Why Omar Minaya Failed And What It Means For The Future

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On July 27, 2002, Omar Minaya, then General Manager of the Montreal Expos, traded Lee Steven, Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore, and Cliff Lee to Mark Shapiro's Indians for Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew.

In 2002, Major League Baseball owned the Expos. The offseason before, the Expos had narrowly avoided contraction, because the Twins, the other team in line for contraction, had another year on their lease of the Metrodome. In a month the league would agree to a new collective bargaining agreement that barred contraction, but at the time it still seemed a possibility. So MLB's proxy GM, Minaya, looked for a player to maybe help the Expos win a Wild Card berth, a parting gift for Montreal. 

One of the many front-office personnel the Expos shed under their reorganization by MLB was Tony LaCava, their farm director. He jumped to the Indians as a cross-checker. When Omar Minaya called Mark Shapiro about Bartolo Colon, Tony LaCava handpicked the prospects the Indians would receive. When the trade was announced, Shapiro, like Bill Smith would be six years later, was denounced as a young GM over his head. It also marked the first time, Minaya got "his guy" in a trade. 

I recall this point in baseball history because it has much to do with why both of these men are currently employed as general managers. Both of these general managers are also coming off 90-loss seasons in the wake of playoff aspirations. Omar Minaya and Mark Shapiro, however, couldn't be more different.

Omar Minaya is a former pro-baseball player, drafted out of high school. Early in Minaya's tenure with the Mets, his success was championed as an exemplar of old-fashioned roster construction. Before Minaya lost "his guys," the process entailed conference call between his scouts, Sandy Johnson and Tony Bernazard, and his paperwork guy, John Ricco. This franchise doesn't just contrast the careful calculation of other front offices, it advertises the fact: "Paperwork, that's false hustle. It takes away creativity. People who are into paperwork are into covering their asses, so if things go wrong they can point to all the work they did." 

No team evidences false hustle better than the Indians. Mark Shapiro graduated from Princeton and has a reputation as one of the smartest GM's in baseball. Like Minaya, Shapiro surrounded himself with men of similar background--his sidekick Chris Antonetti is a Georgetown man. The Indians under Shapiro have developed a process, which involves a lot of "paperwork," most famously, the proprietary DiamondView system, supposed to quantify a players' holistic value. As Antonetti described the goal of DiamondView: "There's still this level of variability, but we've reduced it to the smallest level we can." The Indians, the front office, are the progressive group many Mets fans clamor for, but the Indians, the team, are the 90-game losers Mets fans are sick of watching.

Therein is an interesting point of comparison: how did these two seemingly polar-opposite executives, who launched each other's career with the most lopsided trade of the decade, end up at a similar point? Of course, there's no easy answer--'They both forgot to hit the win button!'--and the two situations are, to an extent, unique. Still, one would expect the American League's smartest GM and the National League's highest payroll to battle for the playoffs, not the sixth pick in the first-year player draft. 

A recent post at Let's Go Tribe entitled "Fire Everyone! - Mark Shapiro" came up with an answer, thought not a completely comfortable one. The article was the last in a series of posts on why, obviously, everyone should be fired, so there's a sense the author is playing devil's advocate. Still, he raises an interesting point about the nature of the GM's job, and this article is largely an addendum to it, so give it a read too. The crux of his argument and the cliff notes version of the post is neatly summarized here:

For all that, however, the brilliant executive can't necessarily tell you whether it's better to overspend on Raul Ibañez or Kerry Wood.  He can't necessarily devise a process to tell you that, and he can't necessarily hire the right person to tell you that, either.  Nor can he devise a process to hire the right person to tell you that.  It doesn't always come down to objective analysis or having a good process.  Sometimes it comes down to talent: the talent to play, the talent to evaluate talent, the talent to develop talent, and the judgment to make decisions about talent.

Jay argues that evaluating talent, if not innate, is at least a skill in and of itself. The Colon-trade was Shapiro's signature move, but LaCava, the scout, handpicked the players he would receive. The laundry list of players Shapiro has acquired from horse-trading is impressive, but none match up to Lee-Sizemore-Phillips. In fact, with Huntington and LaCava long gone, is it coincidence that the returns on Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez were so underwhelming?

Maybe, but I am more interested in the way this situation runs counter to the assessment I constantly hear, and occasionally have given, of Omar Minaya: "He's a great scout and evaluator of talent, but is too sloppy with resources. The Mets would be better suited with a more statistically-inclined GM." Is this Shapiro/Minaya comparison a two parts to whole situation, where one lacks the scouting acumen, the other a supercomputer called DiamondView?

First, consider Minaya's scouting reputation. Starting out as an international scout with the Rangers, he signed Sammy Sosa. That's the kind of signing you can hang your hat on, and Minaya has, as the other players he signed include non-entities: Chris Colon, Ruben Mateo, Jorge Toca, and Timo Perez(!). He also signed Fernando Tatis and Joaquin Benoit, who became pretty good players. Still, including my performance-enhanced namesake, not exactly the greatest list in the world, but a good one.

This reputation comes equally from his supposed ability to "identify players who can help the Mets" and get them, irrespective of costs. It sounds basic, but seemingly describes whatever Shapiro lacked when deciding "whether it's better to overspend on Raul Ibañez or Kerry Wood," as Jay says. Call them Minaya's guys, as in "Omar got his guy" or Minaya's favorite synonym for person.

