The St. Louis Cardinals stunned the baseball world by making the playoffs with a September surge, advancing to the World Series. How much of the credit can their GM take?
It's hard to evaluate GMs as an outside observer. That seems like a painfully obvious statement, and it is, but it's worth unpacking just a bit. General managers who say the right things, and who clearly evaluate and acquire players based on sabermetric principles, will get a lot of internet love. But general managers also need to cajole, browbeat, and persuade. They need to do Don Draper things while working too hard to enjoy the other Don Draper things. They need to lead and convince. Evaluating a GM isn't just a matter of tallying up trades and free agents.
Take Dayton Moore, the GM of the Royals, for example. For years and years, he's been lambasted for his personnel moves at the major-league level. He's made some stinkers, alright. But in the meantime, he's built quite the cadre of young, cost-controllable talent, which is exactly what a Royals GM should do. He just might not be the punch line that he once appeared to be.
Then you get to a manager like John Mozeliak of the St. Louis Cardinals, and things get even tougher. All of the unknown things up there apply, but there's another factor that completely muddles any sort of evaluation process.
William DeWitt, Jr.: Okay, here's your new office.
John Mozeliak: Great, great.
DeWitt: You know Stan. He'll be helping you out with the administrative stuff.
Mozeliak: Sure. Super.
DeWitt: Here are the keys to your Pujols
Mozeliak: Wow. This is so cool.
DeWitt: Don't be shy ... take him for a spin.
Mozeliak: So cool.
Albert Pujols: You want me to hit the crap out of some baseballs or something?
Mozeliak: Do I ever!
This isn't about a GM inheriting a good player; it's about a GM inheriting a once-in-a-generation player. Pujols isn't just the star of the decade, he's an inner-circle Hall-of-Famer, and he's still in the middle of his career. How do you separate the two? I wrote about this same struggle with regards to Barry Bonds and Brian Sabean. The Giants won a lot of games in the late-'90s/early-'00s, and they also had the best player on the planet. How much was Bonds, and how much was Sabean's ability to acquire quality players to surround him?
The same goes for Mozeliak and Pujols. The Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs this year -- the difference wasn't just Pujols, it was Jon Jay, Kyle Lohse, and 20 other players having the seasons they did. But what kinds of teams can Mozeliak build without Pujols?
His ledger of acquisitions since becoming GM is as mixed as any other general manager. He saw something in Lance Berkman that I'm guessing 15 other GMs in the National League didn't see. He traded oft-injured fan favorite Jim Edmonds for David Freese, which is certainly helping the team right now. He acquired and secured Matt Holliday.
But he also gave up Luke Gregerson and Chris Perez for Khalil Greene and three months of Mark DeRosa, moves that indirectly led to the Colby Rasmus trade. He invested a lot of money into Lohse and Jake Westbrook, who seem to trade off quality seasons. He traded away Brendan Ryan, and then scrambled midseason to find a suitable replacement.
And the whole time, he had Albert Pujols.
Mozeliak and the Cardinals are in the World Series. They're a two-game winning streak from winning. That's usually a pretty danged good indication that he's doing his job right. But would I want him as the GM for my team? Would he be a GM who could turn the Astros around, or get the Angels back atop the AL West? I have no idea. He's an unknown quantity, more so than any other GM in baseball. Because while he shouldn't be penalized for taking over a team with Pujols, it sure muddles an evaluation that was going to be tricky to do in the first place.