Posted: Wednesday July 13, 2011 4:18PM ; Updated: Wednesday July 13, 2011 4:20PM
Will Carroll
Will Carroll>INSIDE FANTASY

Ten front office assistants in line to become MLB general managers

Story Highlights

White Sox assistant GM Rick Hahn may be the most coveted GM candidate in MLB

Damon Oppenheimer's age, role with Yankees might make it hard for him to leave

Mike Chernoff has impressed many as future GM in his work with Mets and Indians

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Assistsnt GM Rick Hahn's importance to the White Sox has allowed him to be quite selective in pursuing GM jobs elsewhere.
Assistsnt GM Rick Hahn's importance to the White Sox has allowed him to be quite selective in pursuing GM jobs elsewhere.
AP

There's no shortage of lists out there about prospects. From the people that watch the games to people that only read Baseball America and guess, there are plenty of lists predicting who we'll see in the major leagues someday. What there isn't is a list about who will run the teams those prospects will play for or who will help select and develop those players. While Moneyball and the Internet have made people like Billy Beane, Theo Epstein and Jon Daniels into stars, there's still a lot of anonymity in front offices. Few fans know the Assistant GM's name or how the Director of Baseball Operations made his way into the job.

About eight years ago, just after my first intern got a job inside the game, I started looking around at the paths that others had taken to their success and tried to figure out if there were any patterns. It was the beginning of the era in which ex-players or company men would get the top job. These men (and women, increasingly) get described with words like "hard working," "detail-oriented," and "well-rounded," but those really don't tell us much. I wanted more information.

With as many as five potential openings in the next six months, there's going to be opportunities for many new faces. The ultracompetitive process often takes a number of tries as a candidate gets more experience with the process and continues to build his resume. Jack Zduriencik, now GM of the Mariners, was once thought to be "too scouty" and lacked media savvy that a GM would require. He latched on to Tony Blengino, then with the Brewers and now his AGM, to learn the stats side and worked diligently to be a better interview. He's been a solid GM in his two and a half years and a role model for those who were on my original list of new GM candidates. Getting on the list of owners and getting more interviews is key to the process.

I queried baseball executives, scouts, writers and agents, as well as SI colleagues Jon Heyman and Joe Lemire in putting together a list of what I believe would be the most likely candidates for the next general manager opening in baseball. That's not to say that there aren't other candidates that are well-qualified. As you can see at the end of the list, there were 10 other candidates mentioned by at least two people and another 20 that came up once. There are also the "usual suspects," former GMs who will likely get another chance at jobs, but I excluded them from this list, as really, we know who they are. By knowing who these people are, we'll gain valuable insight into who they might be as show runners and even some into what they're doing now for their various organizations. Most baseball fans couldn't identify Bill Smith or Mike Hill, the next generation of baseball executives won't be mysteries to us. Yes, there's a fantasy advantage to that.

1. Rick Hahn, Assistant GM, Chicago White Sox

First: Sports agent, Steinberg Moorad & Dunn
School: Michigan, Harvard Law, Kellogg MBA.
Baseball: High school
Strength: Contract negotiation
Weakness: Scouting
Quote: "[Being included] certainly is a compliment, and I do appreciate being included on these lists. But, frankly, it's not the same as the organization being cited for having one of top on-field prospects. In fact, if there was a way to trade me for Mike Trout, I'm guessing Kenny would drive me to the airport to make sure that deal goes through -- and I would understand."

The one problem with Hahn is that he might be too good at his job. The Chicagoland native has become such an integral part of the White Sox front office that it will take the perfect offer to get him to move. Many inside baseball think that Hahn's best opportunity will be to take over from Kenny Williams, though there's no indication that's going to happen soon. Hahn has interviewed for jobs in the past, but has seldom pushed for a job, furthering the thought that he's "too comfortable." Some AGM's like Hahn, David Forst in Oakland, or Chris Antonetti in Cleveland had enough autonomy and enough of a voice before moving up that moving to some jobs would be lateral. Many expected Hahn to be a stronger candidate for the Padres job a couple years ago due to his longtime connections to Padres owner Jeff Moorad, but some think it's that very association that held him back. Hahn's name is at the top of any list an owner will put together this offseason.

