Saturday, June 30, 2007

Jon Daniels - Part IV: Rangers' GM
Attacks a Diseconomy of Scale  

In Part III, Daniels explained how his first big initiative on getting the Texas Rangers' GM job was to push for better organizational cohesion through a couple of methods -- organization-wide meetings to integrate people who, while dependent on each other for success, didn't have opportunities to meet face to face, and personal notes to people on noteworthy occasions to reinforce their view of how the organization valued them.

NOTE: The first issue he addressed, face-to-face meetings, is a critical ingredient in large organizations and one, in a globalized world, is decreasingly present. From cohesion to clear communication to sharing of common mission/values, face-to-face interaction is close to indispensable for success, an issue I dependency on what I call "proximity". I won't elaborate on this here: I've written a lot about the failure to achieve Proximity and its costs here and here; I wrote an article recently for Redmond Magazine about the counter-example...how a creative software company, eProject, skillfully balances its choice to offshore some of its development against the need for Proximity.

He let me read one of the letters he was about to send out as an example.

{he let me take a minute to read the letter}

Jeff (MBB): I especially like the part where it says “Be creative, don’t hesitate to experiment”. You’ve worked outside of baseball, so you know how much more experimental baseball is than most lines of work. Business should be that way.

Jon Daniels (JD) : There’s no doubt about that. And even in Baseball, unless it’s really well-defined, explicit expectations, then people are hesitant.

A hypothetical example… you have a hitting coach in A ball. He’s got a top prospect there and you’ve been handed a program to use…these are our hitting drills and these are the things we do, and you have a prospect wh’s not responding. The coach knows he’s a top prospect, maybe he represents some top money, he’s in the Carolina or Midwest or the California League…kind of out on an island, and not connected to the big club. He’s thinking like “Yeah, yeah, these are the drills I’ve been given. I’m not going to mess with it. I’ve seen something, I’d like to try it, but I’m not going to be the one to stray from the program.

I’ve been encouraging these guys to try. I say, “you know our general belief system, you know what we’re about…don’t stray from that. But within the parameters defined, innovate. I say “You played this game a long time. You had a coach somewhere along the line who got through to you. What did that coach do? Are you trying those things? We hired you because you’re an intelligent guy – you’re not a robot. You want to try some new drills? Do it. You want to try something drastic? Call the farm director, call the coordinator. Let them know – let’s not get crazy, but at the same time, I’m going to hold you accountable if he doesn’t get better so if you’re seeing this isn’t working, he’s not responding…well, everybody responds to things differently.

One of the things I’ve really tried to drive home is don’t be afraid to try something different. I expect you to put your stamp on the organization.

MBB: “Everybody responds to something differently”. That’s another piece of consciousness that seems intrinsic to baseball but not so much beyond it – so much so in baseball, a lot of people take it for granted. But for someone managing a doughnut shop, for example, it should be the same principle. A manager of a customer service department, for example, might luck into a whole group of people who respond to the same practices and drills, but baseball knows a lot more about your principle than most lines of work.

I loved you making it explicit, too, in your letter. What kind of people do you send them to?

JD: This letter is going to everybody in the organization. The works.

It’s just a little thing to recognize we’re about to kick off this season. I try to personalize each one with a little note at the bottom, rather than just having copies.

And the message I’m stating is: everything we are facing is a competition – how are you going to help us win today. I want to empower them.

I haven’t been an area scout. When I talk with those guys, they think I’m joking, but I think I’d want to be an area scout one of these days… to me it’s one of the more exciting jobs in the game. Say you’re out in Idaho looking for players every day…you couldn’t be more removed from this thing. You might feel like “what am I really doing to help us win every day.” It’s the Fall, there’s no baseball going on…are you going to that basketball game, that football game, meeting that two-sport star. You can sit in the stands, hear what his friends are saying about him. That gives you and advantage…especially if you’re the only team there and there’s no Angels or Oakland scout there, you just beat them. So we’re really trying to empower these guys.

