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Every General Manager's Biggest Fear? Uncertainty

Call it luck, chance, happenstance or fortune. It's what drives GM's like Ed Wade to pay for Bill Hall to play second base.

Do you know what (probably) keeps GM's like Ed Wade up at night?


Good luck. Bad luck. Injuries. It's all a roll of the dice and it's not something anyone in the front office of a big league club can control. The difference between getting an extension and getting fired is dealing with the vagaries of luck.

That's why so many GM's choose to find whatever certainty they can in an uncertain game. That's why you'll see them choose a veteran over a rookie in most cases and why they used to trade for veterans and give up prospects more readily. Now, the certainty lies with the rookies, but it's a cost certainty instead of a performance certainty.

Building a major league baseball team is a weird bit of alchemy. Look at the different styles that have succeeded in the past two decades. Teams can be built by buying players in free agency (the Yankees), making trades to focus on defense and pitching (Boston in 2004), trying to find market inefficiencies (Oakland) or building through the farm system (Tampa Bay). Some teams win by bringing in veteran hitters around a promising, young rotation (San Francisco) while others...well, I'm not really sure what to call Texas. All of them had different means for constructing their rosters, but they got similar results.

However, not every team who tries to pattern themselves on others wins big. Look at Kansas City. They've been trying to win big with prospects, but have yet to have a winning season since the early 90s. Look at pre-Daniels Texas. They tried to win with John Hart's Cleveland formula from the mid-90s and couldn't do it. Look at the Dodgers or Cubs. All the money in the world hasn't helped either of those franchises get to the World Series lately.

That's why GMs will err on the devil they know so often. A player with major league experience is preferable to a guy with only minor league time simply because it's easier to predict what the major league will do next season. That even goes for big leaguers who may not have as high a ceiling as a minor league guy, but they have a track record.

Take the Astros' recent catching search in the wake of Jason Castro's knee injury. It may look like they are turning over every rock to avoid giving J.R. Towles the starting job. But, the guys they are talking about (Jesus Flores, Drew Butera) have more big-league plate appearances than J.R. Their performance, both with a pitching staff and on defense, is easier to project.

That doesn't mean a team won't take a chance to start Brett Wallace at first base and see what he can do. It means that they won't start Brett Wallace, J.R. Towles, Tommy Manzella and Angel Sanchez all on the same infield. So, Wade goes out and gets Bill Hall and Clint Barmes, to reduce his uncertainty around the diamond. He's reasonably sure those two will provide what he needs (Hall=power, Barmes=defense).

That's also why he's able to give up on a player like Felipe Paulino, who may have good stuff, but his inconsistent performance in the majors and injury history make him a wild card. Clint Barmes isn't a wild card, he's a known quantity. He's not going to hit much, but may have some pop in his bat and he's going to play excellent defense. To Wade, that (relative) certainty is worth giving up a riskier player like Paulino.

That's why you shouldn't be surprised someone like J.D. Martinez was in the first round of cuts from big league camp. Would he (or J.B. Shuck or T.J. Steele) do a better job than Jason Michaels for the 2011 Astros? There is a good possibility he would. However, there is a pretty glaring chance that he won't. What if Wade gambles on a Martinez to be that fourth outfielder, or to get starts if Lee goes down with an injury and Martinez hits under .200. His job is not only on the line, but that of Brad Mills and Brad Arnsberg and Mike Barnett.

It's easy for us to sit back and call for a guy to get more playing time because of his minor league numbers or his scouting reports. It's another thing entirely to make that call when you're job is on the line In that respect, being a big league GM is similar to being a stock broker. You have some guys who manage retirement portfolios that make a fixed earning each year, despite never experiencing great results. That's what a guy like Brian Sabean does, settling on known quantities (veterans) and hoping to hit a home run. The mavericks, the ones who play in the derivatives markets and fueled a subprime mortgage bubble are the GM's who go big and go home. Think Theo Epstein or Brian Cashman. The problem with that strategy is it has to have money backing it to work. Without the money, those guys turn into Steve Phillips awful quick.

I don't actually like this philosophy. With the probable outcome of this particular Astros team, I think Wade should have played all the rookie he can, to see if they will be a part of the future successful teams. I may not like the strategy he chose, which lies somewhere between that and totally ignoring rebuilding, but I can understand why he did it. My biggest hope now is that uncertainty keeps Jordan Lyles in the minors for just a bit more.

Images by eflon used in background images under a Creative Commons license. Thank you.