One-fifth of all major league teams changed the name on the executive-suite doors over this past offseason.
Does that seem like a lot to you? Six in one winter? Yeah, me too.
Three of the six changes were prompted by one move: the Cubs' firing of general manager Jim Hendry last summer with one year left on his contract. Thus the Cubs were looking for a new GM for the first time in nine years.
Would Theo Epstein have become available had Jonathan Papelbon got that last out on September 28 and the Red Sox made the playoffs? We'll never know, but after that the Cubs and chairman Tom Ricketts made contact with Epstein and clandestinely flew him to Chicago for talks, only to have their cover blown by a stop at Starbucks:
"It’s a crazy story," Tom said. "We were so secret. We flew him in secretly, we picked him up secretly, we did all these things. And then he hops out of the car to get an iced coffee…"
Epstein was spotted by a Cubs fan, and the story of his secret interview was in the Tribune the next day.
"If you go to Starbucks, why didn’t you just fly in on United and put up a billboard for God’s sake," Tom joked.
The Cubs didn't just hire Epstein as GM; they created a new position for him, "President of Baseball Operations", and Epstein then reached out to his old right-hand man in Boston, Jed Hoyer, then serving as GM of the San Diego Padres, to join him in Chicago as general manager. There's been quite a bit of intrigue over compensation promised to the Red Sox and Padres for hiring both these men with time left on their contracts, but the success they had together in Boston gives hope to Cubs fans for the future. 2012 isn't likely to be a playoff season in Chicago -- and 2013 might not either -- while Epstein and Hoyer clean up quite a mess left to them by Hendry, who was constantly trying to patch together a playoff team from the detritus left after the Cubs' 2008 playoff debacle.
That left two Boston-related vacancies to fill. The Red Sox promoted yet another Epstein lieutenant, Ben Cherington, who had also filled in briefly in 2005-06 when Epstein resigned, only to go back to the loyal sidekick role when Epstein decided to return. For the Red Sox, this change isn't likely to make a significant difference in the way the team operates, because Cherington has been there in various roles since 1999. The biggest change you'll see in the Red Sox will come on the field, from new field manager Bobby Valentine, quite a different personality from Terry Francona.
The Padres also needed a new GM to replace Hoyer, and for that they turned to yet another former Epstein assistant, Josh Byrnes, who had been assistant GM in Boston from 2001-05. Byrnes then left to become GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks; the D'backs won a division title in 2007 and that got Byrnes an eight-year contract extension.
Just two years into that extension, with the D'backs floundering, Byrnes was fired. The Padres need a rebuild, too, after shipping Adrian Gonzalez to Boston, and Byrnes might soon have quite a bit of money to work with, according to Bob Nightengale of USA Today:
And even the San Diego Padres— playing in the 26th largest market in baseball — are, pending MLB approval, poised to sign a new deal with Fox Sports that will guarantee them $75 million a year for the next 20 years. The deal was confirmed by two industry executives familiar with the contract but not authorized to speak publicly about its details.
That could make any GM's job a lot easier.
Three other GM positions not related to the Red Sox came open during this past offseason.
Los Angeles Angels
The Angels made the playoffs in Tony Reagins' first three seasons as GM. But two years of staying home in October, along with disastrous deals like bringing in Vernon Wells and shipping Mike Napoli to Toronto for no particular reason, led Reagins to resign at the end of 2011. Resign? Sure, but it was pretty clear he was forced out:
Reagins was a good soldier right to the end. He thanked the organization and pointed to the need for "fresh perspective and different direction," a clear admission of his own failure. He said he had been thinking about this decision for about 30 days and talked to his family about it. [Team president John] Carpino indicated that most of this came down Friday and that he "was surprised."
All of that, of course, is a crock, a public relations smoothie. Moreno's statement said that "We felt a change was needed." No further statement was needed.
Many teams are hiring younger GMs with business backgrounds (as Epstein, Hoyer and Cherington have) who are more analytical than scouting-driven. The Angels went old-school, hiring Jerry Dipoto, a former player who had been Director of Scouting and Player Personnel for the Diamondbacks and interim GM in Arizona after Byrnes was fired (these all seem connected somehow, right)?
If the Angels win, Dipoto will, of course, share in the credit, but it's pretty easy to be a "smart" GM with a virtually unlimited bank account.
The other two new GMs this season are completely unrelated to the Boston/Chicago/San Diego/Arizona moves. Jeff Luhnow, who was a VP for the Cardinals since 2003, was in charge of their drafts. Under new owner Jim Crane, Luhnow has revamped the Astros' executive suite, even hiring a "Director of Decision Sciences" whose name is Sig Mejdal.
I'm not sure what a Director of Decision Sciences does, but "Sig Mejdal" seems like a perfect name for someone holding that position. Sig and Jeff and the rest of the Astros front office have a lot of work to do; the team lost 106 games in 2011, is likely to lose 100+ again this season, and needs several building blocks to return to contention.
The Twins were going along swimmingly for the last decade or so, making the playoffs in six of the nine years from 2002-2010. Then the bottom fell out in 2011, with injuries to key players Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, among others, and the Twins lost 99 games.
This means someone has to be fired, and GM Bill Smith took the fall. Former GM Terry Ryan, who had been GM from 1995-2007 when Smith took over after Ryan stepped down, reportedly due to burnout, replaced his successor on what was supposed to be an interim basis -- this could wind up being true, as Smith is still in the organization as an assistant to Ryan. The two men are close friends and Ryan felt odd replacing him:
"It was awkward, No. 1," Ryan said, "It was not a good feeling, because I was one of [Smith's] closest confidants here in how we were going about our business. I know he leaned and relied on a lot of people here, and we didn't get it done last year. That's about as plain as I can put it."
The Twins would appear to have a long way back from 99 losses to contention, but it could be as simple as having Mauer and Morneau return to their previous form. Executives might get the credit when a team wins -- that's the reason for Epstein's reputation and two World Series titles in Boston, even though the first one was with several players already in place when he was hired -- and are quick to take the fall when a team loses.