And we haven’t done it, but we’ve talked about a financial reward if a guy (you scouted) gets to the big leagues should that scout get something. During the draft a scout is going to fight for his guy over someone else, they all are; would it make sense to have the whole scouting department get something if you get a guy up to the Big Leagues. And how about development? We haven’t done anything there yet but we’re trying.

MBB: Have you heard of any organization trying to re-design traditional incentive systems around scouting and development?

JD: I think some have. I don’t have any details for you.

Anyway, That’s the biggest non-player/personnel impact I’ve tried to have. Stability, family, we’re in this together, Ranger Pride, and you’re part of something special. And it’s critical for me to spend time with people like our minor league coaches. Touch base with or amateur scouts have a phone call with them every once in a while.. This Winter I had Barbara, my assistant, put the name and cell phone number of somebody different in front of me every day, both Thad & I. One day it was an A-ball trainer, the next a Dominican scout, the next day a major league coach, a AA pitching coach. Whatever it was…somebody every day was getting a call. I’m just trying to connect the organization.

MBB: Management by calling around.

JD: I know I play a little harder when I have a personal relationship with the guy I’m working for. It’s “we care. How are you doing? How are the kids?”

MBB: That is a fantastic method.

His idea, not fully explored yet, that scouting and development should get an incentive bonus for the success of the individuals who went through their personal workflows, is one I've advocated for organizations beyond baseball for a long time. It's a little easier to implement in Baseball than beyond because Baseball takes measurement seriously and executes.  Most non-baseball organizations have little idea of the output of their staffers, and wouldn't do it if they knew how. But if H.R., in part as a department and in part as individuals, saw a significant part of their compensation depend more the on high performance of the people they recruit and get into the organization and a little less on avoiding error (what Daniels here put in his letter as "Be creative. Don't hesitate to experiment") and a lot less on just feeling like they're feeding a boiler -- they shovel it into the system and never see it again, I believe H.R. would perform better through immediate behavioral shifts and over time by attracting more entrepreneurially ambitious folk to the discipline. The mechanics of the system would be imperfect, as all compensation programs are, but I've built a few context-specific proposals, and it's not hard to come up with one that's significantly better than the status quo with less risk than the status quo has.

And the personal involvement he talks about is a vital advantage small organizations have over large ones which suffer the Diseconomy of Scale that comes when the executives at the top of the organization don't run into every staffer every day. Daniels is doing what's doable to address it.

He's top-flight to have noticed it makes a difference and even better in that he sets aside time to attack the limits scale imposes. It'll be fascinating to see what the Texas Rangers will doing in the 5th year of his regime, because it takes a while to turn around diseconomies of scale.

¿Why are you waiting on it?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Jon Daniels - Part III: Lessons in Changing Direction  

In the previous two entries that resulted from the interview Jon Daniels worked with me in Spring Training this year, we covered a couple of lessons from him. This part of the interview covered his approach to his early moves.

I asked him how he looked at his personnel and what kinds of moves he thought might need to occur. The reason I asked was partially too try to reveal how his management mind operated.

Jeff (MBB): Last year in Spring Training, the Rangers had one of those Hollywood disaster movies. You guys had an extraordinary string of injuries. This year, it seems more in the normal range. Given that, is there any spot on your roster that’s at the top of your list as a place to be looking for reinforcements? Or is it too early (March 20)?

Jon Daniels (JD): We don’t have a ton of depth in position players. And long-term, we don’t necessarily have a slam-dunk heir apparent center fielder. Those are things I’ll be looking out for.

I think in the past, we’ve always erred on the side of bats. As an organization, we’ve redefined ourselves, what we’ll be about. We going to clearly err on the side of pitching. It’s why I think we’re fine this Spring anyway. We’ve got some depth there – we have more guys who deserve to make the club than we have spots. 

But I’d much rather be in that position than I was last year.

