Dave Dombrowski

What Does ‘President of Baseball Operations’ Mean, Anyway?

As Ben Carsley detailed last week, Ben Cherington authored at least one of the finest trades in baseball history. He also saw more than his fair share of moves turn sour. Those misses may have been the product of bad luck, good strategies gone bad, or, maybe just as a team can make its own luck, when enough bad things happen it’s time to suspect it’s a an issue of process. That’s what John Henry seemed to indicate last month. Maybe you think Cherington didn’t get a fair shake. But even if you thought he was terrible, you’d have to agree he had at least one good quality as GM: he could be fired.

That’s a quality that new President Dave Dombrowski may not share. The promotion of a GM to President no longer seems strange. It’s been four seasons since Theo Epstein left for the Cubs, yet back when gorilla suits were in style, that kind of promotion may not have been as possible, let alone normal.

It’s not that GM positions never led to “higher” positions in the organization, but for a time, it seemed to be a kind of semi-retirement. John Schuerholz took that role officially, and despite the title “special advisor,” that’s maybe what John Hart was with the Rangers, Terry Ryan with the Twins and Pat Gillick with the Phillies. Their expertise was still valued, but the increasing demands on a GM’s time were no longer a fit.

In the last five years, this “emeritus” feel is not a requirement; there’s a new kind of baseball ops-specific position above the GM position.

  • Feb 2010: After nine years as GM, Mark Shapiro is elevated to President, seemingly in part as a way for the Indians to keep Chris Antonetti.
  • Oct 2011: Theo Epstein is hired by the Cubs as President of Baseball Operations, with former Assistant GM Jed Hoyer brought on a week later as General Manager.
  • Oct 2012: Twelve years after becoming GM of the White Sox, Kenny Williams is promoted to Executive Vice President. AGM Rick Hahn becomes GM.
  • May 2014: Tony La Russa is hired for a new position with the Diamondbacks: Chief Baseball Officer. In consultation with CEO and President Derrick Hall, he gives the GM position to Dave Stewart, leading to the resignation of Kevin Towers. Another GM finalist, De Jon Watson, leaves his Vice President position with the Dodgers to become Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations with the D-backs.
  • Aug 2014: Pat Gillick steps in as President of the Phillies on an interim basis, taking on the role permanently when David Montgomery returned, but as chairman.
  • Oct 2014: Andrew Friedman opts out of his contract with the Rays to become President of Baseball Operations with the Dodgers. He hires Athletics AGM Farhan Zaidi as GM, and hires another considered GM candidate in Josh Byrnes as Senior Vice President of Baseball Operations.
  • Apr 2015: Brian Sabean steps up from the GM position to become Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations. AGM Bobby Evans is elevated to Senior Vice President and General Manager.

Jon Daniels of the Rangers and Matt Silverman of the Rays currently head their teams’ baseball operations with a President title without a GM under them, concessions that seemed to be designed as official acknowledgements that no “Super GM” would be named above them. With respect to Daniels, Silverman and every “Super GM” on the above list… can you imagine any of them getting fired for normal baseball reasons, barring a change in ownership? For those with GMs serving under them, how many of them could survive a change in GM?

The answers you guess for those questions may be all we have. I’m sure there are similar situations from long ago, but it’s hard to come up with a recent example of a “Super GM” getting fired. Nolan Ryan getting pushed out of the Rangers hierarchy comes close, but he had not been a GM before, and unlike Tony La Russa, he had never had the chance to hire a GM, either. Maybe the closest example is current Red Sox GM candidate Dan O’Dowd, who after nearly thirteen years as GM of the Rockies saw his position get split, with O’Dowd’s AGM, Bill Geivett, named “Director of Major League Operations.” The new breed of Super GMs, the Epsteins and Friedmans, have yet to see a regime change.

It’s hard to come up with a recent example of a “Super GM” getting fired.

There’s a tension here, about what these roles actually are. Though team officials are typically allowed to interview for higher positions with other clubs, the Blue Jays have had a very difficult time filling theirs. Current GM Dan Duquette was interested, at least theoretically (who doesn’t want a promotion?) and Kenny Williams, a Super GM without a President title, also saw his connection to Toronto frustrated. Now Shapiro, a Super GM with a President title, is also a candidate. Eight months, and no traction.

Meanwhile, do you know where your Assistant General Managers are? Gone are the days of the strong #2 AGMs, maybe, replaced with a class of Milford School graduates neither seen nor heard. Some teams have none, others up to four; I’ll confess that there are very few names I recognized, beyond AGMs currently rumored as GM candidates. I follow the D-backs very closely, and yet I can’t recall seeing AGM Bryan Minniti’s name in print since his hiring — despite the fair bit of reporting on his Nationals departure two weeks earlier.

Hearing from AGMs less wouldn’t mean they were less important; the same could be said of GMs moved to Super GM roles. In the case of Dombrowski, the distinction between his new title as President of Baseball Operations and the title of General Manager either means something or it doesn’t. This is a new enough trend that I don’t think we can land one way or the other; and yet in the context of other situations around the game, I think we can draw some inferences based on either possibility.

