By:  Holly Horning

When we talk about baseball players, we usually understand their strengths. Whether they are great at hitting or at fielding. Sometimes solidly possessing both skills.

And then there’s the phrase “5 tool player” which refers to a player who is solid at all the top baseball skills.

But what about GMs? They’re people, too.

And for some reason, many in the baseball world – from owners to fans – believe that every GM should be strong in every aspect of their job.

But is that a fair assumption to make?

Should every GM be required to excel in every facet?

And how many of today’s GMs actually do?

Before we can analyze, let’s identify the primary skills required of a GM:

– Scouting

– Drafting

– Signing current players/free agents

– Trading

– Negotiations

– Creating and implementing a vision and strategy

– Hiring Front Office personnel

– Hiring the manager

– Implementing the owner’s strategy

– Establishing and maintaining the corporate culture

– Matching needs with budget

And each of these skills also requires an understanding of human nature, understanding and hiring the right mix of personalities, communication skills (with the team, media and fans) and a working knowledge of both legal and financial skills.

It’s a tall order.

Many considered Dave Dombrowski to be one of the best GMs when he was with the Tigers. But how many of these skills did (and does) he actually possess?

Sure, Dave was the absolute best at trading. No one better. But he was only fair at drafting and did nothing to improve the Tigers’ organization when it came to the farm system and new trends such as analytics and technology. And he often bumped heads with Mr. I.

One could look at his decade+ time with Detroit as working towards a singular goal and not towards strengthening the organization as a whole or planning for the future.

Most notable was his failure to understand the developing trends such as the rise of the bullpen, analytics and finding the right mix of personalities and leaders in the clubhouse who would bond with each other and unify under a single goal.

If we turn to Al Avila, 2 years+ is not enough time to get a full read on his skills. GMs are often hired in 5 year increments because it takes that long in order to see if the plan and efforts are paying off.

Granted, the visible evidence we have seen so far is not promising. But are we judging him solely on his failed results with signing certain players like Zimmermann and Pelfrey?

Are we giving Trader Dave extra credit because he made big, splashy signings and not giving enough credit to Avila because he’s making the quiet, low-key moves that strengthen a system silenty and from deep within, instead of visible to everyone watching the game?

Could Al actually be the opposite of Trader Dave? Could his strengths actually be Dombrowski’s weaknesses – and vice versa?

Avila was the first GM in a long time to tackle the farm system – both in stocking it and changing long-entrenched personnel. He introduced a systematic performance book and built an analytics department. And in (finally) hiring a new manager, he was quoted as saying that Gardenhire would come in and change the corporate culture.

As for many of the other skills listed above, it is too soon to tell how successful Avila’s moves will be. We also don’t know what the new and silent owner has told him about the team’s future – or what resources he has given him. We do understand that he has nowhere near the options and money Dave had when he held the same position.

And quite frankly, Avila is also charged with the task of mopping up the mess that was largely created by the former owner and GM. Dave got to do the fun stuff but these are different times and different situations. Al is now tasked with doing the dirty work. And to be fair, we have to say the jury is still out.

But if you look around MLB, you’ll see that other teams understand how much their GMs are required to do. And they also realize that the GM can’t be an expert in all of these areas. Which is why the trend of hiring multiple “GM”s is happening with many of the teams.

If you look at the list of each team’s executives, you’ll generally only see 1 official General Manager. Unless you are Dave Dombrowski and eliminate the position of GM, assume the title of President and do the job of the GM.

But teams are now dividing the traditional GM job down into specialized roles. They are creating “Presidents” and “VP”s of Baseball Operations, Finance, Player Development, Analytics and other terms, giving each person the lead in running that aspect of the organization. In other words, they are hiring specialists to oversee specialized elements that each contribute to the job of finding, developing and fielding a team.

Front Offices are expanding exponentially as a result.

Will the Tigers follow suit? Probably not given their history of being among the very last to adapt to the latest and greatest trends. And also unlikely given that they are looking to cut payroll.

Al Avila though could sure use the help. He’s got a lot on his plate.

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8 thoughts on “WHAT’S IN A TITLE?

  1. Now I can ask my question to the TT faithful. What would Al Avila have to do to get fired in 2018? Is it even possible given the mop up tasks and 5 year window Holly points out?


  2. I don’t think a GM has to have all the skills listed, in fact I bet there aren’t more than a handful of current GM’s that could claim expert status in even 75%. One person held as the gold standard, Theo Epstein, has no scouting or drafting noted in his background. I think the key thing is to be able to implement a plan and hire the right people to execute the plan.

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  3. You can list 10 productivity measures but there is only metric that counts and that’s winning. In a decade he sent two teams to the World Series and the Tigers had many other successes. As for Avila being left with Dave’s mess, the team he inherited should have contended. His bad free agent signings (Zimmerman, Pelfrey, Lowe, Aviles, Upton) doomed the team.


  4. The team needs to catch up with other more enlightened organizations. They can especially utilize a public relations expert to speak for Al because he is too transparent with regard to tipping off other organizations of intent he may have strategy wise. You could not pry anything out of Dombrowski. I think your team is better off that way.


  5. Holly, why all the hand wringing and consternation…Al Avila has this….if he runs into trouble he can fall back on Chris Ilitch [if he can locate him] and the Oracle of Delhi, one Jim Leyland to advise him on how to proceed and implement the new Tiger Way…I mean what could to wrong?

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