I counsel managers to make a big (but thought-out) splash early on in starting a new management gig because one never again has as much chance to act unimpeded, ever. Daniels had a factor that might have been either a severe constraint, or perhaps liberating: his relative chronological youth. If he had chosen to let it be a constraint, it could have made him err on the side of caution -- but as you can see, it didn't. BTW: there's a long aside here that's not classic MBB material -- Jon's relating to me how that first press conference he did came about. I left it in because I thought it was interesting to me personally, and I thought it might be to some readers, too..

MBB: {SNIP} On the subject of starting a new job...I always say when a manager starts a new job, it’s critical to have some serious achievements right away. There are some GMs, Doug Melvin and Bill Bavasi for a couple of examples, who view themselves more as stewards, less inclined to tear things up than I usually advocate for my (non-baseball) clients. When you took the GM promotion with the Rangers, you were quoted as saying something like “we’re going to do many different things”. I don’t know if the reporter munged the quote…if perhaps you had said “we are going to do some things differently”. When you took the promotion, had you already developed ideas on which you had wanted to execute?

JD: I did have a few things…but first, I want to say, I’d take that first press conference with a grain of salt.

A quick chronology for you.

Season ends on a Sunday. We have a staff meeting with ownership on Monday. John (Hart), Buck (Showalter), me, one or two guys from the staff, Tom Hicks and his son Tommy, who’s involved in the business. We go over a lot of things – I’d prepared a good amount of information for the meeting. And John throughout the meeting is constantly deferring to me. A couple weeks back John had told me he was going to come back for another year. We get up and we go to leave and John take my hand and says, “hell of a job today”. A little differently than usual. So I leave, fight through traffic, get back to the office about 6 o’clock. And I have a 7 a.m. flight to the Dominican Tuesday morning, and I have an e-mail message from Tom Hicks saying please call me when you get back to the office. He doesn’t usually do that, but he has contacted me directly before.

So I call Tom, and he says, “Jon, what do you have planned for tomorrow,” and I told him about my trip to the Dominican…we were working on opening a new academy there and I’m overseeing the project. He said, “I’d like for you to cancel your flight and come to the office tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.” When the owner tells you to cancel, you cancel. I said, “No problem. Is there anything I can prepare?” and he said, “Just be prepared to talk about the future direction of the franchise”.

So I called John, and I asked him what was going on, and John said, “When you left, I went in to tell him I was going to step down and I recommended to him that you get the job.” It’s now 8 p.m., I call my wife and tell her I’m not going to be home, that I’ve got some preparing to do. Including thinking “am I ready?” You may get one shot at this…do you want to blow it? Or, you may never get another shot at it.

Prepare. Don’t sleep much that night. Walk the dog at about 4 in the morning. Go into Tom’s office at 10. And at 11:30, he’s extending his hand to me and offering me the job. About 45 minutes into the meeting the questions stop being “If you were to get the job what would you do,” and the tense changes to What are we going to do? How are we going to handle this situation?” Offers me the job. At 12:30, we have lunch. At 1:30 we call a press conference, and at 5 o’clock, we’re in front of the cameras. 
There wasn’t a lot of time for me to prepare my thoughts.

MBB: So the things you had in your toolbox you thought you might introduce, what have you done, what have you put off that you may or may not do, and what were the ideas you had planned on acting on that you decided not to?

JD: I think that there are two global or philosophical changes things that I have really tried to introduce. The first is I’ve tried to gear the organization more towards pitching – that’s more a result-oriented, tangible difference.

The other one is something I did in response to the fact that the organization had become too fragmented. I think in the previous six years, I’m the 3rd GM since Doug (Melvin), Ron (Washington) is the 4th manager, we’ve had four scouting directors and four farm directors. That’s way too much change. And we talk all the time about success being the result of stability and ability. We didn’t have the first, and the other was lacking because of it.

So we had our first organizational meetings this past off-season…the first, I think, since Doug left…seven years. 

MBB: Wow. That long?

JD: Yes…as a whole organization. We’d had met as departments.

MBB: So the organization-wide meeting…that was your initiative?

