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Volume 22 No. 35
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How leadership shift has changed look of MLB front offices

There are two certainties in the sports world: the excitement at the start of the season and the change of leadership after the season when managers, coaches and general managers are hired or the team decides to “go in a different direction.”

Focusing on Major League Baseball and changes in the front office of the baseball operations side of the industry, the job title for the top position in a baseball operations department has been general manager.

As shown in the chart below, since October 2011, 15 MLB heads of baseball operations have been hired in 14 franchises. Seven of those changes resulted in a two-tiered structure at the top with a president and a GM. More recently, five of the last seven GM openings resulted in a president of baseball operations being hired.

The interesting trend is the number of teams that have hired a president of baseball operations to oversee a GM and baseball operations department. No longer is it always true that the GM is the final decision-maker with respect to baseball decisions. This trend leads to many questions:

Is this just another layer of bureaucracy, or is it a required net addition due to the demands of the baseball operations business?

Is it a net increased cost, and will it be justified by the costs?

When does an outlier become a generally accepted exception?

When do the exceptions become a prevailing trend?

The extra layer: president of baseball operations

Larry Beinfest was promoted to president of baseball operations on Sept. 29, 2007, making the Marlins the first team in the industry to create the position of president. The only front office executive to currently hold both the title of president and GM (encompassing both business and baseball operations) is Dave Dombrowski of the Detroit Tigers. Dombrowski has held this unique role since 2002.

Several former baseball executives who are now presidents have involvement in the baseball decision-making process, such as Stan Kasten (Dodgers) and John Schuerholz (Braves). Other combinations of positions exist as well. For example, Mike Rizzo of the Washington Nationals is the GM and president of baseball operations, but it is not a two-tiered structure. On Oct. 22, 2011, Theo Epstein of the Chicago Cubs became the first executive since Beinfest to be hired in the role of president of baseball operations, overseeing the GM. This extra layer in the organizational depth chart without a doubt reduces the power of a GM, but other teams have nonetheless followed in the footsteps. The chart below displays a list of organizations with this type of structure.

There are three possible reasons for the trend of hiring a president of baseball operations:

Tampering

The club potentially losing its executive has the authority to decide whether another organization will be granted permission to interview an employee, but most clubs allow it if the new position represents a promotion.

With Epstein still under contract as the GM of the Boston Red Sox after the 2011 season, the Cubs decided to offer a promotion to help gain permission to interview and negotiate with him. Creating a position above the GM was their way of doing so. The Cubs’ structure certainly set a trend, which several other clubs have followed.

The 2014 offseason saw Andrew Friedman pried away from the Tampa Bay Rays to fill the position of president of baseball operations for the Dodgers. Friedman was under contract with the Rays at the time, which put him in a scenario similar to Epstein’s. Soon after Friedman was hired, he named ex-assistant GM of the Oakland Athletics, Farhan Zaidi, the new GM of the Dodgers, creating a sort of powerhouse front office. Undoubtedly, the cost of hiring so many high-profile front office personnel is high, raising the issue of how this new system will work and whether the benefits will meet and exceed the increased costs.

Redefining day-to-day responsibilities

John Hart is the new president of baseball operations for the Atlanta Braves after accepting the full-time position. As the president of baseball operations, Hart does not have to work on some of the day-to-day responsibilities for which a GM is generally responsible. Hart told The Wall Street Journal that “preparation for salary-arbitration negotiations and traveling with the team on road trips” are examples of day-to-day responsibilities that he will leave to assistant general manager John Coppolella, whom he is “grooming to become GM.”

La Russa also has mentioned that he does not have the front office experience that would allow him to undertake the duties of a typical GM, but his extensive baseball knowledge allows him to make key roster decisions while focusing on the big picture and allowing a GM to take care of aspects such as salary arbitration and the waiver wire process.

Creating an extra layer of executives in between the GM and ownership

With more dollars being spent in baseball both in terms of salaries and revenue, ownership is often heavily involved in major investments and decisions. The amount of involvement varies from team to team, but the final decision usually lies with ownership. Installing another layer creates a sort of checks and balances system and a checkpoint for the decision-making process.

   
Tony La Russa, Theo Epstein and John Hart oversee baseball operations for their teams.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES (3)
It should be noted that job title expansion is prevalent not only at positions above the GM. Special assistant to the GM is a relatively new position that did not exist just 15 years ago. Now every team in the league has several, often ex-players or ex-GMs, employed under this title. These positions report to the GM.

The trend is an interesting and fascinating development in Major League Baseball. At this time there are more questions than answers. Will the trend continue? How will it work? It is becoming more difficult to set a template for front offices today because both the division of power and organizational structure vary with each club depending on team needs, the ownership group and the people in the office.

What impact will it have on others in the organization and on the career paths of industry hopefuls? Will we see teams in the NFL, NBA and NHL follow this trend? How about college athletics? Some athletic directors have added titles to AD, such as vice president or vice chancellor. Many other colleges have added an extra layer of administration below the AD, such as deputy AD. Only time will tell how this will evolve in Major League Baseball, as well as whether the trend spreads across the sports industry.

Glenn Wong (gwong@isenberg.umass.edu) is a professor in the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management in the Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts.