Sunday, August 21, 2011 Updated: August 22, 11:59 AM ET
Cubs' GM choice will be telling
By Jon Greenberg ESPNChicago.com
CHICAGO -- Tom Ricketts made his point early on during his news conference, with as much emphasis as his flat, genial Midwestern timbre would allow him:
Don't ask me who the next general manager of the Chicago Cubs is going to be. Seriously.
"By its very nature, this is a very personal process, both for me and for everyone that I'll be talking to during the next few weeks," Ricketts said with a dollop of naivete. "Because of that, it needs to be a very private process. Just to get out in front of it a little bit, we won't be commenting on any rumors of any conversations with any individuals at any time, nor will we be giving any updates or checking in."
So I guess that means we're all free to speculate, right?
"I think it's going to be a fun couple months," Cubs pitcher Matt Garza told reporters Saturday.
Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts is all business about hiring the team's next general manager.
The prevailing question right now is what kind of general manager Ricketts is seeking. Is he searching for a young-blood numbers-cruncher, an old-school Jim Hendry clone or a Theo Epstein type, a kind of blended GM?
Before firing Hendry, Ricketts' public presence had little to do with baseball operations. When reporters asked him what was wrong with the team earlier this summer, he said "injuries" and skedaddled.
Tom Ricketts is a smart guy. He knows what he knows, and more importantly what he doesn't know.
So every other word from his mouth has been for public relations: "fan this" and "experience that" and "How about those sparkly bathrooms?" and "Give us a new stadium here and in Mesa."
Now he's taking ownership of, well, the actual team on the field. This is a decision that will decide the future of his franchise, because Hendry was the Cubs, the baseball portion of them anyway.
Judging by Ricketts' interview on Friday, his previous hire on the baseball side (Ari Kaplan) and by talking with a few of his friends and associates in the past year, I'm convinced the Cubs will be run by a forward-thinking general manager with a strong emphasis on advanced statistics, and reliance on cheap, farm system labor. So you can basically cross off the old-guard candidates.
Hendry's fate was basically sealed in late May 2010 when Ricketts hired Kaplan, an industry expert, to be the team's statistical analyst manager.
That was Ricketts' only known entrée in the baseball operations department, which signaled a clear change of philosophy in the traditionalist scout-heavy Hendry era. I'm guessing Kaplan, who, like others of his ilk, has only talked informally to reporters, will be one of the informal advisors Ricketts turns to in the coming weeks. He's worked for two-thirds of the teams in baseball, so he knows the candidates. You have to wonder if he's been scouting the scouts already.
Andrew Friedman, the 34-year-old executive vice president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays is my (and most people's) prospective frontrunner for this job, based on the criteria Ricketts talked about in his news conference Friday.
"No. 1 is they'll have to share a commitment to player development, which obviously is the key to consistent success," Ricketts said. "I think we can look for guys that have a little stronger analytical background than maybe some of the guys we have here, someone that has worked with some of the new tools, that would be a plus and then someone who's been in a winning culture, someone who can bring some of the lessons of that over and has a track record of success.
"But I think we all have to keep that in perspective. I mean there's the sabermetric stuff is important but it's just a piece and we're not running the baseball organization by a computer model."
That's the right kind of attitude.
The Rays' Andrew Friedman was running baseball operations for the club at age 28.
Friedman, like Ricketts, comes from a financial background. After college, Friedman was an analyst for Bear Stearns and a private equity firm before joining the Rays in his mid-20s, working for fellow Wall Street whizzes Stuart Sternberg and Matthew Silverman.
By 28, Friedman was running baseball operations for the club. If he joins the Cubs, get used to hearing the word "arbitrage."
It's unfair to simply lump Friedman in with the statheads. Like most people in his former line of work, he's more a risk-taker with research. He left behind a lucrative career and refused to sign a contract when he started working with the Rays. So he knows his own value.
Ricketts made his own money in the retail corporate bond market, and of course, the family fortune that bought the team came from taking TD Ameritrade public.
I think the personalities would mesh as well, not a small factor considering the awkward meshing between the new and old employees of the Cubs' front office.
Friedman, though good with the media, was purposely circumspect about the inner workings of the Rays in Jonah Keri's book on the organization, "The Extra 2%," and he tends to avoid the limelight -- qualities Ricketts wants in his team. (Todd Ricketts' "Undercover Boss" appearance notwithstanding.)
Keri wrote: "Friedman was not only baseball's first Wall Street-trained GM but the first to describe the concept of arbitrage in baseball while ejecting a stream of tobacco juice from his mouth."
Friedman also has a bit of street cred as an athlete, having played baseball at Tulane.
Garza and Carlos Pena, both Rays-turned-Cubs, have spoken up for him.
"He flipped the Tampa team around in two-plus years," Garza told reporters on Saturday. "Yeah, we went on a great run in 2008 but it's not like it was a one-year wonder. The following season we still had a winning record and last season we won the division once again and this year, you know, I don't know how he does it."
Unlike, say, New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman, Friedman has a reason to leave a good job to come to baseball's black hole. I mean, the happiest place on Earth.
Thanks to continuing attendance problems and a lousy home field, Tampa Bay's opening-day payroll was $42 million -- $30 million less than the previous season and slightly lower than what it was in 2008, when the team made that miracle run to the World Series.
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Local guy Rick Hahn, naturally, is becoming the media favorite in Chicago, and it's not only provinciality. Hahn is "the guy behind the guy" at the White Sox, and has a great deal of responsibility as vice president/assistant GM under Kenny Williams.
Forget the rhetoric about being a Cubs fan and North Shore native. That's not meaningless, but it downgrades his skills.
Hahn is a strong negotiator, a workhorse, and has enough baseball savvy that Ozzie Guillen has publicly vouched for him. Hahn is a natural with the media, combining a Hendry-like comedic charm and a respectful way of explaining the team's actions.
Anyone that can work for the three-ring circus at 35th and Shields and remain sane is worth a serious look.
One drawback is that he hasn't been the guy in charge yet. Ricketts didn't sound convinced about hiring an assistant GM.
"I'm not certain yet," he said. "I'm not sure. There are obviously some good assistant general managers out there. If one of those candidates has an interest, then we would speak to them, but at this point, I'm not ruling out anything."
In that vein, I would hope he interviews and strongly considers Kim Ng, a fellow University of Chicago grad who has established herself through two decades in baseball, working in the front offices for the White Sox, Yankees, Dodgers and now at Major League Baseball.
The Ricketts family has a chance to put its brand on baseball with this hire, why not swing for the fences?
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.