Friday, October 22, 2004

Part II - The Man Who Shopped Liberty Beltrán:
Surviving Ridicule to Try Again  

One of the hottest playoff heroes has been Carlos Beltrán, the Houston Astros' center-fielder. There are a lot of interesting stories circulating about him since the Astros earned their wild card berth, from his home-runs-in-consecutive-games streak to speculation about where his free agency in the off-season might take him.

To a management consultant, though, the three stories about Beltrán, known as the Manati Manatee, that are the most worthwhile haven't been batted about much. One is an instructive lesson in mentoring, this entry is a lesson in managerial courage, and one is about a universal trend all managers would do well to pay attention to.


This year's Houston Astro team has been looking at its last shot, with some aging veterans and some good contributors about to become free agents. After this season, it'll probably be a couple of years before the team is this good again, though it likely will be, with some good young talent and some prime talent already on the roster.

In mid-summer, with the team in contention but not well ahead, Astro G.M. Gerry Hunsicker went shopping for help. He didn't just have this deal in mind. As with any respectable manager, he considered the past and meant to learn from it.

Six years ago at the trade deadline, Hunsicker traded for one of the best pitchers in baseball, Randy Johnson. It was expensive; Johnson was going to become a free agent at the end of the year and Hunsicker knew it was unlikely the Astros would be able to re-sign him, so whatever assets they gave up for him were gone for good with only two months of Johnson's services as the reward (three months if they made the playoffs and won).

The Astros gave the Seattle Mariners the franchise's former #1 ranked pitching prospect no longer at the top of their list (John Halama), a rising AAA pitcher with high upside (Freddy Garcia), and a AAA shortstop considered useful but not exceptional (Carlos Guillén). Without putting the trade in context, it's "clear" Hunsicker got shorn. In exchange for 11 starts from Johnson (the number of regular season starts he would be able to pitch), the G.M. was coughing up three young players, all of whom looked to have major league careers of some value.

You can't make a lot of deals like this, because even when they work out, you are eating your seed grain. But if your team just needs an extra on-field, emotional and fan-excitement jump, a bold move like trading for an exceptional Big Unit like Johnson has rewards that, in this context, can cover the cost in a way that seems improbable if you remove the context. Hunsicker didn't try to get someone pretty-good and better than his least-good everyday player, which has some value, he got one of those rare assets my friend Phil Barber calls a "difference maker".

Hunsicker played "Shoot the Moon", and it paid off in regular season wins and attendance and buzz.

Before the trade, those 1998 Astros were a very good 65-44 (.596 and 3½ games up in their division).
After the trade they were a transcendent 37-16 (.698 and winning their division by 12½ games).
Yes, they were 10-1 during the stretch drive when Johnson started, but they were also 27-15 in games he didn't start (.642).
They were simply playing much better with Johnson. He made a difference in their success even on days he wasn't pitching.

The Astros' momentum did not serve them well in their first round playoff against the San Diego Padres, and they were eliminated. And at that point, much of the punditocracy decided Hunsicker was a fool -- he had mortgaged some bright potential future for a risk that didn't pan out.

Their criticism, on the surface, held much truth. In the immediate accounting, his bold Randy Johnson move didn't get them a World Series trophy and the cost was high. But the rewards appeared through other measures -- attendance, longer-term fan loyalty, a sense among staff, players and fans that the franchise was aggressively committed to success and one that lingered after 1999.

A good risk doesn't always pan out. Acquiring Randy Johnson might not yield a Series trophy, I might buy a tickets to a Johnny Winter concert where he can't play lead anymore, or buy Honda that turns out to be a lemon, Warren Buffet might buy a stock he sells for a below-market return.


Having taken so much heat from so many quarters for the bold deal, a weaker general manager could have frozen up or would likely have avoided making the same kind of deal.

Hunsicker did it again this season.

On June 24, he traded for Beltrán, the disappointed Kansas City Royals' most valuable contributor, scheduled to become the most glittery free agent at the end of the year, and a player the well-heeled New York Yankees both can afford and need. Moreover, the outfielder's agent is the notorious Scott Boras, a brutal negotiator who always pushes his players to take the highest $$ offer (regardless of other factors), meaning the attempt to get the player's services will be simply an auction. Further, Beltrán expressed a desire to play for a team that could get into the playoffs every year (having spent the first five years of his six-year career without experiencing playoffs), and Houston is not clearly going to be there again -- especially if they fling at Beltrán the resources it will probably take, a Kekulé ring because to sign him you need to have a dominant roster, but to have that kind of roster, you need more $$ than you can walk away with after signing him. It's not impossible, but quite unlikely.

So after six years, Hunsicker made the bold mid-season move for the partial season player. He coughed up the best reliever from the Astros' very deep bullpen & a promising (not dominant) young catcher. While the Astros had plenty of hope for other relievers to take over, they will need help at catcher soon. But to all appearances, he didn't hesitate, he didn't let the fear of being ridiculed and second-guessed deter him from the bold move, even though it might not get the team an obvious long-term benefit.

This move did not appear to work out right away. On the day the Astros acquired the Manati Manatee, the team was 38-34, 5 games out of first. By August 14, they were 56-60, 19½ games back, and 7 games behind that day's best wild card record.

Hunsicker had a couple of weeks to shop Beltrán to a team looking for a boost. Apparently, he did but ultimately decided the returns were lower than the rewards of keeping the contributor. At the risk of getting hammered for the same bold move again, the Astros front office kept him.

The bold move worked out this time. The team went 13-3 through the rest of August, and tacked on a blistering 23-7 September, with enough wins to snare the wild card berth & enough adrenaline to get past the Atlanta Braves and win their first-ever playoff series. Again, the off-field benefits accrue to the franchise, especially important because on paper this is a team due for at least a short period of decline. The dollars they will reap from the good will of the 2004 effort, spear-headed in part by Beltrán and the meta-meaning of Hunsicker's willingness to be bold in pursuit of a flag or a trophy, are more valuable than they would be to a team likely to have another roaring season next year. They are more valuable because the fan base now has the marination in good feelings that can potentially nurture another ~3 million ticket season next year (especially if oil prices stay above $45/bbl. and gasoline in the $2.10-$3.50 range) even if the team is scratching around .500.


Most managers fall into to one of two extreme categories: they either (a) won't allow the past or the evidence of real failure deter their internal world views (a failure to achieve 3rd base in the Management by Baseball Model) & continue to repeat past failures, or (b) they allow fear of others' perceptions deflect them from pursuing high returns that might not work out.

The Astros front office is good example of healthy decisionmaking in this area -- six years after a bold move that the pundit class decided was a loser, Gerry Hunsicker did it again, not because he didn't realize the cost, but precisely because he saw both sides of the equation and had enough courage weather the knee-jerk fear that drives much of the criticism.

In your own organization, let Hunsicker and the Astros front office be a beacon. This doesn't mean you don't need to run the numbers, so the algebra, ignore your failures. But just as every random move doesn't result in failure, not every optimal move doesn't result in success. If that immutable fact scares you, management is not a good fit -- there are many careers where it won't make much difference, and a few where it will actually benefit you, but management is not one of them.

So will the Astros pull off another bold mid-season deal? I suggest it's not if but when, and I hope the success of this one doesn't make ownership trigger-happy. I suspect Hunsicker, left to his calculations, will know the "right" time to snare his next Big Unit or Manati Manatee.

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