I was general manager for 16 years with the Reds and Nationals and had my share of ‘buying’, ‘selling’ and even ‘standing well’. Every day GM is at work, they prepare for trades — whether those deals eventually happen today, tomorrow, next month, next year, or even in the next decade. You can never do enough homework. You can never get enough information about the players. The more information you have, the better your chances of making good deals.
The week before the MLB deal deadline is a rough time for general managers and their staff. You are overwhelmed with text messages and phone calls. You are constantly communicating with other executives and brainstorming potential deals with the executive cabinet. Most teams work four to five trades at a time.
There is no sleep, no peace of mind, the clock is ticking, and if you can’t strike deals to improve your organization, you’ve failed at your job. On the deadline, GM is as important to the club as the star player.
The preferred deadline to trade with the Reds was in 1995, when the Dodgers swept us in the Division Series before withdrawing to the Braves in the NLCS. We acquired three novice shooters and a Gold Glove defensive player in two runs 10 days apart. The first was an eight-man deal with the Giants that landed starters Mark Portugal, David Borba and midfielder Darren Lewis. The second deal sent left-back CJ Nitkowski and a player to be named in the Tigers due to left-back David Wells. Those deals propelled the Reds into first place at NL Central, with the squad beating the Astros by nine matches.
I think 1998 was their best selling year on the trade deadline. The Reds’ ownership told me to cut salaries during a disappointing season. She replaced Jeff Shaw, winner of the Rolaids Relief Man Award the previous year, with first policeman Paul Conerco and left-wing Dennis Reyes. The Reds finished 77-85 in 1998 but won 96 games the following year. She replaced Konerko for Mike Cameron in November 1998. In 2000, I then exchanged Cameron as part of Ken Griffey Jr.’s future Hall of Famer package.
None of these deals would happen if the Reds were not ready to be sellers by the 1998 deadline. It’s a great reminder: any organization’s deal planning begins well before late July.
Baseball is always changing, and the GM’s role has evolved significantly since I last held the title. But some things haven’t changed. This is what trade season looks like if you’re sitting in the GM chair.
Manage up to property
It’s the owner and general manager team working for them, just like the relationship between a player and his agent. Some owners have more than others. In any case, it is imperative that the GM and the owner are on the same page. A collaborative approach is the best way to do business.
However, sometimes getting a deal with a property is more difficult than making a deal with a GM opponent. For example, when I was CEO of the Reds in the mid-1990s, I once reached an agreement on a deal involving first-choice chief Hal Morris, pending owner approval. Then owner Marge Shot canceled the deal due to her affair with Maurice’s wife at the time, Megan. I explained to Schott that I don’t trade Megan and they could remain friends, but after two days of trying to convince her, I had to accept that they wouldn’t let me do the deal.
Then there was Scott Rollin’s close 2002 deal for third baseman Phillies that would have sent Brandon Larson in the Reds’ 1997 first round to Philadelphia. This deal was canceled by Reds president John Allen for financial reasons. I then tried to sell A-ball leads to raise the necessary funds, but even after I made up the difference, I still couldn’t get approved. On the flip side, in 1995 when I acquired Wells from the Tigers, we were well over budget, but after two days of persuasion, Schott gave me the go-ahead for that major deal.
Making deals is not just about negotiating with the other team. Sometimes, convincing your home is the hardest part of closing the deal.
Preparation begins with self-discovery of your players. General managers must ensure that the organization evaluates its players at all levels in a fair and unbiased manner. All too often, organizations “overvalue” their players, which makes it more difficult for these teams to complete deals. Knowing what you have and properly evaluating the players are essential in this industry. In this regard, knowing the 17-year-old’s A-ball is just as important as knowing the veteran’s All-Star player in the Major League roster.
For example, as manager of the Reds, I acquired right bowler Juan Guzmán in a trade deal with the Orioles for left-wing savior PJ Ryan and 17-year-old Jacopo Secia on July 31, 1999. Guzmán was going 6-3 with 3.03 ERA on 12 A start for Cincinnati and helped the Reds finish with 96 wins that year.
Ryan continued his strong career with the Orioles and Blue Jays, but at that time the trade was interrupted by Sekia, a player the Orioles desperately wanted. We knew our players well and didn’t think it was a possibility. And, as it turned out, Sekiya did not participate in the major tournaments.
Another example of the importance of self-exploration was when I replaced defensive midfielder Roberto Kelly with the Braves versus Deion Sanders in May 1994. The Braves would only make the deal if the Reds featured a low bowler or a rookie ball player. We exchanged names for hours before they asked about Roger Etheridge, a left-handed man who has had a remarkable year in numbers. Our senior evaluators and I spent a lot of time watching Etheridge and thought it lacked deception and order. We quickly put him in the deal because we didn’t think he’d make it to the big leagues. he did not do.
