The Politics of a General Manager

Baseball general managers are great politicians, cold and calculating and all with smiles on their faces.  Their Machiavellian ways sometimes go unnoticed, especially as the on-field spectacle always trumps their behind-the-scenes maneuvers.  However in the world of baseball, the ends always justify the means and GMs have no problem lying to anyone as long as they put a winner on the field.

This is not to say that GMs are evil people.  On the contrary, being a sociopath could be considered a good thing in the business world.  And in the end, for all the fun and excitement and pleasure the sport brings, baseball is a business.  When it comes to dealing with the four major interest groups in baseball (owners, players, media and fans) no other personnel can match the ability of a GM in balancing the concerns of each group in such a manner that may include a little fibbing here and there.

Of course not all GMs are exceptional examples of politicians.  In fact many are just plain bad at their job.  But one man who is proving time and again to be the master politician is White Sox General Manager Rick Hahn.  A recent example of Hahn’s ability is his handling of the White Sox second base job.

Going into the season, the Sox had a big question mark at second base.  After ownership, the media and fans gave up on Gordon Beckham as the long term solution, and with the money well running dry after the free agent spending spree during the off season, Hahn was stuck with two in-house options: Carlos Sanchez and Micah Johnson.

Sanchez played a little at the end of the 2014 season, showing that he was a plus defender with an average arm.  Offensively, the switch hitter displayed below average hitting with little pop.  Johnson was the unknown rookie, with a knack for putting up rather impressive offensive numbers in the minors from the left side of the plate and having some of the best speed in the Sox system.

So who would Hahn go with to start the season, a season in which the media and fan base, not to mention ownership, were excited to see a great start out of the gate that could eventually lead to postseason action?

For many, Plan A was Johnson.  The baseball world had already seen a glimpse of Sanchez at the Major League level.  Although his defense was sound, his offensive numbers were unimpressive.  An unknown such as Johnson sparked conversation and excitement, especially with the potential speed and hitting ability he could bring to the bottom of the lineup.  Sanchez seemed more like Beckham, a defensive wizard with some offensive shortcomings.  Johnson was the anti-Beckham.

The problem for Hahn, however, was that Johnson was a defensive liability.  And as Hahn had built a pitching staff comprised of ground ball pitchers, including most notably one of the prizes from the off season, Jeff Samardzija, Johnson’s defense could potentially become a glaring hole and problematic for the team’s on field success.  As a worst case scenario, the team could pile up early losses and a rookie like Johnson could find himself being ostracized and a distraction in the clubhouse.

Although we can’t say for certain that Johnson was Hahn’s Plan A, the GM went along with the media, fans and with Johnson’s offensive potential.  As it turned out, the Sox stumbled out of the gate, with team defense being one of the foremost problems.  Although Johnson was hitting .270 with 3 stolen bases and 8 runs scored through 27 games, his defensive miscues were beginning to take its toll with the rest of the clubhouse.

Although he wouldn’t make outright errors (he did have three), Johnson’s mishandling of routine ground balls, not to mention missed double play opportunities and running into his own teammates, was quickly making him the team’s scape goat for their troubles.  Samardzija, although not naming any player in particular, referenced the team’s infield defense, saying, “We definitely need to not make this harder on ourselves.”  Robin Ventura, the White Sox manager, admitted that “friction happens if poor defense keeps happening; it’s not good.”  The worst case scenario for Johnson had happened.

Meanwhile at Triple A, Sanchez was providing good offensive numbers to go along with his outstanding defense.  In 29 games, he was hitting .344, including 10 doubles, while stealing 5 bases and scoring 17 runs.  Sanchez seemed to put it together offensively enough to warrant a call up.  At the beginning of the Milwaukee Brewers series last week, Hahn affirmed that Johnson was the “right guy” at second base for the Sox.  By the end of the series, Johnson was sent down and Sanchez was brought up.  A week later, Sanchez had the game winning hit against the Cleveland Indians, capping a six game winning streak since his call up.

Looking back, it is easy to recognize that Sanchez was the more ready of the two, especially on defense.  His offense, although questionable heading into the season, was perhaps not quite as worrisome as many had made it out to be.  In fact during Spring Training, Sanchez out-hit Johnson.  Johnson, who many in the media said had a great spring, hit .339 with 6 runs scored.  Sanchez had a batting average of .426 with as many runs scored in 19 less at bats.  It seems the media intentionally overlooked Sanchez and had ordained Johnson regardless of the final spring stats.

The guess here is that Hahn, the politician, knew that Sanchez was not only the better of the two players, but more importantly, better for the team in the long run of the season.  He more than likely knew that the team’s infield defense would be very important this year (defensive specialist Beckham was re-signed late in the off season as a utility infielder) and a player like Sanchez could be hidden in a lineup anchored by Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu and Adam LaRoche.

But Hahn also knew the media and fans had made up their minds early and were clamoring for Johnson.  Offensive numbers, especially in today’s world of fantasy baseball, go a long way.  If Hahn had gone with Sanchez, his judgment would have quickly come into question.  And if the Sox didn’t storm out of the gate with Sanchez in the lineup, it is more likely than not that calls for Johnson to be brought up would have begun to be more and more consistent and become a distraction in its own right.

As we know now in hindsight, there is more to a player than his offensive output and Johnson’s defense would have been horrible for this Sox team going forward.  More likely than not, Hahn knew the Sox had many new parts that needed time to gel, and a great start to the season was possible but not likely going to happen.  Hahn, balancing the interests of the media and fans, and of course ownership as it wanted the ticket sales, went with Johnson so that Sanchez could not possibly be the scape goat.  In a sense Hahn protected Sanchez, who it turns out was likely Hahn’s true Plan A.

By having Johnson start at second for the first month of the season, Hahn allowed the media and fans to see and realize for themselves that Johnson was the wrong man.  Seeing is believing.  Since making the switch, the team has climbed its way to .500 for the first time all season and started to win on a more consistent basis.

In the end, Hahn showed he’s a master when it comes to balancing the interests of ownership, the media, the fans and those in the clubhouse.  Many in the media did not see Johnson’s demotion coming as a few days earlier Hahn gave his stamp of approval.  Of course we know now he was lying, as the means justify the ends.  And in the end, Hahn wants a winner.

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