JD: Yes.

One of the things I want to do is create more of a family atmosphere. Yes, accountability, and goals and deadlines. But…we’ve done a lot of little things. The front office, we write little cards to everybody on their birthday on their kids and wives birthdays, their anniversaries, Mother’s Day. Here…here’s an example of the kind of letter we’re sending out….we’re looking to build that kind of ethic.

{he let me take a minute to read the letter}

On the field, the Rangers had tried, and failed to get back into the playoffs, as an offensively-driven team in an offensively-lush home ballpark. (Though it's important to note, Don Malcolm realized the offensive-boosting park has at times actually -- pre-Daniels -- fooled the team into thinking its offense was better than it actually was and undervalued its current pitching.) Daniels has made a commitment to try the other side of the equation. 

Off the major league team's field, the Texas Rangers had become a quaquaversal organization, radiating out in all directions simultaneously: geographically, departmentally, and as a result, socially, too. 

This Diseconomy of Scale is near-universal in large organizations beyond baseball. As the size increases, the likelihood of quaquaversality increases, the Scylla and Charbydris of Us-Them-ism and lack of coordination increases. How can you maintain the mission, support goals, keep generating objectives in harmony as this happens?

Conscious effort applied to connecting people and methods across the organization, showing each individual how they matter and how other individuals they don't yet know matter. Every organization is going to need its own plan for the creating a centripetal force to hold counteract the Diseconomy of Scale as best they can. Daniels' initiatives here make excellent sense, and we'll pick up more of them in the next part of this interview, in a subsequent entry.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Overlooking Roger Clemens:
Dave Kurlan Takes Sales Management to Task for Frelling Up Their Metrics  

My compañero Dave "Doctor K" Kurlan (author of the insightful/useful baseball-themed sales "how-to" book Baseline Selling), has written a cool entry on his blog, Baseball and Sales Management by the Numbers about how sales stats too often are like ERA is in baseball -- providing an incomplete or even highly inaccurate indication of the effectiveness of individual sales staffers.

I believe one of the least consistent, and most misleading statistics in Baseball is ERA or Earned Run Average; the number of earned runs a pitcher allows per nine innings pitched. {SNIP}

For example, during his final years in Boston, Roger Clemens was virtually unhittable for 5-6 innings each time he pitched but gave up a lot of his runs in the 7th and 8th inning. With a stronger, more reliable bullpen, Clemens would have been out of the game after six so his ERA for those years was higher by perhaps a run or two because of the lack of a bullpen.

{SNIP}Sparky Anderson, manager of the Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in the seventies, and later, the Detroit Tigers, was known for his quick hook. Grady Little, famous for leaving Pedro Martinez in for one batter too many in the 2003 American League Championship Series, had a tendency to leave pitchers in longer than he should. I'm guessing (without statistical backup) that pitchers under Anderson had a lower ERA than pitchers under Little.

Turning to sales, there are a number of statistics that are equally difficult to equate with performance, the most obvious being revenue. Many salespeople, considered top producers by their companies, top the charts for revenue but don't perform in such a manner as to justify the attention, rewards or commissions that they earn. They may have inherited their accounts, built them up over decades, or have the best territory. For many of them, if you took those accounts away and directed them to go out and sell something, many of them would fall flat on their faces.

Great point Dr. K. I can't add anything important to what's in his full post -- go read it in full. It transcends sales stats, by the way -- Kurlan's description of metrics without context (ERA among them), applies to any performance measurement model. My own essay on the limitations of metrics such as ERA appeared in two parts: an October '03 essay here and another reference here (warning: the graphics they linked to are no longer on the web -- you can see most of them by right-click copying the link references and then going through the Internet Wayback Archive at http://web.archive.org, pasting those copied addresses into Wayback's search box.

I'd like to elaborate a little on his Clemens assertion. He was working from memory. I get to work from Sean Forman's magnificent Play Index, a breathtakingly useful research tool added to his (already best single www research site in any discipline) Baseball-Reference.Com. My memory was a little different, and we were both right -- a good example of what happens when two numerate people look at the same data.