2. Thad Levine, Assistant GM, Texas Rangers

First: Business development with the L.A. Dodgers
School: Haverford, UCLA (MBA)
Baseball: College (Division III)
Strength: Organization
Weakness: Scouting
Quote: "Thad's a real positive for the organization. He's a huge part of everything we do. He probably doesn't get enough credit."
-- Jon Daniels, Texas GM

Sports teams tend to not be very original. They copy whatever succeeds. Right now, that's the model in place in Texas. Through savvy drafting, trading and development, the organization has turned things around under Daniels. And while Daniels is locked in with his organization, he knows that he's going to lose some of his key assistants, and actually welcomes it. The first to go will be Levine, his long-term AGM. The Rangers are actually loaded with potential future GMs -- A.J. Preller, Josh Boyd and Jake Krug are all names that came up in putting together this list -- but Levine is the most prepared, according to those who work and deal with him. While he's not naturally media savvy, Daniels has pushed him more to the forefront in the past couple seasons, allowing him to build a comfort level with the sometimes prickly Dallas media. The Texas connections might help, with Houston the likely next open slot.

3. Bobby Evans, VP of Baseball Operations, San Francisco Giants

First: Intern with Boston Red Sox scouting department
School: North Carolina
Baseball: High school
Strength: Contract negotiations
Weakness: Media savvy
Quote: "I think the most gratifying part of my job is getting to see a young player live his dream," he says. "You see a young player come through your system and work hard; you see his first call-up, his first at-bat, his first pitch  watching his dreams get fulfilled, that's the best part."

Evans has been in and around the game since 1989, including stints with the Red Sox and the commissioner's office before joining the Giants, but this is his first position in the upper echelon of management. He took over his current position before the 2009 season, and has benefited from his close work with Giants GM Brian Sabean. "I work for tremendous baseball men that have, in the case of Dick Tidrow, played the game for 16, 18 years in the big leagues, and Brian Sabean, who's currently the longest-tenured GM, so I have learned and worked for some of the best," Evans said.

His biggest weakness is that he hasn't been exposed to the media very much. Much like Zduriencik, Evans will need to make more effort, something that usually just requires practice. He's been able to let Sabean stand in front, but hopefully he's taking notes from one of the most media savvy GM's in the game.

Evans is something of a newcomer to the prospective GM lists, especially compared to people like Hahn and Kim Ng, but expect his name to start coming up more often, especially if some of the more traditional candidates start coming off this list. "Bobby's going to fit well on a more established team," said one NL GM. "A team that's not a complete rebuild, that has some established guys who he can sign long term and build around. He'd be a nice fit for the Cubs as well, if they need to try to unwind some of their contract mess."

4. Damon Oppenheimer, VP of Amateur Scouting, New York Yankees

First: Scout, San Diego Padres
School: USC
Baseball: 18th round pick of Brewers, one year minor league career
Strength: Scouting
Weakness: Ambition
Quote: "You know what, I held that World Series trophy and looked at all the teams listed over the years. Nowhere, not once, does it list team payroll. Same for a World Series ring -- I've never seen a payroll on a ring."

If you think baseball is cruel about aging players, it might be worse in front offices. Baseball may not mind hiring Jack McKeon or Davey Johnson to run a team from the dugout, but several think pushing 50 might work against Oppenheimer. He's hardly "too old," but Oppenheimer will have it work against him in what is quickly becoming a young man's job. The hours required, the time away from home and family, and the pay all conspire against the more established people. "These kids from the Ivys all come in willing to work 20 hours a day for 20 bucks a week," said one current AGM. Oppenheimer, like Hahn, is often thought to be "in waiting" -- not pushing Brian Cashman out the door, but in position to have the biggest chair in all of baseball. Leaving that, with all its advantages, for a small market team in a rebuilding mode is something many can't imagine Oppenheimer doing. "The thing you wonder," said one AL exec, "is whether he really wants the job or is willing to keep doing the job he's doing forever. He's great and he'd be a great GM, but someone's going to have to want him specifically."

5. DeJon Watson, Asst. GM, Player Development, Los Angeles Dodgers

First: Area scout, Florida Marlins
School: West L.A. Community College
Baseball: Third-round pick of Royals, five year minor league career.
Strength: Scouting
Weakness: Contract negotiation
Quote: "You just keep working hard and hoping to have an opportunity to help someone build something that's really great. That's what it's about, really being able to contribute to a winning organization."

While Watson might not have the high profile of some others on this list or the big name sheepskin on his office wall, he is well thought of and considered a "baseball lifer," a high compliment among scouts. Watson had the most extensive playing career of this group, though he never got higher than A ball. (I actually remember seeing Watson play at Baseball City.)

