Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Looking at the Rumored GM Candidates: Gerry Hunsicker

Gordon Edes of Yahoo! Sports reports that the Nats have interviewed Gerry Hunsicker, Jerry DiPoto, Jed Hoyer, and Chuck LaMar for the GM post. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reported some sort of mish-mosh about Dipoto being the leading candidate . . . No, Hoyer . . . erm . . . maybe Rizzo after all? Chico Harlan says the GM search has narrowed to Hoyer, Dipoto, and Rizzo and that word might come sometime after the August 17 draft signing deadline.

Over the next few days I'm going to see if I can't come up with something interesting to say about these four guys, hopefully before I'm overtaken by events. Today: Gerry Hunsicker.

Close your eyes and think of a baseball executive. Through a process of player development, good trades, and some judicious free agent signings, this executive led his mid-market team to a streak of postseason appearances, including the World Series. During his tenure, the team compiled one of the best winning percentages in baseball. In addition, this executive also shepherded the team's move from an outdated multiuse cookie-cutter stadium to a modern, baseball-only ballpark. One more thing -- the name of this executive's former team begins with the letter A.

You were thinking of Stan Kasten, weren't you? Wrong. The executive is Gerry Hunsicker.

Looking at the facts above, it's not hard to imagine that Hunsicker could be Kasten's ideal candidate. Hunsicker's reputation for success, not only with the mid-market Astros, but also with the small-market Rays, presumably also makes him attractive to the Lerners.

Kasten looks at Hunsicker and probably sees an experienced former GM who achieved success while navigating a sometimes-contentious relationship with his billionaire owner. This sounds familiar to Nats fans, too.

Hunsicker's time with the Astros (1996-2004) was an almost (we'll come to that later) unqualified success. His draft picks were successful enough to develop into a cheap, homegrown core that made significant contributions to the Astros winning teams of 2001-2005 (Richard Hidalgo, Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg, Roy Oswalt, Jason Lane, Wade Miller, Brad Lidge, Adam Everett). He also made good trades that improved the Astros without bankrupting the minors (Randy Johnson, Moises Alou, Octavio Dotel, Carlos Beltran, Jose Lima, Carl Everett) and signed some expensive free agents to fill in gaps on the roster (Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Jeff Kent).

So, Hunsicker's great, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, he made a lot of really good moves. But he also made some expensive mistakes. And Drayton McLane was a different kind of billionaire from Ted Lerner.

Hunsicker's biggest obvious mistakes were the heavily backloaded contracts he gave to Jeff Bagwell and Hidalgo. Swayed by his outsize 2000 performance, in 2001 Hunsicker signed a 26 year-old Hidalgo to a $45m/4 year extension (with a $15m team option for 2005 and a $2m buyout), after which he never put up the same numbers and spent some time on the DL before being unceremoniously traded to the Mets for a couple of relief pitchers and a promise to pay a significant part of the freight on what was left of the contract. Hunsicker made a large gamble on the assumption that Hidalgo's 2000 season represented the center fielder's transformation from very good player into Willie Mays. Except for 2003, the contract was a disaster for the Astros.

In 2000, Hunsicker signed a 32-year-old Bagwell to a 5-year extension starting in 2002 worth $85m, with a 2007 team option for $17m ($7m buyout). If Hidalgo's contract was merely a disaster, Bagwell's contract was the Titanic. It started with good intentions and happy quotes and ended with an injured player insisting he could play, a team trying to keep him off the field in order to preserve an insurance claim, and a lawsuit. Sure, Bagwell was a fan favorite and one of the best players in the game -- but the backloading . . . the backloading! The contract wasn't even going to start until Bagwell was 34. And did Hunsicker really think Bagwell was going to be worth $17m at age 39? Not to mention that the team's financial obligations to Bagwell (and, to a lesser extent, Hidalgo) made it difficult for the Astros' to compete for free agents. When talking about all the things that were wrong with the contract Hunsicker gave to Bagwell, it's not where to begin, but where to stop.

Part of the blame can probably be laid at the feet of Drayton McLane, a freespending owner who continues to throw money at overpriced free agents (Carlos Lee, Kaz Matsui) while screaming that baseball needs a salary cap. Luckily for Hunsicker, holding back an owner who insists on overpaying for players isn't something he'll have to worry about in DC.

Hunsicker resigned as Houston's GM in 2004 and became Senior VP of Baseball Operations for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2005. He serves as Tampa Bay GM Andrew Friedman's top adviser and likely has a hand in any baseball decision the Rays make. To me, it looks like Hunsicker is a baseball-lifer counterpart to the non-traditional Freidman, who worked in private equity before joining the Rays in 2004. He's not the GM, but it seems like Hunsicker has made a successful transition from working for Moneybags McLane to thinking creatively about how to win with a team that can't afford big-name free agents.

Hunsicker comes from a traditional scouting background, but he's comfortable with newer analytical methods of roster construction. He has a track record of success with the amateur draft and international signings, but he also knows how to use trades and free agent signings to complement those homegrown players. He's shown he knows how to build a team whether the owners are spendthrifts or parsimonious.

Kasten probably appreciates that Hunsicker might be another voice telling the Lerners to just listen to Stan, he knows how baseball works.

The Lerners probably appreciate that hiring Hunsicker would be a sign that they get it. They've made some mistakes as owners, but Hunsicker shows they're serious about winning. And hopefully Hunsicker won't be too independently minded or be a"handful to work with" like the Sage of the Senators hears.

Nats fans would probably be happy, too.1

1 OK, maybe it is true that Hunsicker turned down the job. But hey, that guy's been wrong before.

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