Kody Clawson | January 30th, 2020
I always wanted to be an athlete of some sort, but when I got into middle school and realized actual athletic performance wasn’t going to be my forte, I turned my attention to other possible ways to be involved. Ever since then, I felt like the front office called my name. I thought that if I wasn’t going to be a GM, then I should at least try to be an assistant if some sort.
This interest in front office tactics has carried on to today. Recently, I’ve been reading a book called Gridiron Genius by Michael Lombardi, a football front office guru who has worked with GMs like Bill Walsh, Al Davis, and Bill Belichick. It talks about building an organizational culture that can sustain success. I’ve wondered what lessons I can take from that and apply to baseball, and so far I’ve come up with these three.
Know what you are
Maybe the hardest thing for any front office to do is to be honest with itself as far as where the team is and how competitive it can be. It’s hard to face reality sometimes. If you have a team that isn’t going to be competitive and you’re up against your budget (whatever it may be), it can be hard to decide what direction to take your team, either to push toward contention or to decide to trade away pieces to build for the future. It can be even harder to realize when a full-blown massive rebuild is in sight, as the fanbase can be resistant to having to go through the doldrums just to have what may seem like a faint hope of future success. We’ve seen recent success stories of massive tank jobs, such as the Cubs and, for what it’s worth, the Astros, but there are several teams who have gone through similar rebuilds only to see limited, if any, success.
Communicate the plan
There’s an old saying, famously attributed at least in part to Yogi Berra, that goes something like this: “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.” Ever feel like this is how your club’s team building is going? It just might be. After winning the 2013 World Series, the Red Sox seemed to have trouble recapturing the magic of that run, spending the next couple seasons struggling at the major league system, deciding to focus on retooling the minor league system. But that wasn’t good enough for the Sox ownership group. Out was Ben Cherington, and in came Dave Dombrowski. And in true Dombrowski “all-in” fashion, he dealt out of the team’s prospect depth to add major league pieces that were ready to help the team compete, winning three straight AL East titles on the way to another championship in 2018. But after the all-in roster crunch left the front office with little payroll and roster flexibility in 2019, and the 2020 outlook seeming about the same, the team is left in a curious position.
Owner John Henry has seemed to be of two minds on the subject of getting under the luxury tax threshold. Initially stating a desire to get under it, he’s recently come out saying it’s not the determining factor to roster decisions. Yet once again, rumors are swirling about the team trying to move superstar Mookie Betts, a move that one would assume the Red Sox would only pursue if they were serious about wanting to get under the tax threshold. So while there may be some plan there, it’s hard to say what it is exactly. Having a definitive plan as an owner is more than just saying, “I want to be successful for the next five years” as Henry has said. There needs to be a direct plan that starts with the owner and works through the GM to the front office and the coaching staff. If you ask me, I just don’t see that in Boston right now.
Have an identity (even if it’s a “wrong” one)
What are you trying to build? What kind of player are you looking for? Are you looking for toolsy players or players with a certain approach at the plate? When looking for pitchers, do you want guys with a big fastball and a breaking pitch or more of a “kitchen sink” approach to work with? When the Royals were rebuilding before their championship runs, they sought out high contact bats with above-average defensive ability. Their entire team was built around this identity, and it netted them two World Series appearances and one championship. It may not be the common way to build a contender in this era, but it was the identity they chose for themselves, and it’s hard to argue with the results.
There’s so much more that goes into building a roster, of course. But these are three keys that seem to be missed when looking at MLB teams when you look at it from the outside. Leadership is management of the non-obvious, and some clubs just don’t seem to have the non-obvious under control.
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Main Credit Image: Embed from Getty Images