- Jim Bowden, ESPN Insider
When it comes to wheeling and dealing, Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers has a solid reputation as a gunslinger. In fact, at one point in his tenure with the San Diego Padres, he and then-manager Bruce Bochy were depicted in riding chaps and cowboy hats on the cover of the team’s annual media guide -- an image he’d probably prefer people forget.
However, this offseason, Towers has been in the middle of as many trade talks as any general manager in baseball. And yet, he saw no results, which forced him to tiptoe into free agency, inking right-hander Brandon McCarthy to a two-year contract last week.
At the winter meetings, Towers was reminiscing with me about the good old days when GMs actually had trade talks one club at a time, trying to make deals just GM to GM. He remembered when he used to make deals on cocktail napkins at the bar of the winter meetings that would quickly be consummated the next day.
Towers said he never had a single trade discussion in Nashville that didn’t include multiple teams with dozens of players being discussed, changed and mixed by the minute, not the hour. Towers reminded me how difficult it is to get two teams to tango together, let alone half a dozen teams.
Sunday night’s blockbuster trade between the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals typifies how a deal can be made between a “new-school” general manager, such as Andrew Friedman, and an “old-school” GM, such as Dayton Moore. They pulled off the type of trade that has become increasingly difficult to do.
The reality in baseball is there exists a clear schism between new-school and old-school GMs, and it has nothing to do with the "stats versus scouts" debate. That divide is slowing down the trade activity in the industry.
It’s a question of style
The new-school GMs include many of today’s bright young minds who all love to think outside of the box and try to find more complicated ways to make better trades. They want to improve multiple levels of their teams and often use aggressive negotiation tactics.
The problem is some of the old-school GMs don’t like the new method of doing deals and prefer to have serious trade talks with the GMs who speak the same language. Minnesota Twins GM Terry Ryan has been just as active as Towers, and he’s closed two significant trades this month with old-school GMs Ruben Amaro (Philadelphia Phillies) and Mike Rizzo (Washington Nations), acquiring Vance Worley, Trevor May and Alex Meyer, three young arms the Twins desperately need.
In Towers’ opinion, the style of "new-school" GMs changed over the past two years, and he feels he has to re-enact Muhammad Ali’s “rope-a-dope,” in which Ali just stood and took punches as he figured out -- and tried to tire out -- his opponent. These GMs are peppering him with “9 million ideas” every minute via texts and emails from all directions, and Towers has more bells ringing than the pinball machines he used to play as a kid.
Towers said he will continue to work on four- and five-way deals in hopes of landing his long-term solution at shortstop. He’s playing along in the Justin Upton discussions and is open to moving right-hander Trevor Bauer, one of his most promising young starters. His counterparts keep bringing him ideas, and in doing his due diligence he keeps listening and gives his counter-proposals. It’s just not his preferred way to do business, and it wouldn’t be surprising if some of these multi-team proposals end up leading to a more simplistic deal like two young starters to the Cleveland Indians for Asdrubal Cabrera or Francisco Lindor.
Ryan told me he’s been overwhelmed by the style of new-school GMs, and is, quite frankly, worn out by their approach. Instead, he’s stayed focused on improving his starting pitching and zeroed in on the two teams with whom he had the best shot of making a trade. He worked hard with the Nationals before finally trading Denard Span for Meyer. Ryan would have loved to get a second piece, but involving multiple teams might have caused this deal to fall through. In the end, Ryan needed to improve the Twins, and pulling the trigger on a deal that brings back the team’s biggest need -- starting pitching -- was necessary.
In the Philly deal, Amaro didn’t want to include both pitchers and felt it was a slight overpay for speedy outfielder Ben Revere. However, when B.J. Upton got five years and $75 million, then listened to Scott Boras' asking price for Michael Bourn (more than what Upton got), he clearly realized paying a little bit more and solving center field was a lot less costly than the free-agent market.
Get used to it
The podium at the winter meetings might have been the loneliest place in Nashville, Tenn. It was just used twice for active player-related moves. The first was to officially announce the David Wright signing that occurred prior to the commencement of the meetings and the second was to announce Alex Rodriguez’s hip surgery.
The lack of free-agent activity was blamed on the bottleneck at the top of the class, as everyone waited for Zack Greinke to decide (he chose the Dodgers), and Josh Hamilton to test the market. (In my opinion, Hamilton likely will stay with the Rangers as soon as they supply him with a suitable offer.)
However, what about the trade market? Why was there so much inactivity in an industry that was dying to make moves? Besides the free-agent market, many executives pointed directly to the divide between old-school and new-school general managers.
For more than a decade, people have tried to differentiate these two schools of thought simply on how each side evaluated players. Old-school GMs were too dependent on scouting reports and archaic ways to measure statistics, instead of advanced metrics and video breakdown. They also weighted makeup and character more heavily than they should.
However, the fact is old- and new-school methods to evaluate players have come together basically as one package of information. Certainly, San Francisco Giants GM Brian Sabean will continue to weigh makeup and loyalty more heavily than other categories, and Ryan will continue to place more emphasis on scouting than new-school GMs. On the other hand, Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein of the Cubs will continue to use sabermetrics more than Towers. But overall, every team blends scouting and analytics when evaluating players.
This is a golden age for baseball, as we have more information available to us than ever before, and many tech-savvy GMs are taking advantage of this in an effort to swing deals. However, the human element remains important, especially if you have just 29 other human beings with whom to do business. If some of them, like Ryan and Towers, prefer a style that’s more suited for the way they like to do business, and if a style or strategy prevents deals from getting done, then perhaps an adjustment should be made. This is a results-oriented business and the Nationals and Phillies wouldn’t have solved their center field woes if they didn’t understand the best way to do business with Ryan was with a straightforward style of negotiation.
There is no right or wrong style, and technology will continue to play a larger role in how deals are made. That said, it's imperative that all GMs learn how to deal with the other 29 if they want to maximize their chances of success.