Clemens' last year in Boston was 1996. Was he unhittable for 5 or 6 innings but not after?

By Inning, 1996
 Split         G   PA   AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG   OPS  BAbip tOPS+ 
 Innings 1-3   34  425  378  40  86 19  2  8  42 107  .228  .307  .352  .659  .294    95 
 Innings 4-6   34  418  370  39  84 14  2  7  42 100  .227  .307  .332  .639  .289    90 
 Innings 7-9   27  189  163  20  46  6  3  4  22  50  .282  .364  .429  .793  .378   135 

Wow. How's that for a smart fan's memory. Use the right-hand column, tOPS+, as an indicator...this metric normalizes to 100 Clemens' 1996 composite performance, with a 95 for example, meaning 5% better than his composite and 135 meaning 35% less effective at stopping offense. He was a different pitcher in innings 6-9, not terrible certainly (look at his BA, OBP and SLG), but not good either. As Dr. K notes, his manager Kevin Kennedy should have had him on a short leash after 6 innings...at least if you look at this chart.

But let me give you another table for Clemens' 1996.

By Inning, 1996
 Split         G   PA   AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG   OPS  BAbip tOPS+ 
 1st inning    34  134  116   5  21  5  0  0  18  35  .181  .291  .224  .515  .259    54 
 2nd inning    34  148  138  18  35  6  2  6   8  39  .254  .299  .457  .756  .312   122 
 3rd inning    34  143  124  17  30  8  0  2  16  33  .242  .329  .355  .684  .308   103 
 4th inning    34  160  138  23  39  3  0  4  20  38  .283  .375  .391  .766  .361   127 
 5th inning    33  137  121  13  27  7  2  1  13  28  .223  .294  .339  .633  .277    87 
 6th inning    32  121  111   3  18  4  0  2   9  34  .162  .231  .252  .483  .213    43 
 7th inning    27  103   87   8  19  2  0  2  13  28  .218  .317  .310  .627  .293    87 
 8th inning    16   63   54  10  19  2  2  2   8  16  .352  .429  .574 1.003  .459   196 
 9th inning     5   23   22   2   8  2  1  0   1   6  .364  .391  .545  .936  .500   176 

On closer examination of tOPS+, you'll notice he actually was pretty good in the 7th, 13% better than his composite "norm". Compared to the lights-out extra-crunchewy 6th-inning performance though, it's a shear off that then tanks in the 8th and 9th innings. I think Dr. K might have blended together 1995 with 1996. Look at Clemens' numbers for the truncated-to-144-games season.

By Inning, 1995
 Split         G   PA   AB   R   H  2B 3B HR  BB  SO   BA   OBP   SLG   OPS  BAbip tOPS+ 
 Innings 1-3   23  300  265  40  69 11  2  5  25  72  .260  .340  .374  .714  .337    93 
 Innings 4-6   22  255  222  24  55  9  0  9  25  48  .248  .336  .410  .746  .277   101 
 Innings 7-9   12   68   57   5  17  4  0  1  10  12  .298  .412  .421  .833  .364   126 

 1st inning    23   94   84   9  17  3  1  1   7  23  .202  .287  .298  .585  .267    59 
 2nd inning    23   97   85  14  20  2  0  2   8  20  .235  .320  .329  .649  .281    76 
 3rd inning    22  109   96  17  32  6  1  2  10  29  .333  .404  .479  .883  .455   139 
 4th inning    22   92   81   6  17  2  0  2   9  20  .210  .304  .309  .613  .254    66 
 5th inning    22   98   83  15  25  3  0  7   9  13  .301  .385  .590  .975  .281   161 
 6th inning    18   65   58   3  13  4  0  0   7  15  .224  .308  .293  .601  .302    64 
 7th inning    12   47   39   4  10  3  0  1   7   8  .256  .383  .410  .793  .300   115 
 8th inning     6   21   18   1   7  1  0  0   3   4  .389  .476  .444  .920  .500   150 

In that previous season, The Rocket really was pretty poor in 7th and 8th innings, and his red glare burned out pretty markedly -- so much so that he couldn't (or perhaps just didn't) appear in a single one of his 23 games' 9th innings. In 1997, pitching for Toronto, his pattern returned to his 1994 and previous pattern -- pretty consistently great across innings.

