Trying to figure out who the Cubs' next general manager will be has become sport, in some ways more interesting than September baseball, considering the lack of pennant races this year.
We have one writer doing a "power ranking" of GM candidates, 16 of them, even though many of the 16 probably aren't on the proverbial "short list".
Another writer recently tried to read something into Tom Ricketts' trip to San Francisco while the Cubs were playing there:
Longtime Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, rumored to be near the top of the Cubs’ wish list in their GM search, wasn’t on the road with his team in Cleveland and was presumed home in the Bay Area — along with well-regarded Beane assistant David Forst, another potential candidate.
Like, you know, it would be normal for a GM of a team out of the race to travel 2500 miles to Cleveland in August, along with a top assistant. But this piece at ChicagoNow gives several good reasons why Beane might be a top target of Tom Ricketts.
Then there was the kerfuffle about the contract extension given to director of player development Oneri Fleita last week. The Tribune's David Haugh wrote today that it was actually a shrewd and smart move (and I agree with Haugh):
Understand that even if the next GM comes from another organization, teams granting permission to speak with a candidate often do so under the condition that he can't bring more than a couple of key employees to his new job. That makes the institutional knowledge and continuity a guy such as Fleita offers an asset more than a liability, particularly given his reputation. The Tigers weren't the only team to tempt Fleita since Jim Hendry was fired, a source said.
Anyway, whether it's baseball or business the most effective leaders surround themselves with smart people who offer strong, incisive ideas. To think somebody as accomplished and experienced as the Cubs' next GM would feel threatened by the presence of Fleita underestimates that person.
There do seem to be signs pointing to Billy Beane as one of the likeliest choices. Between that, and a certain movie coming out in two weeks, I decided to re-read "Moneyball" to refresh my memory about Beane and the job he did to build the Athletics. Granted, the book is eight years old -- but there's a lot in there that's still relevant.
Follow me past the jump for some thoughts about what Billy Beane might be like as Cubs GM.
First, a bit about Billy Beane's record as GM of the A's. Beane was named to the post on Oct. 17, 1997; his tenure is the second-longest of any current GM (only his cross-Bay rival Brian Sabean with the Giants has been a GM longer). The team had had five straight losing seasons and had another in Beane's first year. But by 1999 they had a winning record and in 2000, they made the first of four consecutive playoff appearances -- each of which resulted in a three games to two loss in the first round. Drawing tons of walks and hitting home runs, the Beane-built A's won with lots of runs scored and solid pitching. By 2005, Beane was given a small ownership interest in the team.
His manager through most of the playoff years, Art Howe, and Beane became somewhat at odds and Howe quit after the 2002 season with a year left on his contract. Beane promoted bench coach Ken Macha to manager and the A's made the playoffs again in 2003, but fell short in 2004 and 2005. Contract negotiations with Macha went nowhere and he almost wound up managing the Pirates, but eventually came back for one last year in 2006; Oakland finally won a division series that year, but when the A's were swept in the ALCS by the Tigers, Macha was fired and replaced by Bob Geren.
It was partly Geren, who proved to be a mediocre manager, and partly Beane's inability to keep plugging holes in the A's with shrewd trading, as he had in his first few years as GM, that has left the A's an also-ran since 2006. They were supposed to have a new stadium by now, but that hasn't happened. Beane has reportedly been frustrated with this situation, which has caused the A's to not have new revenue streams they had hoped would be theirs by now.
That leads us to 2011, and perhaps because the A's are having trouble competing -- it's now been five years since their last winning season -- Beane might be convinced to try a new challenge.
Last week, I wrote this extended article about the Cubs' GM vacancy and identified three key characteristics that would be most important, in my view, for the next GM to have. So, keeping in mind that Fleita has already been retained, and it appears likely that scouting director Tim Wilken is also going to be retained, let's take another look at those three qualities and see how Beane stacks up.
The new general manager has to be able and willing to make tough decisions for the good of the team. It seemed, at times, that Jim Hendry was in awe of the big-name managers he hired. Both Dusty Baker and Lou Piniella seemed to have considerable influence over what players Hendry put on their rosters, many times to the detriment of the team. Beane never did this; in fact, when it became too expensive for him to retain the pitchers he developed, he did not hesitate to trade them. Sentiment was never an issue for Beane. And in general, he traded well, acquiring good young players who didn't miss a beat replacing the big names dealt away. That has been somewhat less true over the last couple of years. But I don't think that would stop Beane from making decisions to improve the team without partiality to players for whom he had any personal connections.
The new general manager has to be more interested in using advanced metrics to analyze players. This ought to be pretty obvious, given what "Moneyball" is about. Beane was a pioneer in this field as a GM, although he was trained in doing so by his predecessor, Sandy Alderson. It is true that many GMs are now doing this, and that has made Beane's advantage somewhat less. But having him in the general manager's office would be a clear break from the policies of the past, and given that he's been successful -- and not old (he turns 50 in March) -- this one's kind of a no-brainer.
The new general manager has to end the buddy system of hiring. Since I don't know that many details of the ins and outs of Billy Beane's hiring practices, I'll just note this: Beane has not hesitated when faced with replacing a manager even when the team was a perennial playoff contender. As noted above, Art Howe walked after a playoff season because he and Beane weren't getting along, and Beane was about to let Ken Macha go even though Macha had led the team to three straight winning years. Then he did fire Macha after the A's had gone farther in the postseason than any A's squad during Beane's time as general manager. It's instructive to remember this: Mike Quade worked for Billy Beane from 2000-2002, as a coach on three straight postseason teams. Beane is surely quite familiar with Quade. If Beane is hired, one of his first major decisions would be whether to retain Quade, who is under contract for 2012. If Quade were dismissed, that would likely answer this question.
To conclude all this, I think Billy Beane would be an excellent choice for the next general manager of the Cubs. He's got 14 years' experience in the position, with success, yet he is not old; he's well-versed in modern baseball statistics and management techniques; and he has not been afraid to make tough choices to better his team.
And wouldn't it be interesting if the Cubs were announcing Beane as their new GM on the very day that "Moneyball" hits movie theaters?
I have no inside knowledge here; I'm just speculating like everyone else. But don't say it can't happen.