Monday, November 7, 2011

MLB Franchises In State Of Flux

Big changes are in store for some franchises like the Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, and others.

The MLB offseason is typically a time of change for many organizations. There are usually some managers replaced, a general manager or two moves on and obviously numerous players sign contracts with new teams. Turnover is typical in the offseason.

However, this year we are witnessing something a bit out of the ordinary. The changes are affecting some of the marquee (and borderline marquee) franchises in the sport. The Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the most popular franchises in the game, is for sale. The New York Mets another big market team would love to have someone make a large investment in their team to alleviate some financial pressure their current owners are under because of the Barry Madoff scandal. Several teams have completely overhauled their baseball operations departments from the president down to the field managers. Even more unusual, is that some of the teams that are in a transformation process are teams with recent success and/or the money required to succeed. Simply put, some prominent MLB front offices are in a state of flux.

The sale of the Los Angeles Dodgers has been in the making for quite some time. Once Frank McCourt's divorce took center stage it became apparent that he would be unable to maintain control of the club. Despite McCourt's every effort to secure funding, MLB and Bud Selig saw to it that the measure would be struck down. Finally last week, it was announced that the team was officially on the market. New ownership will have to be approved by MLB and Delaware federal bankruptcy court. McCourt must clear $1 billion in order to break even and it has been reported that he is looking for $1.2 billion. Once new ownership takes form, there is always the chance that they will break up the baseball operations department. While general manager Ned Colleti has done a fair job with what little he has been given the last couple of seasons, some owners just want to create their own operations team. It will be difficult to make changes this season given the timing (it could take months for the new ownership to take hold), but at the very least expect Colleti and his staff to be on a short leash once the team is in new hands.

The New York Mets ownership group led by Fred Wilpon has been trying to secure a minority owner since early 2011. They once had an agreement with hedge fund manager, David Einhorn, to buy in at $200 million for 33% interest in the club. The contract language also stipulated that Einhorn's stake could reach 60%. This of course could have been and probably would have been blocked by the Wilpons. The deal eventually fell through. While I don't see this particular instance as one which has immediate repercussions on the front office in terms of employment, it does have the ability to turn into something much more if the Wilpon's legal issues become worse and they are forced to either sell the entire team or give a larger stake with the option of control down the road. Regardless of how it plays out in the near future, the financial issues have severely limited the Mets ability to spend on their roster. General manager Sandy Alderson has already stated that the Mets will have a hard time signing shortshop Jose Reyes to a new contract due to the sizable contract he is seeking and the limited funds the Mets have at their disposal.

Some franchises have immediate issues to handle which began with the collapse of the 2011 Boston Red Sox. The moment the Red Sox were eliminated from postseason contention on the last day of the season, a wicked spiral effect took hold over them and one other marquee franchise. Within a week Red Sox manager Terry Francona 'decided' not to return. Simultaneously, whispers grew louder of the Chicago Cubs' interest in Boston's general manager Theo Epstein, to become president of their baseball operations department. This quickly gained steam after Francona left and word got out of poor player preparation on off days and questionable clubhouse antics in Boston. Before long, Epstein and the Cubs reached an agreement. Epstein took little time in hiring then San Diego Padres GM, Jed Hoyer as the new Cubs GM. Epstein and Hoyer worked hand in hand in building the 2004 and 2007 championship teams in Boston. The next day they fired Mike Quade who managed the Cubs to a 71-91 record in 2011 and opened up a position coveted by baseball managers.

The Red Sox in turn promoted Ben Cherington, an Epstein apprentice, to the general manager's position. Cherington has the dubious responsibility of taking over for a very popular general manager at a time when player personnel habits are in question. Cherington and Epstein must now hire managers to run two of the most popular franchises in MLB. But, these may not even be the biggest surprises of the manager carousel so far this offseason. Three days after winning the World Series, Tony LaRussa retired as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. Make it three of the most sought after managerial positions in baseball up for grabs.

To a lesser extent, changes in the Los Angeles Angels and Baltimore Orioles front offices have been made due to poor choices by the predecessor in the Angels organization and the dysfunction of the Orioles ownership. Terry Reagins resigned before he could be fired and Angel's owner Arte Moreno hired Jerry Dipoto, the former senior vice president of scouting and player development with Arizona Diamondbacks. Some of Reagins moves the last couple years have severely stifled what was typically a very competitive team under long time manager Mike Scioscia. Dipoto is seen as incredibly intelligent and hard working. Expect many changes in the Angels roster to go along with front office movement.

Lastly, in there is change again in Baltimore. While maybe not a marquee franchise, it could be argued it was on its way to becoming one not too long ago and that they have the ability to spend money like one. However, up until Sunday night, no one but no one wanted the general manager position vacated by Andy MacPhail.  The Orioles had several options they either interviewed or hoped to interview. Some flat out turned down the offer to interview. Tony LaCava, interviewed, went back for a second time, was offered the position and then turned it down to remain assistant GM with the Toronto Blue Jays. Finally, it was reported Sunday night that the Orioles have secured MacPhail's replacement, former Boston Red Sox GM, Dan Duquette. Thing is, Duquette last worked in the major leagues in 2002. Duquette's style, which got him in trouble in Boston, could immediately become an issue in Baltimore with either or both their majority owner Peter Angelos and manager Buck Showalter. Anything less than turmoil would be a surprise when it comes to the Orioles organization.

This offseason, there are several great storylines still waiting to unfold. The MLB collective bargaining agreement will hopefully be signed soon ensuring labor peace for at least a few more seasons. There are three premier free agent hitters are on the market (Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Jose Reyes) and where they will sign is uncertain. But, so far the league has been gripped by upheaval in the front offices and clubhouses of some of the preeminent teams in the game. It remains to be seen which of them benefits most from their respective overhauls. One thing is for certain, baseball is a game of fluidity. The teams which react quickly and positively to the changes will have the most success.