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Tuesday, November 8, 2011
Front-office turnover reflects larger trends

By Christina Kahrl

There’s an awkward symmetry in what’s happened in the recent front-office shuffle. It might seem strange that two GMs -- Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer -- wound up in Chicago with the Cubs. While Ben Cherington’s getting his first shot in Boston, the winter front-office shuffle has seen four former GMs take up gigs in San Diego (Josh Byrnes), Minnesota (Terry Ryan), Anaheim (Jerry Dipoto) and Baltimore (Dan Duquette).

In the broad strokes, this might seem to provide a reminder that supply exceeds demand, and that there are more qualified candidates than opportunities. Whether the Astros hire someone new or recycle, that will still be true after their pregnant pause between owners ends, and Jim Crane takes up the reins and brings Ed Wade’s latest incarnation as a GM to a close.

Josh Byrnes
Josh Byrnes, who was fired by Arizona in 2010, will take over GM duties at San Diego.
However, the resurrections of Byrnes in San Diego or Duquette in Baltimore or, for that matter, Wade’s second spin in Houston, reflect something else equally important: Not every GM’s job is the dream job of an aspiring GM.

Byrnes’ comeback after getting whacked in Arizona owes plenty to simple familiarity. As of 2009, Jeff Moorad leads the ownership team of the Pads while still owning a big chunk of the Snakes (as of 2005), serving as one of Bud Selig’s designated franchise caretakers. Guess who gave Byrnes his first spin as a GM? Moorad, of course.

Duquette’s comeback after nearly a decade away might seem unlikely, but in some respect it might be considered as similar to Ed Wade’s hiring by Houston at the end of 2007 after getting fired by the Phillies following 2005. Many observers never expected Wade to get another chance after his term in Philadelphia. But in each instance, both men were available and willing. There are plenty of candidates available but -- as the increasing embarrassment of the Baltimore search reflected -- not everyone’s willing.

Contributing to that unwillingness is the desire of candidates to land in the “right” situation as opposed to just any job. Being picky is a lot easier to do today than it was 30 or 40 years ago, because the entire industry has long since mimicked George Steinbrenner’s tradition of retaining people in advisory capacities. Long-time baseball men like Gene Michael and Mark Newman wound up spending significant portions of their professional careers “below” the level of a GM or team president on the Yankees’ org chart, because they were valued assets as evaluators and contributors to a management team. (You can also argue they were paid well enough to stay in subordinate roles.)

Keeping a management team together, while conjuring up whatever labels and job descriptions fit, is part of this industry-wide mimicry of what Steinbrenner started doing successfully in the late ’70s. Whether it’s Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in Wrigleyville, Billy Beane and Dave Forst in Oakland, Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti in Cleveland, or any of several other examples around the game, baseball organizations are proving more than willing to retain executive talent in whatever combination of titles and responsibilities necessary to keep everyone happy -- and on their team.

Retaining executives has additional benefits, as the Twins demonstrated. As Jim Bowden points out, firing Bill Smith as GM might have been an unhappy necessity, but it isn’t like they had to look very far to find someone familiar with the organization. How long former GM Terry Ryan remains at his old desk remains to be seen; he’s 58 years old, which sounds old to some, until you remember he’s also 16 years younger than Pat Gillick.

This kind of front-office turnover, seeking the right fit for an owner and an organization, isn’t all that different from the current high-profile searches for field managers in Chicago, St. Louis and Boston. Not every candidate is a good fit, and not every guy may want the gig after sitting down with the decision makers-in-chief. And quite simply, there are a lot of people with very different virtues and abilities, who can fit in better with some organizations better than others. The extravagant humiliation of the Orioles in their hunt for a GM was a transient distraction, certainly, but Dan Duquette’s a smart enough former exec to be an asset, perhaps even within a situation as reliably messy as Baltimore’s.

In the meantime, like me, you’re probably waiting for some of the best and brightest to get their first cracks at a job as a general manager -- say, Rick Hahn or Logan White or Thad Levine, or maybe David Chadd or Kim Ng. Maybe you’re wish casting for someone to give Paul DePodesta another shot; after all, if someone’s bringing back Dipoto, why not DePo? As this winter’s GM reshuffle should remind us all, just keep in mind that none of them are sure to come running to the first open gig out there. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but some opportunities suck.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.