The relationship between a manager and a general manager is simple. The general manager provides the players and the manager tries to get the most out of the talent provided to him to win as many games as possible. It seems so easy.
The biggest rub in the relationship between the two can be that the manager is asked to win today while the general manager is charged with the responsibility to balance the present with the future. The general manager also has the responsibility of the budget, which for most field managers is considered the thing that limits his ability to get more good players. Herein lies the potential for conflict – at times. The best working relationships between a manager and a general manager occurs when there is an understanding of the pressures that come with each position.
There always are issues during a season that test the relationship of the manager and general manager where they need to balance the pressures of winning today with the more global perspective of the organization. Eyebrows get raised that a manager or general manager can't see the obvious. Teams with greater payrolls have more potential for these sorts of confusing decisions.
Here is one of those issues:
Why do teams play veteran players with big contracts who seem to have little or no chance to help, while players who seemingly can help sit on the bench?
In New York this year, Jason Giambi got off to a slow start. After all of the offseason hoopla about his grand jury testimony in the BALCO case, many people wondered how he would perform and what would happen to him if he didn't. When he didn't play well and the Yankees struggled, many people were calling for the Yanks to release him or bench him. For the most part Yankees manager Joe Torre kept playing him.
When I was the general manager of the Mets we had an issue with Mo Vaughn. He couldn't move enough to play first base because his knees had gotten so bad. He also wasn't hitting nearly like he had in the past and he was striking out at an alarming rate. We kept playing him though, even with his struggles. That is, until his knees gave out.
Many other teams have faced similar issues, such as the Angels with Kevin Appier, Dodgers with Todd Hundley and Diamondbacks with Matt Williams. Or teams currently facing these situations, including the Tigers with Bobby Higginson, Phillies with Jim Thome, Giants with J.T. Snow and Marquis Grissom, Mets with Kaz Matsui and Yankees with Bernie Williams.
The common thread with all of these is the players were/are getting up in their baseball age and had contracts that weren't/aren't insignificant. For some reason, the players stayed in the lineup far more than most fans felt was appropriate.
And why was/is that?
You must understand that if a player has a big contract a team can't just eat the rest of that player's salary, and something must be done to salvage the player.
Here are 10 ways owners, general managers and managers must deal with problems once they arise:
1. No general manager would ever tell a manager directly he had to play a player. If a GM did, he would automatically be assuming the responsibility of the team's performance. It is hard to tell a manager to play someone and then hold him responsible when things go wrong. Instead GMs ask the manager and his staff what changes to the player's swing or delivery do they need to make to fix the problem. This sends a message that the problem must still be fixable and the player must still be playable.
2. The manager will do all he can (to a certain point) to get the player going for a number of reasons:
a. Managers believe in the back of baseball cards. They understand that if players have done it before they can do it again.
b. Managers also understand the best way for the team to trade a problem is for the player to play well. If they can find a way to improve the player's performance it helps the organization whether they keep him or want to trade him.
3. If a player doesn't respond to the staff's instruction and his performance doesn't improve then the manager grows increasingly frustrated because he wants to win today's game. When the manager reaches a boiling point, he and the general manager usually meet to discuss the options (usually just about playing time). The manager might want to bench a player for good, but a compromise is reached and usually the deal is the player will not play for some period of time to clear his head, improve his confidence and adjust his mechanics.
a. This buys time and space to figure out what to do next. Remember veteran players cannot be sent to the minor leagues without their consent and that consent is tough to get. Essentially, when a player hasn't carried his own bags for a while, it is tough to go back to doing that.
b. It also buys the player a slight reprieve from booing fans. When the player returns to the lineup then he has earned some few numbers of games, innings or at-bats to show that he has overcome his problems before the booing begins again. If the player swallows his pride and goes to the minors then he gets more time to show that he has improved.
4. The general manager oversees and evaluates the progress of the reclamation project with the fallen veteran player: Questioning and challenging the process just to make sure that everything that can be done is being done. The reason the GM is so interested is that if the big-money player fails, he is the one who gets the blame. So GMs tend to be more patient with the process, hoping the player fights his way out of it.
5. The general manager keeps the owner informed during the process as well because it is ultimately his or her money that might be wasted if the player has to be released. The level of interest of the owner is commensurate with the remaining obligation of the contract. Owners can speed or slow the process by their appetite for eating a big contract. If the owner is reluctant to pay a lot of money for nothing then the GM continues to question the coaches about what else can be done.
6. General managers don't bring up the R-word (release) during the process for fear the manager and coaches would think it is an option and stop doing everything they can to fix the player.
7. It is everyone's wish and responsibility to get some return on the investment because none of us like to pay big money and get nothing in return. Ultimately, though, if a player still doesn't perform, the investment in the team as a whole can be compromised. If the poor performance is causing the team to lose badly and could jeopardize a run at the playoffs or at competitiveness then the tough decisions need to be made.
8. At this point the general manager will say something to the manager that he left unsaid in the past: "Play the guys you need to play to win." It was understood all along, but when left unsaid it really meant the manager had to try to win with the best team, including the veteran player. That is where the manager and general manager's responsibilities conflict. The manager who had been playing the struggling veteran now has the freedom to bench him if he so desires.
a. At this point the manager still has a responsibility to try and rehab the failing career, but he doesn't have to jeopardize games to do so.
9. Once the player has been removed from the lineup the manager, general manager and owner need to make a decision about what to do: release the player or carry him on the bench. The key to that decision is whether the player is a quality person or if he could be a problem on the team. Even if the player is a good guy his continued presence on the roster may be cause for daily questions, which could be a distraction.
10. If the owner is willing to sign off on the release of a big contract it makes everyone feel better because it eliminates a constant source of negative focus.
Hopefully this gives you some insight into why your favorite team keeps putting that struggling player in the lineup when it appears there may be better options. You now also have a checklist to evaluate where your team is in the process of making the tough decision. Remember, the bigger the contract, the slower the club is likely to move through the list.
Steve Phillips, a former general manager of the New York Mets, is a regular on ESPN's Baseball Tonight.