Conviction defines Byrnes as Padres' GM
SAN DIEGO -- Josh Byrnes is finishing his first season as Padres general manager, and though the team's overall record will be under .500, the club has experienced a huge second-half uptick.Since the Padres fell to 28-50 on June 29, they have played 46-32 ball. They are under new ownership, John Moores having sold the team to a group headed by the O'Malley family and local businessman Ron Fowler. Because of that fresh approach and a $1.25 billion television deal paying the club an average of $60 million a year for the next 20 years, it all augers well for 2013 and beyond. Byrnes cut his teeth in Cleveland, Colorado and Boston well before he landed the job as GM of the D-backs in 2005. Along the way, he worked under some of the best: John Hart, Mark Shapiro, Dan O'Dowd and Theo Epstein. "It's a long list, I've certainly been around some great people," Byrnes told MLB.com this week. "Theo had courage. He was very convicted. When he thought something had merit he'd say, 'Let's do it, let's implement it,' no matter what other people thought or howled." Byrnes' greatest moment of conviction came in Arizona, a little more than a season after the D-backs won the 2007 National League West title and were swept by the Rockies in the NL Championship Series. He dismissed the popular Bob Melvin as manager and replaced him with the untried A.J. Hinch, who is now his assistant GM in San Diego. The move didn't work out. The D-backs lost 92 games in 2009 and were on their way to losing 97 when the pair was let go on July 1, 2010. Sitting in the home dugout at Petco Park, during a wide-ranging interview, Byrnes talked in depth for the first time about what went wrong in Arizona and what is going right now in San Diego. And some might find his comments a surprise when it comes to strictly a sabermetric approach to the game. MLB.com: What's been the most positive thing about this season for you? Byrnes: How we've played since early June. I think there are a few reasons for that. [Manager] Buddy [Black] has done a great job keeping us on course after the rough start. Our offense has been pretty good. We've scored runs consistently. We've pitched well enough. With all the injuries, we've given guys some opportunities. And some of them have taken advantage of them. MLB.com: How did you evaluate what was going wrong and fix it on the fly like that? Byrnes: A lot was going wrong. Injuries, we weren't hitting, we were making a lot of errors and our offensive style was low average, high walk, high strikeout, no power. Some of the things we've corrected. Our hitters are swinging the bats more aggressively. We haven't struck out as much. We're getting more hits. And some of that is personnel change. Carlos Quentin coming back, change in the middle of the infield -- getting Everth Cabrera, Logan Forysthe and Alexi Amarista up here. [Yasmani] Grandal coming up at the end of June. Chase Headley has had an unbelievable second half. Cameron Maybin, the last four to six weeks, has been very good. For the first time in a long time, our offense has been pretty good. MLB.com: How did the ownership transition affect what you were able to do in baseball operations? Byrnes: Actually, not much. I'll give both sides a lot of credit. John Moores was very supportive. We were doing business as usual from Spring Training on with contract extensions, and then in July during the transition phase, communicating with the outgoing and the incoming ownership. We were still making big decisions. We re-signed Quentin and Huston Street. Obviously, we chose not to trade Headley. It was business as usual, which is a credit to the outgoing and incoming owners. MLB.com: There has been so much turnover on the roster in recent years. How important is it to maintain some continuity moving forward? Byrnes: I think every team wants that. Certainly, in my early days in Cleveland we talked passionately about our core of players. We could build and plan our roster around that. But you can't just make it up. They have to be good players at the right age and the right price to be a core. And I think we're getting there. Continuity is a good thing, but again, you can't have it for the sake of it. You've got to have the right players, the right mix, the right team and then have some stability. MLB.com: The Padres had a $45 million player payroll last year and about $55 million this year. Where do you see it going with the new owners and increased television revenue next year? Byrnes: To be determined. We're going to sit down this week and next and really start to map out 2013 and probably the next couple of years. Obviously, we're trying to be aware of what our competitors are doing. This year is another reminder that payroll advantages help, but there are teams that spend below average that can win. Some have even shown they can sustain the winning. It's something we take pride in and something we think can be done. MLB.com: But you can say that the payroll is appreciably going up for next year, can't you? Byrnes: I would think so, but again, I think it's important to look at it for a couple of years. We don't have any free agents going into the offseason aside from Jason Marquis. So we control a lot of our decisions. We have a lot of arbitration guys. Headley will move up. Clayton Richard, Edinson Volquez, Joe Thatcher, Will Venable. These are all guys we want to keep in the fold here as part of that core we were talking about. MLB.com: When you were in Arizona, you traded away Quentin. Now you came here, and you brought him back. What's different about him in his evolution as player that made him palatable to bring here? Byrnes: One thing reflecting back on the Arizona story is that we might have had too much success too soon. We won the division in 