Fact or Fiction: GMs target players they’ve acquired before

One of the most perverse things some baseball editors do around this time of year is force writers to predict where free agents are going to go. I did it. Not the predicting, but the forcing. I don’t know why. I guess because I could?

With the prediction comes the justification for the prediction, which sometimes goes like this: David Price to the Dodgers because of “the Andrew Friedman connection,” or Chris Iannetta to the Mariners because of “the Jerry Dipoto connection…”  This seems like sound logic: Andrew Friedman liked David Price a lot before, so why wouldn’t he like him a lot now? Jerry Dipoto liked Chris Iannetta enough to acquire him once, so why not twice?

If “GM knows the dude from way back…” is an actual variable in offseason action, then it’s especially worth knowing this offseason. After a long run of GMs never getting fired — it was nearly three years between true regime changes before A.J. Preller joined the Padres in August 2014 — we’ve had a bundle of them lately, including not just Friedman, Preller and Dipoto, but also Mark Shapiro going from Cleveland to Toronto, Billy Eppler going from The Bronx to Anaheim, Matt Klentak moving from Anaheim to Philadelphia, and Dave Dombrowski going from Detroit to Boston. In other words, there are a whole lot of new connections. If this is a real phenomenon, it might actually affect the free-agent and trade markets. Is this a real phenomenon?

I looked at five recent pre-2015 regime changes that featured a new GM who had been with a different team immediately prior: Preller going from Texas to San Diego; Dipoto going from Arizona to the Angels (before this latest move to Seattle); Jeff Luhnow going from St. Louis to Houston; Farhan Zaidi and Andrew Friedman going from Oakland and Tampa Bay, respectively, to the Dodgers; and Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein going from San Diego and Boston, respectively, to the Cubs. I looked at all the transactions those regimes made in their first 365 days to see how many players they had acquired for a second time.

If there’s a bunch of these, then we can move on to Step 2 of this question: Do these new GMs get good deals, an extension of the recurring evidence that teams make smarter decisions on their own players than when acquiring other teams’ players; or do these new GMs get snookered, their personal biases exposed in the repeats?

If there are not a bunch of these, then we don’t have to move on to Step 2 at all. We can move on to leaving or reading the comments!

Okie doke, then.

Preller, Rangers to Padres

Players acquired: Daniel McCutchen, Marcus Greene, Jon Edwards

You remember Preller signing or trading for a whole new roster last winter, of course. Perhaps no GM in history moved so quickly to turn his new team’s team into his team, and yet that radical rebuild included only one tiny little screw from his old home, a 32-year-old Triple-A pitcher who had spent one year with the Rangers and produced an ERA (mostly in Round Rock) over 7. (Greene and Edwards were acquired in August, just before our 365-day deadline, in the Will Venable trade.) It’s safe to say that Preller’s strategy was not “taking advantage of his inside dope.” Unless his inside dope was “everybody in Texas sucks.” Which would have been some pretty bad dope, in retrospect.

The Preller Connection … is very, very weak.

Jeff Luhnow, Cardinals to Astros

Players acquired: C.J. Fick (acquired on waivers) and Tyler Greene (in a “conditional deal”).

So, you might be wondering what would count as “a lot” for our purposes. That’s a difficult thing to get a grasp on — first you have to know how many players a GM acquires in a typical year, and in Luhnow’s first year the answer is 57. Maybe 58. Those range from Livan Hernandez (signed and released a few weeks later) to Justin Maxwell and Jobduan Morales. There are 29 other teams, and two of 58 is roughly one in 29, so that would be proportional —except a large number of these players played for a large number of teams. Which should goose the number of “guys I’ve signed before” even higher, which means that two out of 58 (or out of 57) is actually a disproportionately low figure. So we can say Luhnow avoided Cardinals like he was worried they were going to ask for his keycard back.

It might be relevant that the two players he acquired both came with a little extra personal connection: Fick is the son of Chuck Fick, a scout who worked under Luhnow in St. Louis; and Greene, as near as I can tell, was Luhnow’s first first-round draft pick after taking over as the head of St. Louis’ scouting department in 2005. But otherwise …

The Luhnow Connection … is even weaker.

Dipoto, Diamondbacks to Angels

Players acquired: Ryan Langerhans, Drew Macias, Barry Enright, Tony Pena, John Hester.

These types of names are a little of what I’m talking about. The new-GM connection probably won’t show up as much with marquee signings — Dipoto didn’t need a connection to know who Albert Pujols was and what he did — but with the junk guys who a) are more freely available, b) help fill out the scores of roster spots and invitations (many of them temporary) that a GM needs to cross off his to-do list, and c) are essentially fungible and interchangeable, so why wouldn’t you skew toward the ones whose names you actually know and who hit the ball real far that one time you were there for BP?

So we’re up to five with Dipoto, though this might be somewhat skewed by the fact that, when Dipoto got to Anaheim, he inherited (I’ve been told) a pro scouting department that was horribly undermanned, to the point that the Angels simply didn’t have reports on huge swaths of their opponents’ systems. They were at a huge disadvantage in scrap-heap type transactions, the Rule 5 and minor-league free agents and waiver pickups and “who’ll you give me” type trades. So here it might not be perfectly representative of the typical GM.

