Friday, October 22, 2010


  • "Are you saying 'boo'? Or 'Boo-urns'"?

The above quote----from The Simpsons when it was still funny----is attributed to Mr. Burns as he was bewildered as to the reaction he engendered from a predictably hostile crowd.

They were not saying "Boo-urns"; they were booing.

Then they started throwing things.

While not as reviled as C. Montgomery Burns, Josh Byrnes's tenure as GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks ended similarly (sans the rotten fruit and public spectacle). His time as GM didn't degenerate to the degree that it warranted such loathing, but it ended badly and he deserved to be fired.

After a series of promising seasons in which the club was built to contend but didn't; some deals that made sense plainly and simply didn't work; and a hard-headed stubbornness/blind loyalty to a mistaken hire as manager, contributed to Byrnes's dismissal in July. Now, as he's one of the candidates to take over the New York Mets, let's dissect his career as an executive.

In the interests of full disclosure, I believe Byrnes to be a better choice to run the Mets than Sandy Alderson. I conducted a Hannibal Lecter style evisceration of Alderson's career nearly two weeks ago with the positives and negatives----Buyer Beware 10/11/2010----and was, I think, completely fair. I intend to be the same way with Byrnes.

The bio and the undertaking:

Unlike most stat zombie-leaners, Byrnes actually played the game of baseball (he was a good hitter at Haverford College); he has a scouting eye; and understands stats and contracts.

Byrnes, 40, spent five years with the Cleveland Indians in the mid-to-late 90s in various capacities including advance scouting, working on contracts and as scouting director; he went with former Indians assistant Dan O'Dowd to Colorado as assistant GM when O'Dowd was named Rockies GM. After three years with the Rockies, Byrnes moved on to the Red Sox where he was Theo Epstein's assistant from 2003-2005; he was then named the new GM of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Under the previous ownership/baseball operations team, the Diamondbacks had been built to win and win fast after joining MLB in 1998. Owner Jerry Colangelo, GM Joe Garagiola Jr., and manager Buck Showalter had formulated a club that won 100 games in their second year of existence by acquiring via trade/free agency glossy veteran names Randy Johnson; Curt Schilling; Steve Finley; Matt Williams; Luis Gonzalez and Mark Grace.

By 2001 the Diamondbacks had replaced Showalter with the empty managerial uniform of Bob Brenly; they won the World Series in 2001 and lost in the NLDS in 2002. By 2003, the veteran players who had won that championship and their big money contracts became a spiraling detriment to maintaining contention.

The problem with buying a championship----especially for a team without Yankees/Red Sox money----is that once the bills come due, that which was purchased is rarely still productive. As such trade-offs mature, things invariably come undone and such was the case for the Diamondbacks. By 2004, the team had fallen to a 111-game losing disaster.

Jeff Moorad took over the Diamondbacks in 2004 and after the 2005 season, hired Byrnes.

The refurbishment and rise:

Under new manager Bob Melvin in 2005, the Diamondbacks had rebounded from that nightmarish 2004 season to finish at 77-85. They were a vastly different team as the expensive veterans were phased out; both Johnson and Schilling were gone; and younger players Brandon Webb, Chris Snyder and Chad Tracy were integrated into the lineup.

Upon taking over, Byrnes remade the Diamondbacks roster.

He signed fiery veteran Eric Byrnes to a 1-year contract and got two very productive and inexpensive years from the aggressive veteran.

3rd baseman Troy Glaus was sent to the Blue Jays for 2nd baseman Orlando Hudson and the mean, versatile righty Miguel Batista.

In a heist, he got RHPs Orlando Hernandez and Luis Vizcaino along with outfielder Chris Young from the White Sox for the mediocre and expensive RHP Javier Vazquez.

During the 2006 season, he cleared more salary by sending Shawn Green to the Mets for a minor league pitcher; he got Livan Hernandez from the Nationals for minor league pitchers Garrett Mock and Matt Chico.

On the surface, the 2006 Diamondbacks weren't much better than the 2005 club, but they were younger and cheaper. After 2006, Byrnes acquired LHP Doug Davis and two minor leaguers (including LHP Dana Eveland) from the Brewers for catcher Johnny Estrada; RHP Greg Aquino; and RHP Claudio Vargas. He also re-acquired Randy Johnson from the Yankees, got the Yankees to kick in money to pay him, and gave the Yankees some unremarkable minor leaguers for the future Hall of Famer.

The Diamondbacks were still a work in progress in 2007 when something strange happened-----they started winning.

