The Marlins announced yesterday that GM Dan Jennings would take over as manager, marking the first time in recent history that an executive with as much power as he had would move down to the dugout. The move was widely panned as yet another crazy move made by perhaps baseball’s worst owner, even after it came out that Jeffrey Loria only approved the idea and didn’t come up with it himself.
The flaw in this move isn’t the idea itself, but rather which franchise is attempting it. (Note: even though Dan Jennings won’t continue to perform his day-to-day GM duties, he will have a strong say in personnel matters.) In other sports, it is becoming more common for coaches to also receive final say in personnel decisions (think Gregg Popovich of the Spurs in the NBA). These teams also employ GMs to scout and talk with other teams, but the coach is the boss. It’s notable that MLB is the only major sport in North America without a salary cap, so a MLB GM in this situation wouldn’t have to possess the knowledge of complex salary cap rules that are a big reason why the Spurs and other such teams have to employ GMs. Still, it makes sense that this trend would work its way to MLB at some point, especially with portable electronics making it easier to work on the road in all fields.
It is important to note that most of the time, this happens in reverse of the Marlins situation. Usually, a coach proves to be one of the few difference-making coaches in their respective league and is awarded personnel power simply because if his current team doesn’t give that power to him, someone else will. It never happens in reverse because coaches get exposure to GM duties on their way up the ladder, but GMs don’t get experience in coaching duties while moving up their ladder (Jennings’ highest coaching experience appears to be high school). Because of this, a lot of other franchises in other sports will be watching this experiment.
This brings me back to the idea that the Marlins shouldn’t be the team attempting this. As far as MLB franchises go, the Marlins are unstable. They go through managers like they’re the 25th players on the roster. The only other sports franchise who recently paid 3 head coaches/managers (counting Dan Jennings as a manager) was the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA, who just had the worst season in franchise history. The Marlins are also still paying the GM who preceded Jennings, so the front office can’t claim stability with the power structure being a recently new one. An experiment of this kind needs a patient owner, or an owner who won’t blow up a 9-figure offseason spending spree less than one year afterwards. If the Oakland A’s had Billy Beane step into the manager’s role, there wouldn’t be as much skepticism (there still would be some), and Brad Pitt would already be signed for Moneyball 2.
But, the idea has merit. While there are some people who will say that players won’t respond to an apparent outsider leading the team, it is important to remember that GMs have to get scouts and stats guys–two groups who can often to be at odds with each other–to work together to get a complete picture of which players to spend millions on. Plus, a smart GM/manager would know to surround himself with coaches who were respected baseball guys. To Dan Jennings and the Marlins’ credit, he did make sure his handpicked bench coach was experienced in that particular role. It also wouldn’t hurt to be taking over a team with some of those always-in-demand veteran leaders. Much like a GM needs to surround himself with smart people, a GM/manager needs to surround himself with the right people to have a chance to succeed in such a hard role.
Another benefit to this idea is a strong connection between the front office and the dugout. Any hire that the Marlins made would only be hired if they fit in well with the front office, but someone from the front office would be very in sync (hopefully) with the rest of the front office. The GM/manager would be able to use the players as he envisioned when he acquired them, and can get a firsthand feel for the pulse of the locker room. An organization who employs a GM/manager would have the sort of front office-dugout harmony that contenders often possess, while letting a GM have a major stake in the franchise’s fortunes.
Innovation should always championed in baseball. The Marlins can’t be faulted for trying something new, but they can be faulted for trying something new without having the right infrastructure in place. Every day brings Giancarlo Stanton one day closer to having to make a decision on opting out and every loss brings Loria’s itchy trigger finger closer to the trigger labeled “fire manager”. Someday, Dan Jennings might be remembered as the first of many men to add managing their team to their duties while being a key personnel man. But it is very doubtful that he will be remembered as the manager of the 2015 World Series Champions.Next post: Write-up for Yesterday: May 18, 2015
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