It's tough to be a good major league GM, it really is. There are so many ways to fail. Talent evaluation, vision, crafting trades, and free agent deals must all mesh together somehow. These are the concrete factors that most GMs are hired and fired upon. It is only part of the job though.
Interpersonal skills and communication are just as important to being a succesful general manager. Why does a newly hired GM almost always hire a new manager? Those two need to be able to work together to maximize the talent on the roster.
Even more importantly, there is how a GM treats the players. Granted, the GM does not interact with them nearly as closely as the coaching staff, but he (or eventually she) is always fielding questions about personnel from the media. Needless to say, whatever is said gets back to the players. There is a right and wrong way to go about media relations.
The past couple weeks, two GMs in particular have shown the wrong way to handle player relations in the media. Consequently, they have put players and franchises in tough situations.
Start with Neal Huntington, the Pirates general manager. Since being hired a couple years ago (just beating out Jack Zduriencik, interestingly enough), Pittsburgh has made incremental progress on the field and there are the beginnings of a solid, youthful core. Neal seems to have a pretty good eye for talent, and an ability to avoid bad trades and contracts better than his predecessors.
However, Huntington is hampering his own efforts badly with what he is telling the media. Look at the Ian Snell situation.
By all accounts, Snell has a tricky personality to deal with. His struggles the past few years seem as much tied to his personality as any physical changes. Because of that, it might be unfair to pin Snell's problems on the team when Snell supposedly requested to be sent down to AAA.
Still, Neal kicked Snell on his way out for no good reason by calling his contract a mistake, and saying that the team is simply trying to salvage something out of the deal now. Since those public comments, teams have lined up with an assortment of offers for Snell, especially since he has dominated in his return to AAA. On top of that, Snell's replacement in the majors, Virgil Vasquez has struggled. It seems like it is clearly time to either promote Snell, or trade him. What do the Pirates do?
The answer is neither. Snell does not want to be called back up, and the Pirates can't get a trade offer they like, according to reports.
Gee, I wonder why? It's surprising that a team won't give up quality talent to acquire someone signed to a mistake of a contract. It's also surprising that a player does not want to be called up after the team's GM claimed they are just trying to salvage something from him.
I don't care how difficult Snell's personality is to deal with. Neal Huntington created the Snell debacle with what he said in the media. Now, a guy who should clearly be in Pittsburgh's starting rotation will not pitch for them, and has minimal trade value despite being rather young with a somewhat reasonable contract. Huntington's poor choice of words have put the Pirates in about as bad of a position with Ian Snell as imaginable.
Huntington has made the Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson situation difficult too. Pittsburgh's double play combo are great friends, so great that they would be willing to sign contract extensions in Pittsburgh if it means they get to stay together, even if it meant pay cuts. Neither seem to have higher maintenance personalities like Ian Snell, and the Pirates do not have any budding prospects that they would block. Neal Huntington rightly decided to offer both contract extensions.
Reportedly, both Sanchez and Wilson received two-year proposals. Sanchez's was for around $10 million total, and Wilson's for $8 million total. Both contracts would make the players take significant paycuts. Sanchez, in particular, is due a little over $8 million just next year. Both Sanchez and Wilson rejected the offers.
In response, Neal Huntington went to the media on Sunday and said negotiations were dead. He said, "The response is such that they don't even feel we are in the same ballpark because they feel like years, dollars, the foundation is so far off their expectations that it's not worth countering." Not quite as harsh as branding a contract a mistake, but still, Huntington hardly painted an optimistic picture.
Of course, the media had to go to Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson with Huntington's words. Both had different takes than Huntington.
"I did not know that it was negotiable," Sanchez said. "I was under the assumption that it was a take-it-or-leave-it deal and that there was going to be no wiggle room."
"We thought it was more of a take-it-or-leave-it type of deal because of the situation of trying to get it done quickly," Wilson said. "At no point have either of us been interested in shutting this down. We both are very interested in being Pirates. I don't think this is dead by any means."
Those do not sound like players unwilling to negotiate to me. Those sound like players that have not been communicated to by the GM. They both understand that the Pirates are trying to work out deals now, because if they cannot come to agreements they want time to trade them. Maybe it is fair to say that Wilson and Sanchez should have sent counter offers regardless of their perception of the nature of the deals, but it is understandable why they felt the way they did.
Sanchez and Wilson's friendship will save Huntington on this public blunder. I think both care about staying together with the Pirates more than enough to deal with the drama their GM is putting them through right now. However, Pittsburgh would be in better shape right now if Huntington would stop saying so much in the media.
Huntington is not the only GM sticking his foot in his mouth right now though. Blue Jays general manager JP Ricciardi is treating Roy Halladay even worse. A couple weeks ago, Ricciardi said publicly that he would entertain offers for his team's ace, who many believe is the best pitcher in baseball right now.
With where the Blue Jays are at, Ricciardi's position makes sound baseball sense. Financially, they need to cut some payroll (partly due to a few bad long-term contracts given to Vernon Wells and Alex Rios). The team has many promising young players too. Adding to that mix the premium young talent Roy Halladay would demand in a trade could work out well. Purely, from a baseball perspective, Ricciardi did nothing wrong.
However, from an interpersonal perspective, what was JP thinking? Did he really think he wouldn't spark a massive story? Ever since his comment, all eyes in baseball have focused on Halladay trade rumors. It has turned into a circus.
Moreover, Roy Halladay is the antithesis of a prima donna. He just wants to go out and pitch. The less buzz around him off the field, the better. Considering how long both Ricciardi and Halladay have been around in Toronto now, JP should know this. Additionally, Halladay is on the record saying that he likes in Toronto, and does not want to leave. JP should have known this as well, and realized that would only add to the drama.
Well, Halladay did not want to leave a few weeks ago at least. Now rumors are starting to surface that Roy is withdrawing emotionally. Not surprisingly, the media firestorm set off by JP is taking a toll on Roy. Halladay certainly does not like it, and it may be zapping his desire to stay with the Blue Jays.
For instance, after the complete game Halladay threw in his last start against Boston, he tipped his cap to the crowd as he left the mound. That sparked all sorts of rumors that maybe Halladay knows it could have been his last start. Halladay did not see the tip of the cap that way at all; he simply said the moment warranted a tip. He was getting cheered for throwing a complete game to beat the Red Sox after all. The tip had nothing to do with trade rumors, yet that's all the media would ask about after they saw it. Wouldn't that be annoying, especially if you, like Halladay, don't relish talking about off-field distractions?
If Halladay now wants to leave Toronto, it will be because of the buzz Ricciardi has created. Also, it will hurt Toronto's leverage in trade talks. Teams will be able to make a final offer and let the Blue Jays sweat, knowing that they really cannot afford to hold on to Halladay. All of a sudden, Ricciardi's inability to realize the impact of his public comments may have tangibly impacted potential Halladay deals.
It will only be the biggest trade in Blue Jays history if Roy Halladay is dealt. You'd think JP Ricciardi would have been cognizant of that before saying he will listen to offers. The media response, and Halladay's subsequent response to that, should not be shocking.
Both Huntington and Ricciardi are GMs with a track record of making mostly solid personnel decisions. It is easy to look back and see why they got hired in the first place. However, their mouths are interfering with their abilities.
Media relations and interpersonal communication are important skills for a GM to have. It helps with team chemistry and unity within the organization, but more than that, it clearly impacts trades and negotiations. Right now, the 2009 trade deadline is being impacted by communication gaffes as much as anything else.