Johnson missed a large chunk of the season with injuries, but Webb had won the Cy Young Award in 2006 and was one of the best pitchers in baseball; Livan Hernandez and Doug Davis had records near .500, but they gobbled innings; the bullpen was deep and good with Jose Valverde and Brandon Lyon; the lineup was 14th in runs scored, but benefited from a "more than the sum of the parts" crew and, led by Byrnes, made the playoffs despite a run differential that had them under .500. They won their division series over the Cubs before getting swept in the NLCS by the Rockies.

Eric Byrnes was signed to a 3-year contract extension worth $30 million during the season; the deal had a full no-trade clause. Given the type of player Eric Byrnes was----injury-prone and streaky with a low on-base percentage----it's impossible to believe that Josh Byrnes was on-board with this deal. The Red Sox only give no-trade clauses when they have absolutely no choice and Eric Byrnes wasn't a player for whom a no-trade clause would've or should've been allowed without interference by owner Moorad. Byrnes got hurt in 2008 and did nothing for them before being dumped after the 2009 season.

Having reduced payroll gradually from one of the higher paid clubs in the league, Byrnes lowered the payroll from $62 million in 2005 to $52 million for a division winning club in 2007.

Expectations unmet:

Bolstered by a stunningly quick turnaround, Byrnes took steps to make the Diamondbacks better on paper and on the field. To achieve this end, he sent a large package of youngsters to the Athletics to acquire Dan Haren.

Haren and Webb----both in their primes and signed to reasonable, long-term contracts----essentially guaranteed that the Diamondbacks would be good 2 of the 5 games in which they played; they also had Johnson and Davis in the rotation and young Max Scherzer and Micah Owings on the way up.

Also dealt that winter was injury-prone OF Carlos Quentin to the White Sox for INF Chris Carter.

The cost for Haren was steep. LHPs Brett Anderson, Dana Eveland and Greg Smith, Carter and OFs Aaron Cunningham and (the big one) Carlos Gonzalez all went to the A's to get him.

Was it worth it before and after the deal? Obviously, with 20/20 hindsight, the Diamondbacks would have had to think very, very hard about giving up Gonzalez and Quentin no matter whom they were getting back; but that Diamondbacks team was coming off a division title with short pitching and had developing offensive forces in Stephen Drew, Conor Jackson, Snyder and Young; plus Justin Upton.

Quentin was always hurt; Gonzalez was only 22; and Carter, despite good numbers in the minors, is still not an established big leaguer. (This could all be folded into one big trade as Quentin was clearly traded to get Carter to get Haren.)

In an even greater effort to win immediately, Byrnes traded his closer Valverde to the Astros for veteran righty reliever Chad Qualls, RHP Juan Gutierrez and OF Chris Burke.

Valverde has been notorious for his consistency in alternating good/bad/good/bad results; he was coming off a terrific year in 2007 and, given his arbitration eligibility and big raise in the offing, that they were getting a very good reliever in Qualls, and had a "closer-in-waiting" Brandon Lyon to replace Valverde, it made sense on all ends.

On paper, the 2008 Diamondbacks weren't simply a playoff team, they were a title contender. They were young, hungry and deep with pitching; and they could hit.

It was working....for most of the season.

With what they already had in place and the aggressive deal Byrnes made in August to bolster the lineup by getting Adam Dunn for Travis Buck, Micah Owings and Wilkin Castillo. Prior to that, they'd gotten Jon Rauch from the Nationals for Emilio Bonifacio. And on August 31st, he acquired David Eckstein from the Blue Jays for a minor leaguer. Eckstein was brought in for his playoff experience and savvy. At the time, the Diamondbacks were in first place by 2 1/2 games.

Then things came apart.

The fall:

It's amazing how quickly things unraveled for the Byrnes-led Diamondbacks. The Dodgers late-season hot streak allowed them to pass the Diamondbacks and take the NL West with an 84-78 record; the D-Backs ended at 82-80, built to win and bitterly disappointed.

In 2009, they were again a favored club in the NL West and again it didn't work. They'd parted ways with Randy Johnson and signed veteran Jon Garland to a 1-year contract; they still had the powerful and young offense and added veteran Felipe Lopez to replace Hudson.

But when a club is built on the foundation of two Cy Young Award contending starting pitchers and fill-ins in the rest of the rotation; is reliant of young hitters who strike out a lot; when the defense is shaky; and the manager's job is on the line, it doesn't take much to blow the whole thing up; and that's what happened when the former Cy Young Award winner and two-time runner up for the award Webb went down with a shoulder injury.

Haren couldn't pick up the entire slack from missing Webb; the rest of the rotation was expectedly mediocre; the Diamondbacks----seemingly in shock from the loss of their anchor----staggered out of the gate and were 12-17 when Byrnes sowed the seeds for his own doom by firing manager Bob Melvin and replacing him with A.J. Hinch.

Organizational advocacy:

I don't know what "organizational advocacy" is; nor do I want to know if what happened to the Diamondbacks is the end result.