Watson's shift to scouting was quick and his eye for talent was better than his eye for pitches to hit. He advanced rapidly, culminating in his current position in 2007. While many credit Logan White, another Dodgers assistant GM, for much of the talent in the system, Dodgers insiders say that once Watson was given his portfolio, he's been in control. "Once Logan got the promotion, [Watson] has been focused on those duties, which broaden his resume," said the insider. "Watson definitely has his own style and is very well respected." Watson's drafts have already produced players like Clayton Kershaw and A.J. Ellis, giving him a reputation as someone with a great eye for raw talent.

Watson doesn't have the well-rounded resume of other candidates, but he might have a better shot at getting a job than White in the next five years. Both men interviewed for the Diamondbacks opening, but both lost out to Kevin Towers. "He's not going to get a job where they're looking for a stathead," said one national writer, "but if there's someone that wants an old school baseball guy with an it factor', they're going to look hard at DeJon. He's more polished that most people will expect."

6. John Coppolella, Director of Baseball Administration, Atlanta Braves

First: Assistant Director of Pro Scouting, New York Yankees
School: Notre Dame
Baseball: High school
Strength: Scouting
Weakness: Nonlinear thinking
Quote: "Sometimes you can make the right decision at the right time for all the right reasons and it still doesn't work out because we are dealing with people and not robots. There's nobody I respect more in the game than our President, John Schuerholz, and one of the many lessons he's imparted on me is a stronger consideration of nonlinear thinking."

Look a couple of entries up and you'll see Damon Oppenheimer, who brought Coppolella into the game. In many ways, they're similar. Both have scouting-oriented backgrounds without being hostile to the stat-side arguments. In fact, many cite a statistical comfort as a big plus for Coppolella. He has been active in negotiations, adding the contract and arbitration side to his game. And he's also a "born networker," according to a colleague with a similar title. "John knows he wants to be a GM and he's working to build the right base of contacts. He's building up a lot of favors, making sure his name gets out there and stays out there." Coppolella also is known for his attention to detail and his close relationship with a staff that is made up of respected "baseball lifers" such as Jim Fregosi and Dom Chiti. "He's going to bring a posse," said one executive. "It's a positive and negative. I think he'll need a situation like Moore had in Kansas City, where it's a rebuild job." That sounds like Houston, a job many expect to open up shortly after new ownership gains control.

7. Tyrone Brooks, Director of Baseball Operations, Pittsburgh Pirates

First: Intern, Atlanta Braves
School: Maryland
Baseball: High school
Strength: Connections
Weakness: Experience
Quote: "We all are a product of our life experiences, and Ty has had some strong ones. He's a good evaluator and a great person. He has brought a wealth of knowledge to our front office." - Neil Huntington

If there's a first "Internet GM," it might be Brooks. He administers a 6,700-person strong industry group on LinkedIn, one that's helped hundreds to connect across all levels of baseball. Brooks knows that connections are a big part of moving up in baseball, as he's shot through three organizations with a reputation for developing front office talent. Brooks started in the Braves organization and shifted through scouting and administration, before moving over to the Indians, where he was an area scout. He went with Neil Huntington to the Pirates and shifted his focus to the administration side. The Pirates function without a de facto assistant GM, but many consider Brooks to be that guy. "He's involved in trades, so he's the AGM," said one AL GM. Brooks has worked for men like John Schuerholz, Frank Wren, Dayton Moore, Mark Shapiro and Neal Huntington. His name will be listed alongside those GMs sometime soon.

8. Mike Chernoff, Assistant GM, Cleveland Indians

First: Intern, Cleveland Indians
School: Princeton
Baseball: College (Division I)
Strength: Media savvy
Weakness: Experience
Quote: "It wasn't until I completed an internship with the Mets between my junior and senior years that I realized how passionate I was about not only the game of baseball but about working in the game."

"Media savvy" doesn't even begin to touch on the personable, well-respected Chernoff's skill set. It must be genetic since Chernoff's father is the longtime director of New York sports radio's WFAN. It's not just connections that has helped Chernoff make a rapid rise through the Indians front office. His Ivy League education, quick wit and work ethic have earned the moves. The Indians organization is known throughout baseball for their internship program and for their "new school" front office. While Chernoff doesn't have a long resume, it's very well rounded. "He can talk to anyone," said one team official, "from players to scouts to fans on the street. He's got a knowledge and confidence about himself that you don't see too often and a likability that might be even rarer. There's no arrogance about him." A couple years ago, when Chris Antonetti was the hot prospect among GM candidates, a league official told me that "someone was going to try to get Antonetti and end up with Chernoff. That's not a bad thing." It's even less of a bad thing now as he's gained more experience. That same official added recently that "Chernoff's ready, but he's going to have to find someone that doesn't mind his age. It didn't work against Theo [Epstein] or Jed [Hoyer], so I don't think Mike will find it a big issue."

