MLB general managers are undervalued

Let’s play pretend.

You’re a major league owner. You want to make one move to change the direction of your franchise. And you’re willing to spend about $5 million a year.

Do you:

  • Sign a free-agent reliever such as Brandon Lyon?
  • Hire a big-name manager such as Lou Piniella?
  • Go all-out to grab a hot general manager such as Andrew Friedman?

I hate to say it, but the answer is so obvious; only the owners cannot figure it out.

The GM is arguably the most important person in any organization — more important, perhaps, than even a superstar player.

But baseball’s dirty little secret is that the sport’s highest-ranking executives are absurdly underpaid.

Most general managers earn between $500,000 and $2 million annually, major league sources say.

Only a few — notably, the Yankees’ Brian Cashman, Red Sox’s Theo Epstein and Tigers’ Dave Dombrowski — are believed to make more than $2 million.

None is thought to make above $3 million, though the A’s Billy Beane and Diamondbacks’ Josh Byrnes maintain small ownership stakes in their respective franchises, and Cashman, as a senior Yankees executive, participates in a potentially lucrative stock-option program, sources say.

I’m not saying that anyone should pity general managers, even though most work much harder than fans think, logging 100-hour weeks almost year-round.

All I’m saying is that the best way for an owner to salvage an underachieving franchise would be to identify the best available GM and establish a new market for executive pay.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for such a thing to happen. The owners can hold down the salaries of general managers — and managers, for that matter — without facing charges of collusion. Only the players are part of a union.

The trend toward younger general managers naturally leads to lower salaries. No current GM has even gone “free agent” since Beane nearly left the A’s after the 2002 season for a five-year, $12.5 million offer from the Red Sox.

Nearly eight years later, that $2.5 million average salary still would rank among the game’s highest, if not at the top. And Beane had only one team bidding for him.

Epstein and Cashman both signed extensions after the 2008 season, preferring stability — and their respective high payrolls — to the possibility of greater personal riches elsewhere.

A frustrated GM from a low-revenue club would be more likely to test the market. Friedman eventually could be a possibility. Beane, though, could be a more immediate candidate if the A’s are unable to move to San Jose.

A salary of $4 million to $5 million would tempt any executive. A low-revenue club would face disadvantages even with a cutting-edge GM. But at least the owner could go to bed at night knowing he has made the best move possible to help his team.

Nothing is guaranteed. Even the best general managers make multi-million dollar mistakes. Still, why shouldn’t the best GM make at least as much as the highest-paid manager? The Dodgers’ Joe Torre, earning $4.3 million per season, is believed to hold that distinction. Some NBA and NFL coaches make significantly more.

Managers serve as spokesmen for their franchises, meeting twice a day with the media. But hardly any sell tickets, and only a few make a difference in their team’s performance. Most work only eight months a year.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not one who believes that someone like Bobby Cox is nothing more than an overpaid middle manager, or that a computer-programmed robot could manage effectively, if given the right players.

The Red Sox’s Terry Francona and Yankees’ Joe Girardi work under immense pressure. The Cardinals’ Tony La Russa and Angels’ Mike Scioscia leave distinctive marks. Even a folksy type such as the Phillies’ Charlie Manuel deserves more credit than he gets, for his people skills alone.

The GM, though, picks the players.

As important as manager Joe Maddon is to the Rays, he is not more important than Friedman, who put together the team’s roster largely through the draft and trades.

La Russa, Scioscia and a few others qualify as exceptions; Scioscia, rival executives believe, is practically the Angels’ GM. Still, a shrewd GM not only can make his owner millions by producing a winning club, but also save him millions by managing the team’s payroll efficiently.

Don’t tell me, as one ownership representative did, that teams want to avoid creating “artificial” markets for general managers.

These are the people who are paying players such as Kyle Farnsworth and Garrett Atkins $4.5 million — and blowing tens of millions more on the Carlos Lees of the world.

Me, I’d rather have Andrew Friedman or Billy Beane.