This past weekend, lost in the excitement of October baseball, the Baltimore Orioles announced that their GM, Andy MacPhail, has “elected” not to return for 2012. It is unclear if he is done with baseball for good, or if he is just taking a break from the game.
Andy MacPhail’s lineage is steeped in Baseball. His father, Lee, was the president of the American League and his grandfather, Larry, was the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees. MacPhail was born intro the game and made his General Managerial debut with the Minnesota Twins in 1985, taking them to the World Series and winning in 1987 (for the first time since 1924) and again in 1991. In 1995, MacPhail moved from Minnesota to the Chicago Cubs to become their President and CEO, where he sat until 2000 when he became their GM, a position he held for two years. On June 20th, 2007 the Orioles hired MacPhail as President of Baseball Operations (GM).
MacPhail was extremely successful early on in his career. In his first eight years he won two Championships and compiled a .516 winning percentage. In the nine years that followed, he wasn’t nearly as successful, winning 611 games versus 797 losses, good for a .434 winning percentage. Part of the drop can be attributed to moving to the AL East, where MacPhail inherited a weak team and led the Orioles to four straight last-place finishes.
Evaluating a General Manager is extremely difficult for many reasons. It is not sufficient to simply look at a GM’s win-loss record and pass judgement. For one, it is impossible to isolate the actions of general managers from the actions of owners and team presidents. Additionally, unless you are the New York Yankees, you can’t win the AL East by signing free agents. Most teams need to build through the draft and Latin America, which takes time, something we don’t have when looking at MacPhail’s four years with the Orioles. What we can see from MacPhail’s short stint is the state of the Orioles’ minor league system (which has to be viewed as a product of ownership and MacPhail’s general managerial skills), an imperfect proxy but one that management has more direct control over.
Baseball America ranked the Baltimore Orioles as the 21st best farm system in baseball. That is not horrible, but it is troublesome when everyone else in your division is ranked higher. Not only is Baltimore the weakest in their division at the Major League level, but they also have the weakest farm system in the East. Baltimore’s state of despair cannot solely rest on the shoulders of MacPhail. In 2009, ESPN ranked Peter Angelos, Orioles’ owner, as the worst owner in all of baseball. A GM is only as good as his owner/president will allow. Whether you blame Angelos, MacPhail, or even the AL East, it is clear that they have not produced a winning combination.
Whenever a GM leaves, the question inevitably asked is: Who will replace him? There is a long list of potential replacements: Ben Cherington (BOS), Jerry DiPoto (ARI), David Forst (OAK), Rick Hahn (CWS), Matt Klentak (BAL), Tony LaCava (TOR), Thad Levine (TEX), Bryan Minniti (WSH) and John Ricco (NYM). This is not an exhaustive list by any means. LaCava and Klentak are the two names that immediately stick out. LaCava jumps out because I think he would make the best GM of the group, and Klentak sticks out because he is the natural choice.
Tony LaCava could easily be the most likable person in Baseball. In my short time with the Toronto Blue Jays, Tony wowed me with how approachable he was, even to a lowly intern. On top of his humility he is truly a brilliant baseball mind with a background second to none in scouting and player development and an open mind to advanced statistics. In an age where most GMs (and brain trusts) understand the value of advanced metrics, the competitive edge in baseball seems to be moving back towards effective player development. Additionally, a GM’s ability to create and maintain relationships with other GMs is a skill that is often overlooked when discussing General Managers, and is paramount to their ability to negotiate successfully. LaCava excels at these aforementioned skills and any franchise would be lucky to have him calling the shots. Not only does he live in nearby (closer than Toronto) Pittsburgh, but he also has eight years of experience in the AL East. Unfortunately, Baltimore is not a very attractive location for a new GM (especially with the current playoff structure).
The Orioles are in a division with three of the top five teams in baseball, and the Blue Jays will be ready to contend in a couple years. To make matters worse, Peter Angelos has been labeled as a bad owner. Whether he has been wrongfully labeled or not, it will be difficult for prospective GMs to see past his reputation.
The fact that the Orioles will have some difficulty attracting outside suitors makes hiring from within all the more probable. The next man in line for Baltimore is Matt Klentak, who is, in his own right, very qualified to take over as GM. Klentak grew up rooting for Cal Ripken and the O’s, and has been working as assistant GM for the Orioles for the last four years. His years working for MLB have made him an expert on the current Collective Bargaining Agreement as well as a formidable force on contracts.
No matter which GM Baltimore decides to hire, the Orioles will have an uphill battle. They have some useful building blocks in Nick Markakis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Brian Matusz, but you need a far more substantial core to compete in the East. The Orioles have two great models to follow towards success: the Blue Jays and Rays. Unfortunately, Baltimore will have to get past them and two other behemoths to return to the playoffs.