The words "organizational advocacy" became a justified punchline when neophyte manager and erstwhile front office executive A.J. Hinch wasn't just tabbed to replace Melvin, but had a 4-year contract lavished upon him and was saddled with those words that Byrnes undoubtedly regrets to this day----organizational advocacy.

A fellow survivor from our days of blogging at MLBlogs (don't ask), Matt at Diamondhacks, sponsored the A.J. Hinch page on Baseball-Reference with the saying, "Brimming with organizational advocacy". (I saw it mentioned in the New York Times without Matt receiving credit and I knew it was him----I've been trying to get him on Twitter forever. You think I'm bad?!?)

One would assume that Byrnes meant well with both the dual statement (real and symbolic) in lauding Hinch's credentials while tying the two together with that contract; but meaning well and doing well are two different things.

Hinch is incredibly bright; knew the Diamondbacks organization; was on the same page with Byrnes; and has potential to be a good manager----but he had no experience whatsoever managing; the players liked Melvin; and it didn't take long for Hinch to realize what it was he'd inherited----a team short in personnel without Webb and destined to finish under .500.

It was a glaring error on the part of Byrnes in terms of foresight and practical application. The contract accorded on Hunch was a misguided attempt on the part of the GM to legitimize his manager with money as if to say, "He's here and he's not going anywhere, so you'd better get used to it."

But a contract doesn't immediately provide the needed bond with the players for a manager to be a success. That Hinch had no resume to speak of as a minor league manager; was a journeyman player; and was outed as a conduit to the front office all combined to doom him from the start.

Reluctant to get into arguments with umpires, Hinch was notoriously vanilla----more so than the subdued Melvin----and the players sensed it.

It was a mistake.

Admirable loyalty and the inevitable end:

The Diamondbacks finished the 2009 season with a record of 70-92.

Chalked up to injuries and the newness of Hinch, they were expected, in some circles (not this one), to contend for a playoff spot in 2010. Byrnes made a decried trade that sent RHP Max Scherzer and former first round pick, LHP Daniel Schlereth to the Tigers in a 3-way trade with the Yankees that got the Diamondbacks RHPs Ian Kennedy and Edwin Jackson.

They also signed Adam LaRoche to take over at first base and former Braves infielder Kelly Johnson. Both agreed to inexpensive short-term deals.

But the bullpen was an issue with Qualls unable to handle closing and no adequate replacement among the crew of Aaron Heilman and Juan Gutierrez. Kennedy developed well enough, but the atrocious defense combined with a rotten bullpen relegated the Diamondbacks to the basement of the tough NL West.

By mid-season, Hinch was on the chopping block; but in an incredible display of loyalty, Byrnes refused to fire Hinch to save himself and, with a contract through 2015, both Byrnes and Hinch were fired in early July.

The drafts:

There's not much to go on with Byrnes in terms of the draft.

In 2006, he drafted Scherzer in the 1st round; Brett Anderson in the 2nd; John Hester in the 13th; and Clay Zavada in the 30th. They passed on Chris Coghlan; David Huff; Joba Chamberlain; Chris Perez; Trevor Cahill; Justin Masterson; Kyle Drabek and Daniel Bard.

In 2007, they took Barry Enright in the 2nd round; Scott Maine in the 6th; and Bryan Augenstein in the 7th. They passed on Madison Bumgarner; Jason Heyward; Rick Porcello; Tommy Hunter; and Marc Rzepczynski.

In 2008, they took Schlereth in the first round.

The final analysis:

Byrnes is much younger than Alderson; he's been in the middle of the GM muck for the past five years and comes from excellent scouting/stats stock. His loyalty was self-immolating, but remarkably admirable. He's aggressive and smart and, while he made mistakes, the way things crumbled in 2008 cannot be attributed to anything he did----it just didn't work.

As I've said earlier, I prefer Byrnes to Alderson; but regardless of what the Mets do, I'll support it as long as they do it for the right reasons and not because they're pressured from various sources to do what others want them to do.

You can compare the two and come to your own conclusions now that you have the information. There are justifiable reasons to support both men----and to oppose them.

Make up your own mind.

  • A note on the Yankees:

Just so I understand: the Yankees were unable to start C.C. Sabathia on 3-days rest to start game 4 (something he's done successfully and willingly in the past), but he's available out of the bullpen on 1-day rest if they need him in game 6 against the Rangers?


That makes sense.

I was a guest with Sal at SportsFan Buzz on Friday talking about the LCS and managerial stuff. Click here for Sal's site or here to listen directly.

1 comment:

She-Fan said...

I'm sure CC would only be available out of the pen for one batter (the Yankees could use another lefty specialist). In an elimination game, it's all hands on deck.