Barring injury, an abrupt decline, or an age adjustment, Albert Pujols seems destined to make his way into the “Best Player Ever” conversation. Just entering his age-30 season, Pujols has cracked 366 career home runs on the way to a .334/.427/.628 line. He is, without question, the greatest hitter in the game today, and nothing besides his age indicates he’s entered the decline phase of his career. Of course, any player who can make a claim to stand alongside Ruth, Mays, Aaron, Bonds, and the rest will make the aging curve look foolish.
But for all of this, Pujols cannot be the most valuable person in baseball.
While he’s shown no signs of aging, decline is inevitable. And he’s going to be very, very expensive for the duration of his career. Being the best player in baseball doesn’t make him the most valuable asset in the game. This applies to you, as well, Joe Mauer. In my opinion, the only offensive player in the game who can stand on equal footing with Pujols, Mauer’s detriments in this conversation are nearly identical to those of the Cardinals first baseman. Though he’s much younger than Pujols, Mauer comes with city miles, so to speak. He’s a near-lock to decline at an earlier age than Pujols, both due to his position and the fact that Albert is already breaking the curve.
Mauer, too, is getting awfully pricey. He cannot be the most valuable asset in baseball.
The next logical group of players to look at would be the prospects and very recent call-ups. I’m talking about guys like Matt Wieters, Buster Posey, Jason Heyward and Stephen Strasburg. They’re talented as could be and will be cheap for a while yet, but the most valuable asset in the game doesn’t come from this group. There’s just too much that has to go right between now and 2015.
And I’m dismissing the rest of the veteran superstars out of hand. Alex Rodriguez, Chase Utley, Ichiro, Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia just don’t figure to sustain their performance levels for long enough. Indeed, the most valuable player asset in the game probably comes from the group of young stars.
But none of these exceptional players is the most valuable asset in baseball, either. The three pitchers, Cabrera and Ramirez already are earning salaries at least beginning to approach their worth, and Kemp will get paid soon enough. Longoria’s a different animal. His agent, Paul Cohen, ought to have a very, very short client list after negotiating that disaster of a contract for Longoria. The Rays control him through 2016, when he will still cost a maximum of $14,050,000. And that’s if he makes the All-Star team and fulfills incentives related to MVP voting. Of all the people listed so far, Longoria might represent the most valuable asset, but we haven’t widened the scope enough yet.
So who could possibly be more valuable going forward than a locked-up 24-year-old third baseman worth 5.3 and 7.2 wins in his first two major league seasons? Well, it might just be the guy who will pay Longoria less through 2016 than he was worth in just 2008 and 2009. That’s Andrew Friedman, executive vice president (and general manager) of the Tampa Rays. Longoria’s contract, as you know, is far from the only coup of Friedman’s career. The Rays are bursting at the seams with young, cheap talent. While it’s difficult to pin down exactly what Friedman makes for his remarkable efforts, he’s no doubt going to make less for his performance than Longoria himself. Friedman might be the most valuable asset in baseball.
Or maybe it’s Theo Epstein. Lots of young talent there, too, and his Boston organization might be the best-run in the game. Or maybe it’s Jack Zduriencik. He’s done simply remarkable things in his brief tenure in Seattle, and he’d be an excellent choice in a general manager fantasy draft. Bill Smith steers the stablest organization in baseball; the Twins compete every single year despite significant financial constraints, and there’s little front office turnover. How Smith handles improved revenue streams will be interesting to follow as the Twins open Target Field. And I haven’t touched on many other outstanding decision-makers. My omission of a general manager from this paragraph isn’t meant as a condemnation (except for you, Dayton, Brian and Ed. You may feel condemned.). It’s just that identifying the “best” general manager in the game isn’t an easy task.
I believe a particular general manager is the most valuable asset in baseball primarily due to ownership’s extraordinary return on investment. It’s tough to figure out exactly how much they all make, but the Yankees’ Brian Cashman, employed by the game’s wealthiest club, will make $6 million for his efforts in 2010. I’d be surprised if any of his adversaries make significantly morel. So we’ve got this group of professionals who make no more than something in the mid-to-high seven figures annually, and they’re responsible for spending the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars that comprise team payrolls.
Surely, some are better than others. So, why aren’t general managers the elusive Moneyball-inspired market inefficiency? Wouldn’t the surest way for a struggling organization to ascend the ranks be to make a transcendently good general manager an offer he or she just couldn’t refuse? If teams are paying players $3.5 million per win this offseason, why not pay a general manager, say, $7 million each year? After all, a great general manager must be worth more than two wins over a replacement GM.
General managers can’t be the new market inefficiency, because we can’t adequately quantify their performance. What makes one general manager better than another? Yes, return on investment is a great place to start. But it can’t be as simple to comparing how much one GM pays for a win compared to his peers. We can’t isolate the variables with GM spending like we can player performance. Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman have different jobs; Dustin Pedroia and Ben Zobrist do not. While maximizing returns on player spending is certainly an important component of general managing in baseball, it’s not everything.
If you want to make a new-age baseball fan scoff in derision, laud a player’s intangibles. Seriously. Go up to Michael Schur at a coffee shop in LA and talk about “[m]ythical fairy creature” David Eckstein‘s heart, grit and guts. He will laugh at you. And God forbid you time-travel back to 2007 and publish an article about Eck’s intangibles in a newspaper. Schur and his colleagues would excoriate you for the public’s amusement. But general managers? Intangibles matter.
Setting aside that nearly all “intangibles” in a business context eventually leave tangible evidence of their existence, much of a general manager’s skill is currently impossible to quantify. His working relationships with other general managers, player agents, ownership and the team manager really, truly matter. Don’t be fooled by the matching uniforms and communal celebrations—for players, baseball is, essentially, an individual sport. Not in the front office, though. Hiring Darin Erstad to play baseball for your team in any year after 2006 was an indefensible act of general managerial malpractice. Hiring Kevin Towers, often ridiculed as an operations guy but universally respected among “baseball people,” might be a wonderful move. You can derive value from a front office employee’s intangibles much more easily than a player’s.
But you can look at Johnny Damon and know how much to pay him, because you have a very good idea of his expected worth (unless you are Dayton Moore). You cannot do the same with general managers. Nolan Ryan could not have approached Tom Hicks last year and explained precisely why Hicks should pay Andrew Friedman some outlandish amount to leave Tampa for Texas. What’s more, most general managers seem to report only to ownership. Given that general managers tend to oversee the quantitative side of organizations, any new-fangled analysis of general managers’ worth would surely never reach ownership’s ears, unless such information could be used to demand a raise. And besides, for the reasons listed above, GM performance isn’t quantifiable.
Yet. But can it be? How would we go about replacing anecdotes with analysis when we evaluate general managers? Would it be a wins-based approach? gmWAR? Would we invent an entirely new sort of metric, perhaps keyed on efficient use of assets? How would we control for the variability of a general manager’s resources? What exactly should go into the analysis of general managers?
Is it even possible?
Just a generation ago, we measured hitters by batting average and pitchers by assigned wins. Might we one day know as much about the executives of the future as we do the players of today? Judging by the extraordinary insight found here and dozens of other baseball think-tanks every single day, I sure wouldn’t bet against it.