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Volume 23 No. 13
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Who calls the shots? MLB clubs’ burgeoning front offices

Stan Kasten, Los Angeles Dodgers president and chief executive, has heard all the jokes, questions and accusations about the mushrooming size of the club’s front office.

Such industry chatter reignited in January after the Dodgers hired former Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos as vice president of baseball operations. Anthopoulos became the sixth member of the Dodgers’ front office staff to be either a current or former club general manager, joining president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman, GM Farhan Zaidi, senior vice president Josh Byrnes, senior adviser Ned Colletti, and special adviser Gerry Hunsicker.

That group contains more than 125 years of collective Major League Baseball experience, and Anthopoulos’ hire

The Dodgers created a stir in January when they hired former Toronto Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos as vice president of baseball operations.
Photo by: Getty Images
prompted Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Dilbeck to quip, “If only the middle of the order offered so many options.”

But Kasten said he and Friedman, formerly the Tampa Bay Rays’ GM before moving west in October 2014, frequently joke about all the chatter regarding how they have structured the operation.

“Andrew and I laugh about this narrative of supposedly too many cooks in the kitchen,” said Kasten, a 30-year baseball lifer after stops with Atlanta and Washington and a GM role with basketball’s Atlanta Hawks. “Other people might be confused, but there’s no confusion at our end, within our organization, about what everybody’s roles are, and what the chain of command is. And we have what I believe to be an unusually collegial atmosphere.”

The Dodgers, though standing on the sport’s high end in terms of both player payroll and former GMs on staff, represent the fast-changing way in which MLB teams are building and structuring their organizations, particularly within baseball operations.

For more than a century, a team’s GM typically has represented the top franchise executive overseeing on-field activities, supported by assistants, scouts and farm directors. But 10 clubs, including the Dodgers (see chart), now have a GM with at least one senior executive ranking above them, diminishing somewhat the high status that once came with a GM title. Many other clubs, even those with a more traditional GM leading baseball operations like current World Series champion Kansas City and GM Dayton Moore, have installed additional layers of specialization in their leadership hierarchies.

Numerous factors are at play. A deepening involvement by MLB clubs in player development, particularly internationally, the rise of analytics in club management, and record spending on player payrolls have each contributed to radically changing and expanding, in just a few short years, the very nature of the GM job in what has been arguably the most tradition-bound sport.

“A large-scale product and operation such as ours frankly requires as much expertise as possible, and typically in areas of particular, specific need.” Kasten continued. “We don’t need people to be generalists.”

Anthopoulos himself concurred, believing that more perspectives and opinions are better.

“From my experience, any time you take executives from other clubs, they’re not going to necessarily look at the world the same way,” Anthopoulos said. “When you bring them all together, we can consolidate our ideas and thoughts, and hopefully that leads to great decisions — and wins.”

Larry Baer, president and chief executive of the San Francisco Giants, maintains a fierce rivalry

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on the field with the Dodgers. But on this issue, he generally agrees with Kasten and Los Angeles. The Giants last year created a similar, albeit smaller, leadership structure in which longtime club vice president Bobby Evans was promoted to GM, where he continues to report to Brian Sabean, who was promoted to executive vice president of baseball operations.

“There are so many more spokes to the wheel now,” Baer said. “There is so much more that goes into scouting generally, that goes into analytics, that goes into what we do internationally. You really have to be in 10 places at once now running baseball ops, and no one person is going to be able to do that. The job is so much more complex now.”

Seeking the edge

Even amid that rising complexity and shifting titles, the primary goal of a lead baseball executive has remained the same: win games, both today and, through preparation, down the road. And for decades, that pursuit of victory has led to new geographic territories for scouting, new training methods and new ways of evaluating talent. The accumulation of additional executives with different skills is part of that same search.

“In our business, we’re always looking to improve, outdistance the competition, and find whatever edge we can find,” Kasten said. “We’re trying to put as much thought and analysis as we can into what we do. That’s our mission. And from the other side, it’s gratifying to have so many people want to be involved with our franchise. We want to attract the best and brightest.”

The Cubs were among the first to move to the more stratified front office model. Above, Jason McLeod, senior vice president of player development (left) talks with GM Jed Hoyer; Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations; and owner Tom Ricketts.
Photo by: Getty Images
The result of the talent acquisition, both in Los Angeles and leaguewide, is an accelerating degree of job specialization. The Dodgers’ crosstown rivals, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, have a more traditional framework for baseball operations led by new GM Billy Eppler, formerly New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman’s top assistant. But under Eppler are two assistant GMs, five special assistants, directors of pro scouting, player personnel, amateur scouting, international scouting, minor league operations, baseball development and quantitative analysis, with additional personnel below that.

“It’s that diversification that I found will really uncover a lot of different aspects and not be blindsided,” Eppler said, speaking recently at the Society for American Baseball Research’s annual analytics conference in Phoenix.
“We’ve thought the problem through. We’ve thought all the different scenarios through.”

The rise of president of baseball operations positions also allows its occupants to often assume a more big-picture strategic role while deferring more routine, day-to-day duties to those below them.

“Brian’s a bit more of a Yoda now,” Baer said of Sabean.

And baseball, like many other sports, remains something of a copycat industry in which innovations or ideas cropping up in one market find their way to others. The Chicago Cubs were among the first to move overtly to a more stratified model, hiring Theo Epstein in October 2011 away from his role as Boston Red Sox GM to become president of baseball operations. Days later, Epstein brought in former colleague Jed Hoyer to work under him as GM. The Cubs have increased their victory total each of the last three years and are the consensus team to beat this season.