9. Kim Ng, Senior VP of Baseball Operations, MLB

First: Special projects analyst, working on arbitration cases for White Sox
School: Chicago
Baseball: Four-year starter on Chicago's softball team
Strength: Administration
Weakness: Scouting
Quote: "It's your assumption when you say, 'There's no one like you.' There are people like me. There are people that grew up loving baseball. There are people that work their way up from being interns. There are people that have been assistant general managers for a long time that eventually do become general managers. So there are people like me. Or I am like other people."

Some think that Ng gets interviews for jobs because she's one of few qualified women. One baseball exec disagrees, saying, "She's one of few qualified people. Being a woman probably hurts as much as it helps. No one talks about her ethnicity, just her gender." More worry that Ng's analytical personality leaves owners wanting more in interviews. "She's got that Willie Randolph problem now," said one current GM. "Everything looks great on paper, so she's either not the best candidate in situations or she's not interviewing well." Randolph got his shot eventually, as will Ng. In the interviews she's had, she has lost out to more experienced candidates or, in her most recent chance with the Padres, lost out to Jed Hoyer, who is, by all accounts, her equal on paper.

Her move to the MLB offices made some think that she was shifting from the GM track to something more stable, but most inside the game just think it was an opportunity to escape the Dodgers debacle. The one remaining hole on her resume is scouting. "She's just never had the chance to get her hands on that with people like Logan [White] and DeJon [Watson] around. I think she'd be fine as long as she had a good scouting director she could trust," said an NL exec who has dealt with Ng extensively. Ng does have the advantage that with a dearth of female execs, she'll keep getting interviews until the right owner decides that the time is right. Many expect that to happen sooner rather than later.

10. Ari Kaplan, Manager of Statistical Analysis, Chicago Cubs

First: Longtime statistical consultant for several teams
School: Caltech
Baseball: College (Division III)
Strength: Analysis
Weakness: Media savvy
Quote: "Ari Kaplan has a passion for baseball and he combines this with a thoughtful and intelligent approach to the game. In my view, he is at the very top of the line when it comes to the development and understanding of the analytical programs available to a Major League team. Ari also has the ability to communicate with all levels in the game; from the minor league pitching coach to the top team executives."
-- Fred Claire, former Dodgers GM

Kaplan is a name many won't know, even inside of baseball. That could change rapidly if Kaplan is given a larger role in running the Cubs baseball operations, something many inside the game feel is coming soon. One baseball exec compared Kaplan's role with the Cubs as what Stu Sternberg did with several current Rays execs in the year before he assumed control. If Kaplan was shadowing the organization, helping Tom Ricketts make decisions about building his own front office, it would surprise no one. It would be a bit more of a shock if Kaplan were given the Andrew Friedman role, however. "There's no question that [Kaplan] is one of the smartest guys around, but he's just a stats guy," one current NL staffer told me. "The scouts won't work for him because he pitched his consulting gig as almost replacing them for years."

Another MLB staffer questioned his personality: "I like Ari, but any comparison to Andrew Friedman means they haven't met both guys. Friedman played up to a level and is great with the media. Ari doesn't have that comfort level yet, and I'm honestly not sure he ever would. Putting him in the line of fire of a Chicago media would be like the cow kicking the lantern."

Even those who think Kaplan is ready believe he would need to be paired with a baseball type, in the way that Friedman has Gerry Hunsicker available. One person familiar with the Ricketts believes that the new Cubs ownership knows that their decision on Jim Hendry and his eventual replacement could define them to the fans. "Risking their reputation on a nobody is tough. It worked out in Boston, but remember that the first choice was Billy Beane there."

Honorable mentions:

Names who got more than two mentions in the course of my interviews around the league include: Tony LaCava (Toronto), AJ Preller (Texas), Dan Jennings (Florida), Ben Cherington (Boston), Rob Antony (Minnesota), Ray Montgomery (Arizona), John Abbamondi (San Diego), Jason McLeod (San Diego), Tony Blengino (Seattle), and John Ricco (NY Mets).

Special thanks to Dan Wade and Joe Conte for research, and to the baseball insiders that helped me compile the list.

 
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