Another important part of the preparation is the evaluation of the players of the other 29 teams. This includes knowing the players’ physical tools, their intelligence, makeup, personality, performance, and current production, along with a forecast of their future production.
When I was with the Reds in 1997, we made sure to include Danny Graves, our right-hand man, in John Smiley’s deal with Cleveland on the recommendation of one of our senior evaluators, Jack McKeon. Not many survey reports on Graves were glowing, and the average fastball mentioned a sink. However, McKeon liked his competitiveness, the intangibles, and that he wasn’t afraid to go in and rush the hitters. Graves ended up saving 182 careers and making two All-Star teams. He had a 5.54 ERA and below average poll scores when we traded for him. Great Exploration by McKeon made this trade in favor of the Reds.
Finally, the work needs to be done to find the trade fits. Professions need to work for both teams, so understanding the needs and desires of other organizations is imperative. I used to have a whiteboard with ultimate business goals in my office. I included all the other teams and players we targeted in their organizations, from top players to novice players. I’ve also included all the players from our organization that the opposing teams have shown interest in. This helped highlight the teams we could play better with in the deals.
General managers can only make deals with 29 other teams, so it’s important to build a professional and personal relationship with each of your front office peers. These are the people you have to deal with to improve your organization outside of free agency, concessions, or drafts.
Each GM has its own negotiating style. Some like constant communication, while others prefer occasional check-ins. Some ask for too much and take their time lowering the demands; Others are simple and tell you exactly what they will and will not do in a deal. Understanding the individual style and process of all other executives is vital.
For example, Phillies’ Dave Dombrowski and Team Yankees’ Brian Cashman are the “straight shooters” who get straight to the point. They are transparent and say what they want to do or what they want to do. When a deal is close, they know how to close it and often do so because of their straightforward style of communication.
Theo Epstein, formerly of the Red Sox and Cubs and I did my first deal neatly done by email, he and I were comfortable communicating in different ways. Cardinals, for example, Walt Jochetti, by contrast, preferred personal telephone conversations, even after text messages and emails became popular.
The method does not matter. As the GM, you just want to make sure you know your peers’ preferences and adjust accordingly to give yourself the best chance of closing a deal.
It takes a complete organization
Many departments contribute to the organization at all stages of the business process. Coordination and smooth communication are essential.
Player development should answer key questions when acquiring leads: Can we improve the players we trade with? This can include a swing change, a delivery modification, or simply a new approach. Also, at what level should we allocate it? Then there is the Analytics section, which can support its insights or provide counterarguments to the Exploration Section’s recommendations.
R&D, Science and Technology uses new science and technology to further improve evaluation processes and gain a competitive advantage. For example, research and development groups, working in coordination with the Analytics department, have recently helped teams change shooters’ repertoire and presentation uses, improving performance and increasing shooter value. When an organization considers trading for a bowler, R&D might recommend a buyout and suggest something like this: If we increase his use of the crushing ball by 20 percent and thus reduce his use of the fastball, his ERA can be reduced from 3.92 to 2.87. Or if the bowler can change the rotation of his hip or lengthen the outgrowth of his front leg, we can add 3 to 4 MPH to the fastball. For a hitter, they may recommend moving his hands up at the start of his swing or rotating his hands a certain amount to improve bat speed and contact, which may lead to better results.
The team’s accounting department is critical in providing accurate projected salary figures for the next four to five years. GMs should have a long-term view of list creation so they know, years in advance, when they will be able to add to payroll or need to reduce it.
Other departments are actively involved before a deal is completed, from the medical group doing due diligence on acquired players and collaborating with the opposing team’s medical requests for departing players, to analyzing legal performance and reviewing new player contracts, to media relations that include planning to announce and promote a deal via platforms.
Once you make a deal, you have to inform the departing player in person and talk to the incoming player on the phone. This must be done by the General Manager and Director. The Travel Secretary shall also be on call to immediately arrange transportation, housing and meals allowances for the participating players in coordination with the Travel Secretary of the other team.
Relentless perseverance can pay off
As a GM, if you really want a player, communicate non-stop about it and never give up, no matter how many times the other team says “no,” it can really work in the long run. When I traded Griffey, it took more than seven years to strike a deal between the Reds and the Mariners. You are relentless. I’ve been told “no” more than 100 times by Seattle General Manager Woody Woodward, who tells me he should be the next GM to trade Griffey.
In fact, it was, because the deal took place on February 3. 10, 2000, with Hall of Fame CEO Pat Gillick, who himself told me “no” more than 20 times before we finally made this blockbuster trade.
(Top photo by Brian Cashman: Michael Reeves/Getty Images)