Consistency is a necessary ingredient for most organizations' success. But most organizations overstate the value of highly context-sensitive measures without taking context into consideration won't achieve consistency & will only be able to succeed with lot of luck. Dr. K knows that, and you should listen to him.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Jon Daniels - Part II: Rangers' GM Gives
a Lesson in Resource Management  

In a recent entry, I started covering the conversation Texas Rangers' general manager Jon Daniels had with me in March. In this segment (more to follow later), Daniels talks about the making of decisions. Specifically the interplay of managing resources, here an apparent excess capacity of good relief arms.

Most managers beyond baseball have a hard time knowing what to do with excess capacity, especially how to choose among what look to be equal options. I asked Daniels about what he might do to resolve the apparent surplus.

MBB: Let me get away from a chronological approach here for a bit.

There was a story recently about relief pitching. Apparently you have this bullpen that other people think is strong enough that you should be trading some of those arms. And your response was something like, “We’re keeping an inventory of others’ interest”. 
So I’d like to get your insights on decision-making in general from this example. If the time comes that you’re going to trade, how will you go about deciding who in your bullpen you are most open to trading?

There seem to be a number of possible ways to anchor a decision. You want to keep the widest range of “looks”; last year you seemed to have a wide number of looks out of your pen. Choosing who you keep or let go might be based on pure ability…who’s the “best”. There’s who might offer you the best return. Or would you base it on what you can get back. Or something I haven’t thought of.

JD: It’s a little bit of all of the above. That might seem like a cop-out.

MBB: Do you try to anchor it on something though?

JD: It’s really a balance of two factors. It’s building the best bullpen we can right now, and measuring what the return is, even if that means giving up one of your seven best guys. 

After my experiences in the last couple of years – I think in this game, we have a tendency to overthink sometimes – I do anyway, try to get too cute. Will I consider trying to do something with one of our best seven guys? Sure. I’ll never just say “no” to any offer – I’ve got to consider everything, weigh all our options. At the same time, I put a lot more emphasis on putting our best club out there, protect our depth. We do have some guys with options. It’s inevitable we’ll need more than the seven relievers we have right now. I’ll put more emphasis on our own needs. Unless the return for one of our best seven is overwhelming to the point where it’s a deal you couldn’t turn down.

So Daniels' model (which should be your own, too, in most cases) he's going to balance the present against the future. He gives a slight extra nod to the present "I put a lot more emphasis on putting our best club out there", but without ignoring the future "It’s inevitable we’ll need more than the seven relievers we have right now". But this is not an absolute. If Daniels gets a return he couldn't ever match with present value, he'd go for the "overwhelming" return.

The balance of present against future is specific to the 2007 Rangers, and for them, today is a little more important, But as with all baseball organizations, both are taken into consideration -- you have to win today, and you have to win in the future..

At the same time he knows, he's prepared himself for the idea, that in spite of his initial setting (leaning towards the present against the future) there's some level of return at which , because if its magnitude, he can shift his balance to garner the better part of a deal.

Beyond Baseball you should internalise this Daniels method. 

Balance the present and the future...you have to win today and win tomorrow. Know if your organization/workgroup needs to emphasize one a little more than the other in the current context. Be prepared to be flexible, to slide along the now/future spectrum if an opportunity that's so juicy comes along it just outweighs your current balance objective.

Balance, flexibility, flexibility. Channel Daniels for an edge.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

An Athletics Lesson:
When Good News Makes Things Harder  

Wisdom is knowing what to ignore.
-- paraphrased from William James.