“When something is seen as working in one market, others tend to jump on the bandwagon pretty quickly,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports consultant who frequently works with MLB teams.

But at what point is big too big? There is no set answer, and each organization stands ready to make its own

decision on that question. Others, such as Cashman and New York Mets GM Sandy Alderson, while bringing in additional staffers under them, have resisted the trend to elevate their titles, believing some of it is somewhat empty inflation.

“We still like having a relatively compact group. Others, obviously, have made a different choice,” Oakland A’s owner Lew Wolff said.

Analytics and qualitative analysis has been a particular area of growing focus for MLB clubs as they redefine their front offices. Nearly every MLB team now has an analytics person on staff, and often multiple individuals carrying titles such as data scientist, director of performance science, or director of decision sciences. Many of the new roles have gone to staffers 30 years old or younger.

All those number-cruncher hires, however, have also helped amplify the age-old debate in baseball about the proper role and balance of analytics versus traditional scouting. Most successful MLB teams use a mixture, but even at the highest reaches of the game, finding the optimal mix remains difficult.

“Over the years, we’ve had success relying on numbers, but that has never been the whole story, as we’ve said over and over again. But perhaps it was a little too much of the story,” said Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, who ironically made much of his initial fortune on analytics-driven hedge funds.

The Red Sox were also a case where too many big baseball operations staffers can create a problem. After the Detroit Tigers last summer dismissed President and GM Dave Dombrowski, the Red Sox pounced to bring in the widely respected executive and place him as president of baseball operations.

Dombrowski then sought to retain Red Sox GM Ben Cherington, who had led the club’s baseball operations. But Cherington declined to stay with the club after not being included in the process with Henry, Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner and co-owner Michael Gordon to hire Dombrowski. Cherington is now an executive in residence in Columbia University’s sports management program, and Dombrowski last fall installed a new structure in keeping with the more stratified organizational trend, naming Mike Hazen as senior vice president and general manager.

Employee management

As the Dodgers became fodder for industry conversation about high-level hires, it wasn’t just because of front office headcount. Like most everything these days with the club, the topic of money surfaced quickly. Friedman, upon leaving Tampa Bay, reportedly received a five-year contract worth more than $7 million a season. Some industry sources have suggested Friedman’s salary is actually higher than that, closer to $10 million a year.

Each figure is far beyond the low to mid-seven figures annually that many MLB GMs have typically received in recent years. Epstein is in the final season of a five-year contract with the Cubs worth $18.5 million, and Friedman’s deal could be used as a guidepost in contract renewal talks between Epstein and team owner Tom Ricketts.

“We are completely on the same page,” Epstein said at the Cubs’ winter convention, regarding his relationship with Ricketts. “I see myself staying in the exact same role for a long time — and I think Tom sees it the same way. … At the right time, I’m sure we’ll address my situation.”

Beyond Friedman, many of the other senior baseball executives in the Dodgers organization are also thought to be receiving seven-figure annual sums that are beyond industry norms for “assistant”-level positions.

Kasten declined to detail the Dodgers’ front office salary structure, saying “the economics of this franchise are not well understood, and I don’t want to spend a lot of time getting into it.”

But sports industry executive recruiters said basic economic factors are in play, driving up compensation rates for top baseball operations talent just as they do for players or executives in other industries.

“This is simple supply and demand,” said Len Perna, president of Turnkey Sports. “There are very few Andrew Friedmans out there.”

For more junior-level positions, such as statistical analysts, the situation is essentially the opposite, in which colleges annually churn out thousands of bright, hungry graduates eager to break into baseball and pursue the relatively scant number of open positions.

The compensation for the top baseball operations executives is expected to continue to rise as baseball’s overall

In September the Red Sox promoted Mike Hazen (above) to general manager,
reporting to Dave Dombrowski, president of baseball operations.
Photo by: Getty Images
economic size does.

“You have seen the top pay numbers go up, but these people are now managing in many cases $150 million, $200 million payrolls, and managing very large, multiyear player contracts within that,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said. “In essence, these are sizable businesses they’re each overseeing, and you can’t expect them to make $250,000 [a year]. We’re not a $2 billion industry anymore. We’re more than a $9 billion industry, and these are the people who are primarily responsible for the product on the field.”

Baer said in the Giants’ situation, the undisclosed sum the club committed last year to extend the contracts of Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy to 2019 and promote Evans was “money well spent.”

“We’re paying competitively, but the really big thing for us is stability,” Baer said. “Our key folks have all been here 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, what have you. We know what we have, and keeping that core intact is very important.”

To that end, new titles and responsibilities are frequently being used as a tool to reward key executives that clubs want to retain, even for clubs that do not operate in the economic stratosphere that big-market clubs such as the Dodgers or Cubs do. The A’s last fall promoted assistant GM David Forst to GM, shifting longtime club GM and part-owner Billy Beane into a higher role as executive vice president of baseball operations, in a move similar to what San Francisco did.

Wolff said many teams had asked for permission to interview Forst for their own top baseball operations jobs, and the promotion after his 16 years with the club in part was designed as a means to keep him in Oakland.

“We believe very strongly in keeping key people, and David is absolutely one of them,” Wolff said. “A continuity of talented people is very important to us.”