It’s So Easy…NOT

Larry Levin

If being a GM were easy, sports talk radio wouldn’t exist. 

Cardinal and other fans tend to look at trade and roster moves in a fairly narrow way. By that I mean, whether the player obtained is “all that” or “none of that.”

The problem is that every deal and decision is made in a context. If any of us had to assess whether Brandon Moss is as good as, say, Bryce Harper, we’d be able to do it in a New York minute, assuming we weren’t complete baseball dolts.

But that’s not how it works. Ownership, GMs and field managers cope with a dizzying array of considerations, to wit:

*What do we need/want for this year’s playoff run?

*What do we need for future years?

*What’s our stable of prospects look like?

*How do we assess our trade chips – major-league players and prospects?

*How do others assess our trade chips?

*What pot of resources to we have to spend?

*What pots of resources do our trade partners have to spend?

*How close is our competition to us, and what are they likely to do on and off the field?

*What are the financial/contract obligations we and our trade partners have?

*How does the player acquit himself on and off the field and in the clubhouse?

And lots, lots more.

So it doesn’t stop at whether Brandon Moss is hitting .213, or whether Rob Kaminsky was too much of a pitching prospect to surrender for Moss. It’s about balancing a whole bunch of competing interests. Whether a good deal or not, the transaction effected by Cards John Mozeliak balanced those interests in a thoughtful way that added a bit of oomph to an injury-deleted offense by surrendering one of a lot of pitching prospects stabled by the franchise.

For Steve Cishek and Jonathan Broxton, depth players in a tired-arm bullpen, Mo gave up a whole lot less—there were more choices for relivers than for power-hitting first basemen (like Moss), and the GM could have opted to stay with the pen he had, one that had been hugely aided by minor-league arrivals like Sam Tuivailala and Miguel Socolovich.

But these little examples are part of a bigger context that doesn’t show up on the above list of factors, and one that shouldn’t figure into how a GM makes his deals. And that is, the track record of the franchise and of the GM in question.

Mo is lucky. He’s had great success, and while he deserves recognition for that, the luck stems from the success of his teams (and Walt Jocketty’s before him) on the field. It’s extremely common for GMs with equivalent capabilities to have quite different results.

Example? Until-last-week Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski. Widely considered one of the best baseball men around, Dombrowski had been a bridesmaid-only in a 14-year stint with the Tigers. While making the playoffs five times and winning their division four, the Big Prize had eluded him for the entirety of his run. The 2006 version of the Tigers was a heavy fave to take out the Cards. And you remember what happened, right? Shades of 1982 all over again, with the heavy favorite Goliath falling to St. Louis, the David-of-2006.

Dombrowski got canned after dumping two of his big-time players, pitcher David Price and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, at the trade deadline, assessing the team’s prospects this year as thin and more importantly, looking down the road to secure the future of the franchise. He clearly was fearful of an outcome like the Phillies, who waited far too long to move Cole Hamels and other key parts of their operation.

Despite Dombrowski’s foresightedness and brilliant track record, owner Mike Illitch fired the GM. Mo, on the other hand, with his franchise having won two World Series in the last 10 years, has more latitude to work the right factors with impugnity.

It’s a luxury earned by his performance, but a fortunate luxury nonetheless.