Much of a manager's success in, and beyond, Baseball will derive not, as many pundits want you to believe, "leadership" (as vaporous and not-reproducable attribute as exists in human endeavors), but on the mechanics of decisionmaking. It's not that "leadership" doesn't exist, nor that whatever magick it derives from, it doesn't affect outcomes. But consistently good decisionmaking combined with so-so "leadership" will beat good "leadership" with so-so decisionmaking far more often than not.

One of the keys of decisionmaking is eliminating (without ignoring) variables from the equations of the decision. Sometimes a course of action is quite obvious: if, for example, you have an ace pitcher like Roy Halladay coming off the disabled list, you're going to make room for him to start. If, for example, your 25th player is a back-up 3rd baseman and pinch runner who, like Jason Smith, is hitting and slugging .182-for-May, and that's not far out of line with his career numbers, you'll drop him to take a chance on someone who might prove to have more utility. These are extreme cases, easy decisions beyond telling Smith in a humane way he's been cut.

The farther you get away from the extremes and the closer to the middle, the harder it gets.

Take this beautiful conundrum the Oakland Athletics face with the return from injuries of two of the three outfielders they had penciled in at the beginning of the season as starters: Mark Kotsay and Milton "Game Boy" Bradley. While they welcome back these two important players (Bradley=VERY important, Kotsay seen as their most competent CF, though statistics argue he's ordinary), they are already a overstocked with good-not-killer talent to fill outfield spots, first base and designated hitter. Rookie manager Bob Geren was already trying to figure out who the odd man out was going to be any given day based on no overwhelmingly sure choices either to use or bench.

Here's SF Gate's Rusty Simmons' take on the issue:

First-year manager Bob Geren has kept the A's hovering around .500 and alive in the American League West race despite using a patchwork lineup, rotation and bullpen for much of the season.

By the end of the week, he'll have a whole new problem.

When outfielders Milton Bradley (hamstring), who threw down his bat after a batting-practice homer Tuesday to signify he's ready to return today, and Mark Kotsay (back surgery), who is expected back Friday, rejoin the lineup, Oakland will have more than a full complement of guys fighting for at-bats.

"I don't have an answer," Geren said. "I'm thinking about that often. Different lineups, different batting orders."  Bradley and Kotsay will be competing with Travis Buck, Jack Cust, Dan Johnson, Shannon Stewart and Nick Swisher for five spots, including first base and designated hitter. Geren said he'll work Bradley and Kotsay back into the lineup slowly, giving them ample time off to avoid aggravating their injuries, but he also warned against the assumption that the designated-hitter at-bats will be used as days of rest.

Cust, who burst onto the scene with game-winners among his eight homers this month, recently had an 0-for-17 stint. "You can't assume that he's going to continue to cool off," Geren said. Buck went into Tuesday's game hitting .348 in May; Johnson is hitting .323 with five homers in the month; Stewart has hit safely in seven of the last eight games, and Swisher might have found a home in the No. 3 spot.

Geren finally settled on this: "When you add players of that caliber, it's great for the Oakland A's."

No one is a Vladimir Guererro you have to pencil in every day, but neither is anyone a Willie Bloomquist you weep about benching. Two of these players, Cust and Dan Johnson, are young in major league service and have struggled during regular-season appearances, but both had hot streaks during the season that floated the team for a while. Buck is only 23 years old, still learning, and still had an eight-game streak this year where he had a .485 OBA and .655 slugging percentage. There's a good case to make that Nick Swisher is the team's star this season and he's still maturing, so  the manager pretty much has to pencil him in and that cuts 5 available spots by 20%. Stewart has a career as a reliable, fairly consistent contributor, and was producing around .300 batting average .400 on base percentage for the prior 30 games. And while Bradley is not quite as consistent a veteran as Stewart, the apex of his peak performance is higher.

