Economy hits home for GMs
Baseball decision-makers dealing with challenges
Three Major League Baseball general managers who are among the most experienced executives in the game -- Ed Wade, Dave Dombrowski and Kevin Towers -- admit they have never been through a troubling period like the challenges of the past few months.
"I don't think anyone has ever been through, or could have predicted, this type of offseason," said Wade, the GM of the Astros and a veteran of 32 Major League seasons.
"The economy definitely has made this winter a challenge for everybody," added Dombrowski, who enters his 31st season in the game as the president, CEO and GM of the Tigers.
"I think Major League Baseball is the first major professional sport to truly feel the impact of the tough economy that all Americans are dealing with now," said Towers, who is entering his 28th year in professional baseball and his 13th as the GM of the Padres. "I think this year's free agent market is reflective of that."
The time frame that stretches from the end of one season to the start of another is always a hectic period for general managers, but never before has the beginning of Spring Training been so welcome.
"It's always good to hear the crack of the bat after a long winter of business, but this spring the sound is even sweeter after what seemed like a long harsh winter," offered Theo Epstein, the general manager of the Red Sox.
"Baseball is not immune to real world problems, and we proved that again this winter," added Epstein. "The economy, especially, made for difficult circumstances for many in our game. Spring Training brings the focus back on the field and allows us all the opportunity to escape in the game we love."
It has been an offseason that has required changes in direction and creativity on the part of the general managers.
Epstein took a different path from many general managers, signing several accomplished pitchers who were coming off injury-plagued seasons. He's hoping John Smoltz, Brad Penny and Takashi Saito will return to good health and form in a Boston uniform.
Perhaps no team had its plans altered by the slumping economy more than the Astros, who had the best second-half record in the National League last year.
"At at the end of the 2008 season we determined that in order to keep our club together, our payroll would have to move from about $98 million to $120 million, and for about a week we thought we would be able to do that," said Wade.
"Then the 'real world' economic woes started to clarify. Sponsors went away, some via bankruptcy, and our budget went south. At one point we thought the payroll would have to be at about $95 million. And it was at that point that we had to completely shut down our negotiations to bring back Randy Wolf, something that I never had to do before.
"We also reconciled that we wouldn't be able to afford Ty Wigginton's salary arbitration number, and we were actually plotting other ways to trim payroll when [team owner] Drayton McLane allowed us to stretch to a number between $105 and $107 million, budgeting at a loss for the first time in his ownership history. Even at that level, Wolf and Wigginton ran beyond our means."
Wade's candid assessment of what took place in Houston provides a look at how teams have had to change plans from the end of one season to the beginning of Spring Training.
One of the most active teams after the 2007 season, from a standpoint of trades and adding payroll, was the Tigers, but Dombrowski admits times have changed drastically.
"Our long, cold winter and our performance of last season have made me anxious for a while," said Dombrowski. "The overall economy is the biggest difference for all of us. I have not seen this type of caution in my time as a general manager."
The caution by the teams has left a large number of free agents still unsigned as camps open and players begin their workouts.
"I have not seen this many free agents without jobs since the early 1990s and Homestead," said Towers, referring to a camp that was opened in Florida for yet-to-be-signed free agents after the 1995 season and a 7 1/2-month strike.
Wade said he believes many of the unsigned free agents will end up in camps within the next week to 10 days but a number of the players will be on Minor League contracts.
"As the majority of those players work their way onto 25-man Opening Day rosters, we're going to see another wave of players flood out onto the market at the end of Spring Training," the Houston GM added.
It all adds up to even more decisions by the 30 general managers.
It's not easy to be a general manager these days, but, by the same token, it may be even more difficult to be a free agent player looking for a job.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice president and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.