There’s no questioning the intelligence of new Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen.
Having first worked in the Cleveland Indians front office in the early part of the new millennium and then in the Boston Red Sox front office back to the midpoint of Theo Epstein’s reign and surviving amid upheaval, crisis and dysfunction, he was essentially the last man standing when Dave Dombrowski was hired to become president of baseball operations, supplanting Ben Cherington as the final voice in baseball matters. Once Cherington rejected an offer to remain as GM and work under Dombrowski, Hazen even managed to garner a promotion out of the complicated machinations.
With that in mind, why would Hazen, who was already a GM, decide to leave the relatively stable and well-stocked Red Sox for the unknown in Arizona? Why would he willingly walk into a situation that has a history of ending badly for every new head of baseball operations it hires?
One word: power.
He didn’t have it in Boston, where Dombrowski is the unquestioned decision-maker for the Red Sox baseball operations; he will (probably) have it in Arizona. Taking the Diamondbacks job is a risk, but at a bare minimum, he’ll be the one who, to paraphrase Bill Parcells, “buys the groceries and cooks the meal.” With the Red Sox, he was helping to write the grocery list; he was in the middle of the decisions, but he didn’t have that coveted say-so and the credit/blame/attention that goes along with it.
The Diamondbacks have not exactly been a model of stability in their baseball ops for the past decade. In that time, there have been two constants in Arizona: a max shelf life of four-and-a-half years for the GM whether there was some level of success or not, and team president and CEO Derrick Hall was entrenched.
Josh Byrnes lasted from October of 2005 to July of 2010; Kevin Towers from September of 2010 to September of 2014; and Dave Stewart from September of 2014 to October of 2016. And now there’s Hazen. Byrnes and Towers won division titles, which should have automatically granted them or any GM an extra year or two of leeway. Instead, they were dismissed.
Hall just signed an eight-year contract extension. He’ll be there whether Hazen is the outlier who survives or he joins Byrnes, Towers and Stewart on the list of former Diamondbacks GMs.
Another X-factor in the equation is chief baseball officer Tony La Russa. While Stewart, De Jon Watson, manager Chip Hale and just about the entire La Russa handpicked “braintrust” is gone, La Russa is still there. It’s safe to presume that one of the conditions of Hazen taking the job is that he gets the final say he lacked while functioning as the GM in Boston. Considering La Russa’s beliefs being diametrically opposed to what Hazen was reared on in his baseball apprenticeships with the Indians and the Red Sox, that La Russa is openly hostile to anyone who dares question his genius and, at age 72, is not about to change, Hazen could not take the job having to gather troops for combat with a decorated, aging, renegade general who’s gone rogue like a baseball version of Apocalypse Now.
In Boston, there was no combat. Dombrowski is respectful of his underlings, is willing to listen to suggestions, and allows different viewpoints. But he’s the unquestioned boss. And that’s the difference between what Hazen had as the Red Sox GM and what he’ll have as the Diamondbacks GM.
We’ve come a long way from the way baseball was three decades ago when it was an insular business where longtime organizational executives worked their way up to the general manager’s chair, were former players, or were people whom the owner knew and could control without having to take the heat for what didn’t work. Back then, you’d have been hard-pressed to name the GMs of one-third of the teams in Major League Baseball. Now, the GM is an entity unto himself, coming as close as a math whiz or baseball-loving lawyer can get to being a rock star.
The attention and questioning of the moves a GM makes have shortened the amount of time given to do the job. If there aren’t immediate results, then the demands for a change grow louder. A GM’s timeline is compressed to the degree that a long rebuilding job is simply untenable and impossible.
A prime example of that is former Minnesota Twins GM Terry Ryan. Andy MacPhail, Ryan, Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire built the Twins into a predominately homegrown club that won six division titles in nine years between 2002 and 2010, and were able to do it because they were not trapped in the vise of expectations from 1993 to 2001 when they were terrible on an annual basis and nearly found themselves contracted from baseball entirely.
Ryan was in the midst of another rebuild at midseason 2016 and had constructed a noteworthy farm system that has the pieces to yield a similar rise in the coming years, but he won’t be around to see it because he was fired before he could reap the rewards. Ryan’s mistake might have been adhering to his old-school sensibilities at the expense of the new metrics. Or it might have been that he was under the impression that the same rules of the 1990s were in place today and the sense of urgency to win now did not apply to him.
Any baseball executive, proven or not, had better show marked improvement at the big league level by the third year or there’s a good chance said executive is going to get fired. With the growing number of ways in which opinions, judgements and assessments can be expressed, that executive had also better have a supportive owner, a thick skin and the willpower to stay off the internet.
The new title of “president of baseball operations” is the logical evolution of the growing responsibility of the person in charge of the baseball ops. The duties of the president of baseball ops are essentially that of the GM of years gone by without having to deal with the minutiae – briefing the media, handling player complaints, meeting with fans – that are time-consuming drudgery and distract from being the architect of the organization.
As of this moment, the Red Sox, Indians, Twins, Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Washington Nationals, Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants all have the “baseball boss” over their GM in one form or another. The Diamondbacks had it with La Russa. It’s the norm rather than the anomaly.
The president of baseball operations is the one in charge. The GM who works under him is not. With this in mind, it needs to be understood that Red Sox fans who live in fear of potential Hazen replacement Frank Wren repeating some of the mistakes he made while working as the GM of the Braves need not be so melodramatic and paranoid. It’s Dombrowski who’s making the decisions. While it’s likely that he and Hazen had a solid working relationship, there was clearly a disconnect in their beliefs of how an organization should be run stemming from the manner in which they rose to their current positions. Dombrowski was reared in the White Sox organization in the late-1970s and early-1980s under veteran baseball man Roland Hemond. Hazen worked under Mark Shapiro and Epstein.
It’s a totally different evolution and it showed in the Dombrowski methods vs. what the Red Sox had done in the past with the lineage of Epstein and Cherington.
Dombrowski indicated little interest in being feted for the Red Sox having one of baseball’s best farm systems while the big league club wins 75 games, so he traded a big chunk of that system for the stars he covets. Having been one of the people who cobbled together the Red Sox lauded farm system, it’s doubtful that Hazen was comfortable or happy in trading away top prospects for Craig Kimbrel and Drew Pomeranz. But he didn’t get to make that decision. Once it was determined by Dombrowski that he was willing to surrender the likes of Anderson Espinoza for a journeyman like Pomeranz, what more could Hazen do other than try and make the best of the situation and hope for an opening where he would be the one making the decisions that Dombrowski was making.
The Hazen promotion to GM of the Red Sox shortly after Cherington’s departure was in part due to the organization striving to maintain some level of continuity and because the Dombrowksi preference – Wren – was too much of a 180-degree spin from the Epstein/Cherington methodology to deal with the fallout. With a year under his belt and a division title on his resume, Dombrowski doesn’t have to placate dissenting voices and he can do what he wants. It’s not as if there was an unworkable relationship between Dombrowski and Hazen; it’s that a longtime baseball executive like Dombrowski likes to have around him people like Wren with whom he can speak in shorthand and delegate knowing that there won’t be a miscommunication or disregard for what he wants due to divergent agendas.
Hazen’s situation can be compared, on a less biblical scale, to Milton’s Paradise Lost with the quote “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” The Red Sox are not heaven. The Diamondbacks are not hell. But with the Red Sox, he was serving. With the Diamondbacks, he’s reigning.
Even if his path follows that of his predecessors – which judging by history, it inevitably will – at least he’ll have been the one making the calls without being the second in command. That, more than anything, is the clearest reason why he left Boston for Arizona.