A baseball team, in many ways, is like a family. However, in many other ways, it’s a Family. As in la cosa nostra. The mafiosa. The mob. You have your foot soldiers, who do the day-to-day work on the field and the grunt work in the front office. You also have capos, in the Assistant GMs, Managers, and coaches. And, of course, you have the boss or the don in the General Manager. He’s responsible for the overall direction of the organization, and for the decisions that will affect the shape of things to come.
And on that front, we’ve seen a ton of movement in recent weeks, as old dons have been whacked or retired, and new blood has risen to take their place. Of course, the gold standard for mob movies, and perhaps for all movies, is Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Which makes a perfect starting point for our Tuesday Tangents.
Jerry DiPoto had a really short opportunity to prove himself, was impressive, but then got pushed aside. Now, he’s back, kind of like when Michael Corleone returned from Sicili.
The Godfather trilogy, of course, centers on the Corleone family, immigrants from Sicili. Vito, who came over as a young boy, rises through the ranks of the New York mafia to eventually run much of Manhattan as the head of one of the Five Families. His youngest son, Michael (played by Al Pacino in his career-defining role), came back from World War II a hero, and fully intended to stay out of the family business. But fate intervened when Don Vito was shot, and Michael needed to step up for his family. He not only protected his father, but volunteered to assassinate Virgil Sollozzo, who ordered the hit on the Godfather.
Michael is forced to flee to Sicili, until his father can recover and bring him home. Once back in New York, Don Vito retires, and Michael becomes the de facto head of the Corleone family, with his father as his advisor. Michael has always been the smartest of the Corleone children, and the most calculating, and his brilliance serves the family well. He divests the family’s interests, opening the door to invest in Nevada and Cuba, as well as in New York. By the end of his life, he has created an empire.
Likewise, Jerry DiPoto had a brief moment in the sun in 2010. He was promoted to interim General Manager in July, giving him the responsibility of running the club through the trading deadlines, and was replaced just 3 months in. In that short span, he dealt Dan Haren for four players, including Joe Saunders, and the highly regarded prospects Tyler Skaggs and Patrick Corbin. He also acquired Daniel Hudson and prospect David Holmberg for Edwin Jackson. Just so we’re clear, he cleared out payroll, acquired 2/5 of the NL West winning D-Backs rotation and the team’s number 2, 8, and 9 prospects according to Kevin Goldstein. He also received high marks for his excellent organizational skills.
Now, this offseason, he’s back at the helm of the Los Angeles Angels. The team has significant payroll (though much of that is tied up in a few players, some of whom are quite useless). It also has a strong-willed manager. But DiPoto has the skills to turn the Angels into a juggernaut if he can rein in some of these problems. DiPoto is poised, and fully capable of building a West Coast powerhouse with the resources at his command.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are a lethal combination in Chicago, somewhat akin to the Don Barzini and Bruno Tattaglia team-up.
With Michael abroad in Italy, and Don Vito laid up, it falls to Vito’s oldest son, Santino (Sonny) to lead the Corleone family, and he goes to the mattresses against the Tattaglia family, who ordered the hit on his father. The Tattaglias, secretly backed by the Barzinis, lure Sonny into a trap and obliterate him in one of the most iconic scenes in film history. To prevent further bloodshed, the heads of the five families meet to discuss terms. Later, as Don Coreleone sees the Barzinis negotiating the peace between his family and the Tattaglias, Vito knows who orchestrated the entire offensive. Still, he’s not in a position to fight back, as he remains the only family head to oppose the sale of heroin in New York. The Tattaglias and the Barzinis have the Corleones boxed in, and they’ve proven how deadly they can be when crossed.
There’s much more harmony with the Chicago Cubs, undoubtedly, than there is between the Barzinis and the Corleones, but that doesn’t mean that the pairing of Epstein and Hoyer are any less deadly. Epstein has proven himself to be a ruthless and calculating general manager, who is not afraid to make unpopular decisions and who has more than proven his ability to put together a winning franchise. He has two rings to prove it (presumably one is a pinky ring).
Hoyer was his trusted lieutenant in Boston, but who moved on to be the GM in San Diego. Hoyer only actually lasted a year in San Diego, but his moves were ultimately strong ones. He acquired three strong prospects from Boston for one year of Adrian Gonzalez, and managed to pry Cameron Maybin away from Florida for a couple relievers. He picked up two more good starting pitching prospects from the Rangers at the trade deadline for reliever Mike Adams. And he made a good deal to bring in Aaron Harang to rebuild his value. Not all of Hoyer’s moves worked out (the Jason Bartlett trade and the Orlando Hudson/Jorge Cantu/Brad Hawpe signings come to mind), but all of them were structurally strong for a team with a payroll as low as the Padres.
With a $130-140 million payroll to play with in Chicago, against the rest of the NL Central, and the right pair leading them, the Cubs have the potential to run down their competition. They are, by far, the deadliest combination in the long term, so long as they successfully manage the expectations of their fans and the media. Unless they get whacked (say, during a Christening), this pair is going to end up running this town.
Terry Ryan retired because he was burned out and named Bill Smith as his successor. Now, he’s fired Smith and stepped back into his old role, which is what would happen if, as he lay dying, Don Vito named Fredo his successor, and then coming back from the dead, whacked Fredo, and took over the family again as the Zombie Don.
If Don Vito had passed his family down to Fredo, it would have been a lot like Terry Ryan handing the Twins over to Bill Smith. What Smith’s strengths were was never clear. He came in as mostly an administrator who would have a strong management team in place to advise him. But the decisions he made crippled the Twins over the long term. He dealt Johan Santana for four players who never performed for Minnesota. He dealt Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett for busts Delmon Young and Brendan Harris. He traded Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps, and then paid Capps an extra $7 million last year. Even his one good big move, acquiring JJ Hardy from the Brewers, was negated after a year when he sent Hardy to the Orioles for two wild and unproven relievers. Meanwhile, he allowed reliable and less expensive arms, like Matt Guerrier and Jesse Crain, to walk without getting compensation.OK, so this tangent never happened in the film. But it’s fairly apt. When Don Vito dies, and with Sonny already murdered, the family’s leadership skips over the ineffectual Fredo to pass to Michael. Fredo, played by John Cazale, is weasly and incompetent. He has no leadership skills and no real potential. He’s dumb and he’s gullible. His name has essentially become shorthand for useless people.
Terry Ryan coming back allows the Twins to reset the clock to 2007 and to help the team to recalibrate to find the best path forward. Ryan is not without his weaknesses (particularly around the margins of roster-building), but he’s proven much strong than Smith in finding foundational pieces for a franchise to build on. Taking out Smith was really the only step to move forward (ironically by going backwards), and in digging up the rightful Don, reanimating him, and surrounding him with his old management team, the Twins may be poised to come back from the dead themselves.