2007 and led it for most of '08 before we had those rough years. You learn you have a little bit of success too early in careers and how hard it is to be in a division race. Maybe it was not fully understood and appreciated by all of us. The one thing about Quentin then and now is just his unique intensity, almost veracity toward the game. That's infectious. I think he's out there to beat someone. That's the goal. We're not into the stats and benefits of being a Major League player. That's all fine and good. I think he's out here to win a game. MLB.com: This is your second time as a GM. What do you think you learned in Arizona that you were able to build on in your growth as a person and in your job? Byrnes: A lot of things. I think you always learn from mistakes and all the things you do well. When I was in Arizona, there was a period of years when everybody said I was doing a great job. Then there was a period of years when everybody thought I was an idiot. That's the cycle most GMs go through, but when you go through it yourself it's like the old John Wooden quote, "It's a mistake to get caught up in praise or criticism." Just try to maintain doing these jobs for the right reasons. We're trying to win games and have fun doing it. How we build an organization and make decisions, I'd like to think that I'm better. I'd like to think I'll continue to get better. The information that we use to make decisions hasn't changed much in the 20 years I've been doing this. It's changed a little bit, but not as much as people would think. The things that we're doing are a little more art than science. MLB.com: Could you explain exactly what you're talking about? Byrnes: Anything we do evaluating an amateur or a Major Leaguer involving contracts, medical, game strategy, advanced scouting, we could probably make it a very data intensive exercise if we wanted to. It's not that we don't look at it. It's just that at times we don't rely on it so much. It's a complementary part of a decision. I think there's a little more of touch and feel and common sense and experience that drives decisions. We're going to test it against the objective information, but I try to balance the two. Our expertise and experience drive decisions more than people think. MLB.com: Did you get caught up in the praise and the criticism while you were working for the D-backs? Byrnes: No, I really didn't. It's not how it just affects me. It's how it affects an organization when there's a lot of noise surrounding that organization. This time of year, there are a lot of teams being celebrated for the kind of years they've had and a lot of teams getting heavy criticism. It's part of our business. We're in the entertainment business, the fan business. But internally, when it's time to make decisions you've got to turn the noise down and focus on what needs to get better -- how are we going to get better -- rather than just respond to that day's headlines. MLB.com: Probably the greatest period of noise over there began when you dismissed Melvin and replaced him with A.J. Hinch early in the 2009 season. You took a lot of grief for that. Byrnes: No doubt. I knew there was a huge risk. Like a lot of things, you see that with the success of Robin Ventura and Mike Matheny that maybe the thought process wasn't as far out there as people thought at the time. But the one thing I will accept in our business is the winning and losing. It was a decision I knew would get criticized. The best way to deal with that criticism was to win more. And we just didn't win enough. MLB.com: You're not surprised about how well Melvin is doing managing in Oakland, are you? Byrnes: No, no. Bob is an outstanding manager. I signed him to two contract extensions when I was there. We were together almost 3 1/2 years. I'm not usually the type of guy who wants to change people around. I thought of all the teams we had there 2008 was probably our most talented. I think there was a real frustration that we couldn't repeat as division winners. We lost to the Dodgers by two games. I wanted to see how we'd respond in 2009 after what was a disappointing season in '08. We didn't get off to a good start and Brandon Webb hurt his shoulder on Opening Day. All that led to the decision. Since then, anybody who's called and asked me I've given Bob a lot of praise. I'm very happy he's having the success he's having. MLB.com: There was a lot of noise about a lack of communication between you and Bob at the time. Was that overstated? Byrnes: I would like to think there was no lack of real communication. Like in any professional relationship, if we're not having the success both of us thought we should be sharing and we're not necessarily agreeing about how to make it work going forward it leads to very unpleasant decisions. MLB.com: It went south pretty quickly after that. D-backs management pulled the plug on you and A.J. just a little more than a year later. I wrote at the time that A.J. would make a great young manager if just given the chance to develop. But the experiment wasn't given time for that to happen. Byrnes: I agree. A.J. definitely has a unique resume in the game, as a player and now having done a few things once he was done playing. He's very talented in a lot of areas. The manager's job is a tricky one. Maybe it's changed a little bit with modern players, the scrutiny, how visible everything is. But A.J. as a baseball man and a leader is very a unique person. MLB.com: I know you were particularly wounded by the way it all ended in Arizona. More than two years later, have you been able to digest it and work through it? Byrnes: Yeah, but I don't think I'll ever feel good about it. Life goes on and I'm happy to be here. That's just the way our business is.
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.