If “President of Baseball Operations” Really Just Means “General Manager”

It’s possible that Dombrowski’s title is really just a fancy new term for GM, one that allows a big market team to spend big money to accumulate more of the game’s top front office talent. I don’t think we can dismiss as coincidence the timing of Larry Lucchino’s departure, but it wasn’t necessarily the case that someone would be named to replace him in exactly the same role. Lucchino’s relationship with baseball operations was always a little complicated, as I’m sure Epstein would confirm; baseball ops fell within Lucchino’s mandate enough for the Red Sox to try to convince O’Dowd and the Rockies that it was he who killed the Kelly Shoppach trade, and yet it was not enough of a mandate for O’Dowd to actually believe that.

It’s possible that Dombrowski’s title is really just a fancy new term for GM, one that allows a big market team to spend big money to accumulate more of the game’s top front office talent.

Lateral moves from team to team are pretty rare at baseball’s highest echelon, but the principal difference between Zaidi’s new role and his old one is probably his pay check. As President of Baseball Operations but not as GM, Dombrowski can court just about anyone, much like Mets GM Sandy Alderson was so formidable a hire that Paul DePodesta’s move there from the Padres seemed like a step up, J.P. Ricciardi could take a long term position without skipping a beat, and it was believed that Omar Minaya at least had the option of sticking around. Cherington’s exit was quicker than that of Minaya or Arizona’s Towers, but maybe only because the model is more established.

If Dombrowski is Boston’s GM in everything but name, some of the rumored or otherwise likely GM candidates probably aren’t candidates at all. Why would Yankees AGM Billy Eppler make that move? If the only likely difference is one of dollars, like with Zaidi, the Yankees could surely keep him. It also seems unlikely that Jerry Dipoto would start a new situation where his power at GM was even iffier than with Mike Scioscia’s Angels. This is how Frank Wren starts to make a lot of sense. He’s had his moment, and yet seems unlikely to take a formal AGM position in lieu of a special assistant role. Dombrowski’s title is a way to hire a guy like Wren.

But if Dombrowski’s role is likely to be similar to that of Epstein and Friedman, we could take things another step, and guess that if Wren is hired, he won’t be the only man hired. I’m not certain that Watson would have been able to interview with the D-backs for a Senior Vice President position. The Red Sox have the money and may have the desire to create a new front office supergroup. There is a definite possibility that the GM interview process could result in multiple hires.

If “President of Baseball Operations” Means More

In Robert Graves’s Claudius the God, the sequel to I, Claudius, the title character’s ascension to Emperor went very well — for a time. Graves explained Claudius’s turn for the awful as deliberate; his character thought he was doing so great a job, he might hurt the Romans in the long run by teaching them to prefer monarchy to democracy. Claudius found himself demonstrating that a great monarchy can be better than a great democracy, and that’s probably true. But he also reasoned that a bad monarchy was so much worse than a bad democracy that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.

We don’t know that “President of Baseball Operations” is baseball’s answer to monarchy, but we don’t know that it isn’t, either. We have yet to see a sought-after GM candidate named to such a position outlast his welcome. Of course John Henry and Tom Werner could dislodge any of their employees, and they could certainly do that with Dombrowski more easily than they could have with Lucchino, who had an ownership stake. But would they? I feel very confident that La Russa is firmly entrenched as Chief Baseball Officer, and would have remained that way as long as he is likely to stay. Some things, maybe, you just don’t do.

It’s possible that Dombrowski’s meetings with Henry and Werner brought out just that result; after all, it was the best opportunity available, says Dom, and we have no contract to review. If President of Baseball Operations offers no better job security than GM, I’m not sure I see the point.

If Dombrowski is a monarch, well then it’s possible he could be a bad one. We might end up living with it for a long time. On the plus side, we could end up with a pre-downturn Claudius, a GM all the more effective because of his job security. It really could be a good thing.

If Dombrowski has extracted some kind of enhanced job security from Henry and from Werner, who may take on more of a Lucchino role, well then the sky’s the limit. Suddenly instead of Eppler and Dipoto and others being less likely to come to Boston, they might be more likely. Dipoto may want to captain his own ship, but it may also be an issue of not wanting to help captain a ship on which the crew is uncertain of who to answer to. Dombrowski has enough cache to attract talent the way Alderson has, and just like Alderson, maybe, he could be empowered to outline his employees’ roles exactly. That could be an attractive thing.

So much could happen in the coming days that could leave an imprint on the Red Sox for a very long time. Here at this site, of course, we’ll be paying particular attention to how Dombrowski blends his previous style with a Henry-inspired analytics focus. We should expect more than one other significant hire, it seems, based on the history of other clubs that created a Super GM position for any reason other than the promotion of an AGM to GM. If there’s just one inference to draw from Dombrowski’s title, however, it’s that it could take much more than two losing seasons to end his tenure in Boston.

Photo by Winslow Towson/USA Today Sports Images

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