this would put all three on an equal playing field, and force them to listen to each other and find reasons for their decisions. They’d have to justify themselves not to a possibly ignorant owner, or underlings who can be pushed aside, but to two equals who have the power to overrule them if they’re not providing a good enough argument. Yes, this system could end up being problematic (especially if personal issues arise), but I think it’d be a lot fairer and produce better results than what we’ve got now. The three perspectives need to be equal, because their importance is equal; Sabean’s “baseball executive” doesn’t do any better than Billy Beane’s “sabremetrician” because there is no balance in their roles within the Giants or A’s organizations.