Oct. 3 will be Alex Anthopoulos’ fifth anniversary as general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. And there’s an argument to be had about whether he should be around for a sixth.
The good news for Anthopoulos is that he’s still about 18 months shy of the average lifespan of his peers, who these days don’t get fired as often or as early as they used to.
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Leaving aside the convoluted decision-making arrangement with the Miami Marlins—where owner Jeffrey Loria was said to have assumed the lead role in decision-making well before Larry Beinfest was formally relieved of his role as president of baseball operations last September—A.J. Preller’s hiring in August by the San Diego Padres following the firing of Josh Byrnes was the first new GM hire in MLB since Rick Hahn replaced Kenny Williams with the Chicago White Sox in October 2012, following Williams’ promotion to president.
Research by Baseball Prospectus showed the Padres changeover ended a run of 31 months without a non-Marlins GM being fired, going back to Ed Wade's dismissal by the Houston Astros in November 2011.
Prior to that, the longest streak without a GM firing in MLB over the past 40 years was 560 days, between Frank Wren's firing by the Baltimore Orioles in October 1999 and Kevin Malone's forced resignation from the Los Angeles Dodgers in April 2001. For comparison’s sake, according to research by Sportsnet, the 30 current MLB general managers have been in their positions, on average, for 6.5 years, a full year more than the average of their NHL counterparts.
The reasons for the stability vary.
First, the baseball business is good. It is an $8-billion industry; the average value of a major league franchise is over $800 million and five teams have been valued at $1 billion or more by Forbes.
Meanwhile, the institution of the wild card after the 1994 players' strike, and the subsequent addition of an additional wild card team in 2012, has kept more teams in playoff races longer—and by extension—more GMs looking better in the eyes of ownership.
Blue Jays president and chief executive officer Paul Beeston believes risk—particularly risk management—has something to do with the current stability. Risk has always been a driver of front-office change, according to Beeston.
"At one time the GM was the club president, and so he had to worry about ticket prices and the minor leagues," said Beeston. "It was in the mid-80s, I think, when it changed. As salaries rose, the financial risks increased and so it became normal for the GM to, for example, start travelling with the major league team. We have GMs now who can go a year without visiting a minor league affiliate."
Beeston and other executives believe another reason GMs are staying employed longer is a culture change exacerbated by baseball’s steroid era.
In addition to the cost-efficiency that can result from having cheap, homegrown players or pitchers under the control of the team for years, teams also have a greater sense of the makeup of such players, allowing them to weed out a bad apple before he reaches the majors.
This has placed a greater emphasis than ever before on the draft, and not even the most callow baseball owner would judge a GM on his first couple of MLB drafts.
"When you draft a football player for the NFL, you're taking a guy who has been heralded for three years," said Tony Siegle, senior advisor to San Francisco Giants GM Brian Sabean, who has worked alongside 23 different GMs since 1970. "It's easy to say an NFL GM's draft stinks two years later. But you can't do that with baseball, because it takes longer to see the results of your draft."
Dodgers president and part owner Stan Kasten previously served as president of the Atlanta Braves, where John Schuerholz held the GM’s title for 17 years. Kasten also believes that an emphasis on internal development – as the free agent market becomes shallower and shallower with each passing year – has led to greater front office stability.
"As draft picks and prospects have gradually become more valuable, teams have been forced to be patient," Kasten said. "That patience can’t help but be reflected by more patience with the GM."
Added Beeston: "You need success, of course, but like any business, there's also a desire to have a consistent set of policies and procedures. So you're not just firing a GM. If he goes, you lose scouts. You lose development people. You can set yourself back."
It goes without saying that the nature of the GM’s job and the men who have filled it has changed throughout the years.
"When I started, most teams were owned by individuals or families back then, and the GM was considered to be part of the family," said Siegle, whose first baseball job after leaving the U.S. Marine Corps was as a scoreboard operator at the Astrodome, in 1965. "Hell, in some instances, like with Chub Feeney and the Giants, he literally was part of the family." (Feeney was the nephew of owner Horace Stoneham.)
When the Seattle Mariners gave GM Jack Zduriencik a multi-year extension earlier this week, it lowered to four the number of GMs in the final year of their contracts.
Jerry Di Poto of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim could be in the process of earning an extension; Brian Cashman of the New York Yankees received a somewhat lukewarm vote of confidence from owner Hal Steinbrenner earlier this month; Walt Jocketty’s best-laid plans for the Cincinnati Reds have been ravaged by injury; and the New York Mets have a club option next year for Sandy Alderson.
So while the relative calm might be ending, sources and signs suggest Anthopoulos will be back, his job saved in no small part by Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison, Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris.
And why not? Stability seems to be the way of the baseball world these days.