[Billy Beane and Kevin Towers] operate, as ballplayers do, without a fear of failure. This year Beane found too many phone calls that came his way that sounded like this: "I have interest in one of your players and this is what I'm going to give you for him."
"That's not deal-making," Beane said.
It's name-your-own price. The art of the deal has been replaced by the science of the deal…
I don’t know to whom Billy Beane was specifically referring to in the above quote, but I always imagine it was Theo Epstein or Andrew Friedman, maybe even Jed Hoyer. I know it wasn’t Jeff Luhnow, who wasn’t a general manager when the quote was made, but I get the impression that had he been, it still wouldn’t apply.
There is only so much we can truly know about how a front office operates and does business, and just about all of it we deduce from outcomes. Who was drafted and signed? What trades were completed? To a lesser extent, the rumor mongers fill us in on who has been talking, but it’s always a little shady and a lot vague. For my money, this was the true genius of Moneyball, the book. Oh sure, the hook was the ascription of mythical powers to a handful of analytical techniques, but the meat was immersion inside a general manager’s world during free agency, the draft, and the trade deadline. Today’s hardcore baseball fan spends an inordinate amount of time putting himself in the GM’s shoes, but has surprisingly little information about what goes on there.* Many of our favorite analysts have even worked in front offices, but are silenced by unwritten codes of conduct and clearly written confidentiality agreements. They frequently tell us how much we don’t know, but rarely give specifics. The quote above is pulled from a rare gem written by Tom Verducci that puts those of us who care way too much at least in the neighborhood of the GM’s office. Here is another great one from Bloomberg Businessweek, of all places.
*One of my favorite all time experiences as a sports fan was attending NBA summer league games in 2005 in Minneapolis. My friends and I happened to sit directly in front of then Milwaukee Bucks GM Larry Harris during one of the games. For about two hours, we eavesdropped on conversations with colleagues and assistants as well as phone calls with people around the league. Harris talked about decisions he made in the draft (Ersan Ilyasova over Ryan Gomes because he was “younger and longer”), who he was regretting missing out on (“Kleiza is looking fantastic so far”), and other minutia. It was completely lacking in any groundbreaking information or scandalous gossip, and it was wonderful.
Despite all this lack, my mind is convinced it has the full picture of who Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are and how they operate. They are misers that drive hard bargains. Not unfriendly, mind you, but cordial, professional, and uncompromising. They have absolutely no qualms about asking the moon for players that are obviously playing above their talent level, and they will relentlessly work the phones in search of a mark. Negotiating with them will not be easy or fun. You may get the impression that they know something that you don’t. “I mean, they have all that expensive analytical technology on their side … That has to count for something, right? For goodness sakes, former colleagues publicly worry about getting fleeced by Theo.” I imagine other GMs sigh when Theo or Jed gets on the phone. “I want what they are selling, but this isn’t going to be easy… Cancel all my golf outings between now and the deadline, this thing is gonna go down to the wire…I would rather be negotiating with Theo’s stalker, to be honest…”
Theo and Jed are driven by a singular, overriding goal: to acquire impact talent in a world where it’s increasingly unavailable. They recognize that their job depends on one thing only, turning this thing around as soon as possible. The public trust is not going to last long, so the sooner they can build a solid foundation, the better. To get there, a lot of things are going to have to break in their favor, and if a few business relationships are damaged in the process, that’s just the cost of doing business. “After all we ask of our players: to work harder then anyone else, do the little things, always compete, how can we possibly justify not doing the same? And if other teams don’t value their players as well as we do, whose fault is that?”
And despite his portrayal in Moneyball as all-knowing and a little bit conniving, I don’t think Billy Beane is like that. After all, there was a little pushback in the industry following the book’s publication, but it was more from talking heads than anyone else. Kenny Williams was unmercifully portrayed in the book, but it didn’t stop him from continuing to trade with Beane. In fact, Beane still pulls off as many trades as anyone, enough to make me think the portrayal was at least incomplete.
I think Beane is a lot like Jeff Luhnow. Luhnow was hired this past offseason by the Astros into a situation that makes for natural comparison with the Cubs. Both teams stink. Both are in big markets. Neither can count on imminent relief from the farm system. Both regimes are taking their teams through an organization-wide rebuilding process. Both seem to be on the cutting edge of analytics.
Yet Luhnow’s approach seems to contrast with Thoyer’s. He didn’t make a big splash in international free agency. Heaven help the team that tried to keep up with the cubs in chasing Cubans, but even in the capped IFA market the Astros eschewed the top prospects and signed a handful of lesser known players, whereas the cubs invested heavily in two big names. In the draft, the Cubs paid overslot for the guy they thought was the best player in the draft, while the Astros underslotted Carlos Correa with the first overall pick and as a result were able to lure supplemental pick Lance McCullers away from a strong commitment to Florida.
Which brings us to the trade deadline. Luhnow wasn’t doing much at all on Tuesday; he was already finished. My mind has him pegged as reasonable and easy to deal with. He knows he doesn’t have a lot to sell, so he takes advantage of any opportunity that presents itself. He moves early and isn’t concerned about winning every deal. After all, acquiring top prospects is pretty damn impossible these days. “Why not just focus on the prospects that we like, rankings be damned, get as many as we can, and hope a few pan out. Instead of wasting time haggling, lets make these moves as quickly as possible, put Cordero in the closer role, and guarantee ourselves the number one pick next year.” Other teams enjoy dealing with him and have a good idea of what to expect; they know they can turn to him first if they need to get something done quickly. Even famously abrasive internet personalities fawn over their experiences working with him.
These caricatures are certainly wrong to some extent. And Luhnow probably has stricter budgetary restrictions to consider than the Chicago duo. But I think there is a valid comparison to be made here. Both started out with poor major league talent. Luhnow made six in-season trades, Thoyer five (by my count, including the Byrd deal and buying Germano). The Astros acquired 14 prospects, the Cubs 5.
Which is the better strategy? My gut is going with Thoyer. I mean, I can’t believe they got Arodys Vizcaino for Paul Maholm and Reed Johnson. On the other hand, with Thoyer types seemingly propagating around the league, maybe there’s an opportunity here for someone with a more old-school way of doing business.