It started with his two biggest free-agent pick-ups: Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran. Pedro's talent was obvious, but the contract was a minor disaster as he was injured through most of it. Minaya claimed that Pedro "made the brand," i.e. made the Mets more attractive to international free agents, but the jury is still out on that one. His other big signing, Carlos Beltran, will undoubtedly go down as the biggest success of his tenure. Beltran, one of the few true five-tool players left in baseball, has been worth significantly more than his $18M/year. It's unclear to what extent Minaya predicted, or even knows, that to be true, as he likely just sought to get Beltran for the best price he could, without any precise estimation of his value. In fact, Beltran was supposedly someone Minaya didn't get the green light to sign in Texas. Carlos had been Minaya's guy for a while. 

When the Mets were at their best, in 2006, his guys were nearly always coming through. In a 2006 article, Dave Studeman identified ten players that Minaya picked up on the cheap and became integral parts of the great '06 squad: Chad Bradford, Darren Oliver, Duaner Sanchez, Pedro Feliciano, Jose Valentin, John Maine, Endy Chavez, Roberto Hernandez, Guillermo Mota, and Oliver Perez. Players like Jose Valentin, a guy no one else would expect to be a starting-caliber second baseman, were making Minaya look like a genius, like he had that something Mark Shapiro lacked. Those were ten moves that get you on the cover of Sports Illustrated, that made people pay attention when you started talking about "false hustle," as if it were secret knowledge.

In the conclusion to that piece, Studeman writes, "It may be luck, it may be skill. It may be the result of a team with money taking good calculated risks." Here's a hint: six of those players were relievers, the most luck-dependent players in baseball. Ultimately, though, time revealed the truth: it was luck. Even from that original list, of the seven he retained, five fizzled out, either from injuries or ineffectiveness. Regarding the other two, Endy Chavez was replaced by the awful Jeremy Reed and Pedro Feliciano became the last man standing in several subsequent bullpen failures.

Then, Minaya started to display some bad tendencies. He became too loyal to his guys: if a reliever with poor skills floundered in the first-half, Minaya would trust him to right the ship. Similarly, as if to underscore that he had done something right, Minaya would pay ridiculously over-market contracts to previous buy-low pick-ups, like Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo, negating the value that made the moves good in the first place. He proved unable to manage injury risks, entrusting Moises Alou and John Maine with serious duties while keeping no reliable back-ups on hand. Minaya's front office overreacted to small sample sizes, see: Omir Santos, Marlon Anderson, and Daniel Murphy. He gave away Heath Bell, Brian Bannister, and Darren O'Day.

Yet, none of these miscues sticks out as a particularly strong indictment of his ability's as a scout, just as a talent evaluator. Moises Alou was a great player, when he played. He was a horrible pick-up for a team that needed a reliable, everyday left-fielder. On the major league level, talent evaluation involves using the most accurate objective measures to evaluate a player's track record, something observation can't do reliably, in any sport or field. These past few years, the Mets would have been better suited with a Mark Shapiro-type, with no particular scouting expertise, but an ability to objectively evaluate major-league talent and make sound business decisions. With a large payroll and the established core of Wright/Reyes, it seems the Mets badly needed some false hustle, some paperwork, some stability, not a huge gamble at 15 of the the 25 roster spots every season. 

But maybe it is too late for that. As fielding stats get more widely accepted, it seems a glorified Moneyball scenario, where a few teams with superior objective analysis carry an edge, is becoming less likely. As more players, are signing long-term deals with the teams that drafted them, and fewer are hitting free agency, the statistical analysis the Mets have been so neglectful of becomes just the baseline. Indeed, as Jay wrote about some of the most successful teams around the league: "it's noteworthy that other organizations that have gone with the 'Ivy League whiz kid' GM model tend to have a 'wise old baseball man' figure hanging close by, advising the gifted non-scout executive. The Red Sox had Bill Lajoie attached to Theo Epstein; Allard Baird is in that role now, while Lajoie is now advising Huntington in Pittsburgh. The Rays put Gerry Hunsicker with Andrew Friedman, and down in Texas, Jon Daniels has access to no less than John Hart and Nolan Ryan." With that pattern in mind, I was encouraged to read that the Wilpons convinced Sandy Johnson to stay out of retirement, allegedly in preparation for a non-Minaya centric front office. 

For similar reasons, these forces will also probably push forward the mythical symbiosis of scouting and statistics that everyone pays lip-service to but isn't quite sure what they're referring to. More than just pitchf/x and hitf/x, the observation of both amateur and professional talent will come down to hyper-specific scouting reports that use data and observation to spot trends of growth or deterioration in a player's skills. And maybe, even then, it will take some "wise old baseball man," with a special eye for talent, to build the best franchise. 

On December 10, 2008, the Mets, Indians, and Mariners completed a three-way trade, in which the Mariners received Aaron Heilman, Endy Chavez, Jason Vargas, Mike CarpEzequiel Carrera, Maikel Cleto, and Franklin Gutierrez. The Mets received J.J. Putz, Jeremy Reed, and Sean Green, while the Indians received Joe Smith and Luis Valbuena

This trade, for me, perfectly encapsulates two failed models for a front office and the future of a what it means to a successful one. Omar Minaya acquired a talented player with serious injury concerns, and severely downgraded two known major-league entities, presumably not knowing he did. Shapiro acquired a minor league infielder with good stats, but a "bad body" and mixed scouting reports. While there is plenty of time for him to improve, Valbuena was merely replacement level this season. Meanwhile, Jack Zduriencik, the long-time scouting director who understands and embraces statistical analysis, brought in a 6-WAR centerfielder and a boatload of interesting prospects. 

The Mets under Minaya were famed for embracing multiple perspectives, both of the scout and the statistician. Sadly, they failed to understand how those roles fit into a functioning front office. First, they need a reliable process for evaluating and valuing major league talent, a la the Indians. Then, they can get their "guys."

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