(Note that he also acquired Tyler Skaggs from his old employer in a pretty big move, the biggest “I know that guy!” acquisition we’ve found so far — but not covered in our one-year survey.)

The Dipoto Connection … is choppy.

Hoyer/Epstein, Padres/Red Sox to Cubs

Players acquired: From Epstein’s side: Trevor Miller, Miguel Socolovich, Jair Bogaerts, Michael Bowden, Brian Esposito. From Hoyer’s: Zach Cates, Anthony Rizzo.

Here we get to perhaps the most famous GM-player connection of recent history, as Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod (who went from Boston to San Diego to Chicago with Hoyer) have thrice acquired Rizzo: They drafted him in the sixth round when they were in Boston (McLeod was the scouting director), then traded for him in San Diego as part of the Adrian Gonzalez deal, then after leaving the Padres immediately traded for him again in the Andrew Cashner deal. There were always reasons Rizzo was a bit of a controversial prospect, and Hoyer, etc. were obviously true to one side of that controversy. It’s also easy to speculate soft reasons that Hoyer/McLeod liked him so much: Rizzo beat cancer under their organizational umbrella, and McLeod has been raving about Rizzo’s makeup since the kid was 17. From an article written after Acquisition No. 3:

When he was drafted out of high school, McLeod, then Boston’s scouting director, said the infielder had the best makeup of any player he’d been around.

"He makes a big impression on his teammates, he’s an incredibly hard worker," Hoyer said. "Overcoming cancer was incredibly impressive, but I think it’s a mistake if you just allude to his makeup that he overcame cancer. He’s a very strong person. I think he’s a leader, and he’s someone who can help put this organization and our team on the right path as far as our culture. He’s a very impressive individual."

(A couple years later, Hoyer and Epstein would sign Jon Lester, another cancer survivor with shared Boston history.)

This seems clear and convincing evidence that sometimes a new GM’s connections matter. Cates, who was included in the same deal, might fit the profile of another: a third-rounder one year earlier who had disappointed in his pro debut and who an incoming regime would feel little ownership of or investment in. But otherwise, Hoyer and McLeod left the Padres alone.

The Hoyer Connection … is somewhat dependent on whether you’re Anthony Rizzo.

Zaidi/Friedman, A’s/Rays to Dodgers

Players acquired: From Friedman’s side: Adam Libertore, Joel Peralta, Ali Solis, Erik Bedard, Elliot Johnson, Preston Guilmet; from Zaidi’s: Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson, Matt Carson, Chad Gaudin, Rudy Owens, Jorge De Leon, Eury De La Rosa, Alberto Callaspo, Jim Johnson, Mickey Storey.

And here we go: The Dodgers added ~75 players in Andrew Friedman’s first year, and more than a fifth had been previously acquired by Friedman or, during Zaidi’s time in Oakland, by the A’s. (Another, Mike Bolsinger, was drafted by the A’s in the 30-somethingth round but didn’t sign.) While we have no real way of knowing whether Zaidi was influential in Oakland’s original signings any of these guys, it’s our best case yet of “connections” influencing a large chunk of roster decisions.

Not that the Dodgers’ NL West title depended on any of these or that loyalty extended beyond a few weeks. Carson was sold back to Oakland shortly after. Callaspo was released. De La Rosa was soon on waivers. Gaudin never pitched an inning for the Dodgers or any of their affiliates. Storey lasted less than a month. McCarthy got hurt. Solis was released before the first spring training game. Bedard retired early. Johnson, having arguably been the worst A’s acquisition during Zaidi’s time in upper management, repeated the feat in Los Angeles: His ERA nearly went to 11. (Anderson was healthy, though!)

So, I conclude, the GM “connection” is mostly a small factor at best, and mostly irrelevant to a team’s World Series dreams regardless. The connection that really matters is the one hinted at in the Cubs’ section: Theo Epstein + Jed Hoyer + Jason McLeod. When a new boss takes over, it’s clear that he does highly value the connections he has to the upper-level managers he hires. Preller poached superscout Don Welke from the Rangers — his first big hire before Upton and Kimbrel and Kemp and Norris was Welke. Dipoto poached Scott Servais, the Rangers’ AGM, who had worked with Dipoto in Denver when both men were just rising in the front office ranks. (And then, when he went to Seattle, Dipoto did it again.) Luhnow brought Sig Mejdal, whose draft analytics had helped Luhnow’s scouting departments stand out in St. Louis. Friedman hired Gabe Kapler, who had been an adviser in Tampa Bay, to run the Dodgers’ player development department. And Epstein rehired Hoyer, who brought with him McLeod for the second time.

Ultimately, it seems, new GMs are pretty capable of viewing generic ballplayers as generic ballplayers, whether they’ve ever employed them before or not. But right-hand confidants are unique, and they’re important. These are the connections that matter.