A lot of very decent choices, the possibility of catching lightning in a bottle (or not) in a few less-experienced people, the chance to pencil in stable, predictable positive adequacy in others. You might expect Geren, especially in his first major league manager position, to dither or stall, but it's not likely. In Baseball, not acting is not just usually fatal, everyone frowns on it. Allowing circumstances to make decisions for you, or picking a slip of paper out of hat is dissed as the absurdity it truly is.

How a Baseball manager or general manager solves this good but complex challenge is an example you can model yourself when there's no slam-dunk choice. I built this example around a personnel issue, but almost any decision  around a challenge benefits from these guidelines.

0. Clarify your goals.
1. Break the problem into reasonable pieces.
2. Simplify if you can
3. Commit to a course of action that allows for contingency responses.
4. Act

The goal in this case is to win now while building for the future.

Break the list into three pieces. The veterans are Kotsay, Bradley and Stewart. The current star/potentially more is Swisher. The promising-but-speculative are Buck, Cust and Johnson. 

Simplify. There's and easy choice to start with...Swisher needs to be penciled in as a corner outfielder any day he's not injured or too tired. 

Who's going to play the most important skill position in this pile, center-field? Probably not Swisher,  but guess what, none of the other choices get a pass here either. None of the young players seem promising for that spot, Kotsay and Bradley have played it the most, Kotsay with a little better success there a few years ago, but Bradley has more offensive value. If you consider Swisher a more than adequate defender you lean towards complementing him with a better-fielding neighbor, and (the A's re-learned this the hard way during the early Moneyball years) if he's below-average, you probably want a better defender next to him to cover his weakness and avoid stacking like weaknesses next to each other.

Now we're down to three decisions: the other corner outfield spot, first base and DH. If this was September and you were either out of contention or sporting a big lead, you might use all three promising-but-speculative choices, buying knowledge and experience building for future returns in exchange for current potential wins. But in the general case, you undermine your chances of winning today, so you pick a couple to keep on the roster and send one down using your best judgment in how each can change your future for the better if they get additional major league (or minor league) exposure.

That leaves one spot and two leftover veterans. Maybe a close choice, ergo "tough", but just a single one left, therefore more tractable. You might try to keep both on the roster and use the more versatile one in a bench role. A rookie manager is unlikely to embrace the added complexity of such a choice. More often than not, one of the veterans gets traded or cut.

Whatever you choose to do, though, you have to act on it, commit to it until you can see it's not going to work or that you have a better alternative worth the cost of shifting to.

The ceiling imposed on roster size leads to sharp self-discipline...a difference between Baseball and the world beyond is Baseball franchises find it very difficult to overstaff. But that Baseball self-discipline is something one can apply in any field, and it has positive results when you're growing or when you're shrinking.

When organizations are growing, especially when they are growing quickly, it's easy to gloss over the life-and-death criticality of every hiring decision. The Talent IS The Product in any competitive endeavor that expects to thrive in the current environment and to survive into the next, but most organizations persistently underweight the importance of hiring.

When the organization is shrinking, the manager has to balance immediate utility against overall quality (quite parallel to Geren's reliable veterans versus less-known young talent -- an omnipresent artifact of Baseball's [and your own] need to both win now and concurrently build for the future). Especially in big organizations, layoffs are usually targeted by departmental function, not by the caliber of the individuals in all departments. An organization with a healthy view of using talent will use a "downsizing event" to purge roster plaque -- people who because of learning limitations or anti-productive attitude -- from even needed functions, and redeploy excellent performers in targeted functions to take their place, following baseball teams' practice of re-training people who play a position at which they have a surplus of quality so they can try to make use of their qualities at a different position. It's a lot of work, but you get a roster with more talent on it and better morale (effective staff almost always hate it when effective co-workers are let go and people who are a waste of desk space get retained) and being given more incentive to perform well (because it sends the message that if there are more problems, individual productivity will be a decision factor.

Not all challenges are bad ones. Some are win-win-win-win-win-win, like this one. But since whatever doesn't make you stronger kills you, it's makes unrelenting sense to pursue the best decisions you can. The A's have a very good recent history doing this, and if you follow their example, you can, too.

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