The ink had barely dried on the Los Angeles Angels’ 2020 season record of 26-34 when the team fired general manager Billy Eppler Sunday. It was their fifth consecutive losing season and sixth since they last made the playoffs.
Asked why the Angels had let Eppler go after extending his contract for a year this past July, club president John Carpino said during a video call Wednesday that it was all about winning.
“At the end of the day it was a business decision,” Carpino said. “We’re in the business of winning baseball games, and we just didn’t win enough over the five-year period.”
Eppler was an assistant general manager to Brian Cashman with the New York Yankees when he was hired to replace Jerry Dipoto after the 2015 season. Eppler’s failure is a good example of how relatively inexperienced heads of baseball operations in MLB aren’t working out. Mike Hazen of the Arizona Diamondbacks, A.J. Preller of the San Diego Padres, Farhan Zaidi of the San Francisco Giants, Chaim Bloom of the Boston Red Sox, and Matt Klentak of the Philadelphia Phillies have all struggled to find a consistent winning formula.
And for the fourth time in a decade, the Angels are in search of a new general manager. Owner Arte Moreno, who’s worth $3.3 billion, has gutted scouting and baseball ops during the sport’s severe revenue shortfall this pandemic-shortened, fan-less season. Under his watch since 2003, the Angels haven’t hired anyone with previous general managing experience.
Eppler, Dipoto and their predecessor Tony Reagins had never done the head job before. They were hired and fired with Moreno’s direct involvement, which raises the question of whether he’s going to take that route again.
“Experience is one factor,” Carpino said.
It’s not as if experience is in short supply, with such veteran baseball men as Dave Dombrowski and Tony La Russa currently on the market. La Russa was a consultant under Eppler and is still with the organization. The Hall of Fame manager is close to Dombrowski, who hired him as a consultant in Boston where the duo combined to win the 2018 World Series. Dombrowski was fired as head of baseball ops when the Red Sox didn’t make the playoffs in 2019. They replaced him with Bloom, the No. 2 guy in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, as Boston plummeted to a 24-36 record this season, third-worst in the Majors. La Russa went to the Angels.
For now, Carpino would only commit to La Russa aiding in the hiring process, along with another former Angels general manager, Bill Stoneman. Stoneman helped build the team that defeated the Giants in a 2002 seven-game World Series, the only Fall Classic the Angels have played in during their 59-year history.
The job turnover appears unrelated to the trend toward analytics and Ivy league educations rather than a baseball and scouting background. The question of inexperience is the issue, with most owners having neither the time and patience to weather development, nor the “S” curve from failure to success and back again all GMs deal with.
Other teams have had positive results using the old school approach no matter what the philosophy. After Tom Ricketts bought the Chicago Cubs in 2009, he pried Theo Epstein away from the Red Sox to rebuild the club and turned over autonomous leadership of baseball ops to the man who helped break the Curse of the Bambino as the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007. Just like he did in Boston, Epstein brought relief to the long-starved fans in the Windy City when, in 2016, the Cubs came from behind to defeat the Cleveland Indians in seven games and win their first World Series in 108 years.
One of the keys to taking Chicago over the top was Epstein hiring veteran Joe Maddon to manage the club. The relationship lasted five years.
“A five-year shelf life there is almost equivalent to 10 years somewhere else,” Maddon, the current Angels manager, said this past spring. “At the end of day, man, there’s nothing to lament there. That was the most successful five years the Cubs ever had.”
Maddon is Moreno’s third manager in the past three seasons and will have to work with his second GM.
In Miami, When Bruce Sherman and Derek Jeter bought the Marlins for $1.2 billion after the 2017 season, Jeter, as the new chief executive, had the option of cleaning house and putting in his own people. He instead chose to stick with Michael Hill, an executive with 27 years of experience in the organization, as president of baseball operations. Instead, Jeter brought in Gary Denbo from the Yankees as vice president of scouting and player development below Hill. The combination currently has the Marlins in the playoffs during the group’s third season working together.
“Mike’s done a great job,” Jeter said earlier this week. “I wanted to build an entire baseball operations department. I wanted to layer a great department below him.”
Jeter had a blueprint to follow. He spent his 20-year Hall of Fame playing career at shortstop in the Yankees organization, the last 16 under Cashman, who became general manager in 1998 at age 30, second only to Epstein as the MLB’s youngest-ever GM. Cashman had been assistant to his predecessor Bob Watson, but inherited a team so talented under Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre that he just needed to work around the fringes. At the time of Cashman’s promotion, the Yankees were in the middle of a run that would result in three consecutive World Series titles and four in five years. Like Hill, Cashman worked at all levels of the Yanks’ baseball ops and knew the organization inside out.
During his entire career in New York, Jeter played for only two general managers and two managers, Torre and Joe Girardi. Aaron Boone is only the third manager since Cashman took over. Although the Yankees haven’t won the World Series since 2009, they have missed the playoffs only four times in Cashman’s tenure and are about to embark on another American League Division Series Monday in San Diego against the Rays. That’s continuity.
“I’ve always been asked the question: Does the culture come first, or does winning come first and then the culture?” Jeter said. “In my mind, everyone has to have a winning mindset. And that’s what I’ve been preaching with our [Marlins] group since Day 1 when I took over. You have a chance to win every day. People thought I was crazy when I said it.”
That’s what Moreno has to consider as he embarks on yet another GM search. Like the late George Steinbrenner when he owned the Yankees, Moreno has a reputation for hands on management.
On the field, he has some big pieces in place: Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon for the long term, the often-injured Shohei Ohtani under control, and Albert Pujols, at nearly 41, heading into the final season of his 10-year, $240 million contract.
Moreno is not going to disengage. But he needs a strong, experienced voice to develop a currently non-existent winning culture.
“I really believe that if you’re owner of a business making that type of investment, you want to see some return on that investment,” Carpino said. “The return Arte is looking for is wins. That’s all he’s looking for. He loves the game of baseball and he loves this team. And he wants to deliver a championship. That’s the goal and he wants to be part of the process.”