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Should GMs be treated like other free agent athletes?

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Ken Rosenthal over at Fox Sports had an interesting column today discussing the importance of General Managers and how their salaries don't reflect the ability they have to do more for a franchise than any superstar player can.

It's all very true - a great general manager can take a team on path toward's sustained greatness. He can find those superstar players, negotiate great contracts that benefit the team long-term, make smart trades that maximize what he gets out of his assets. In terms of how they're paid though, GMs certainly don't come close to making any of the money their players do. Rosenthal points out that most baseball general managers make between $500,000 to $2,000,000 a year, with none making over $3,000,000. As we know, a star player can rake in 10 times that amount for a single season.

Rosenthal's argument is that for the price of a mid-tier free agent likely to have no more impact than a few extra wins, an owner can outbid what any other team is willing to offer and scoop up a top-tier general manager that has a chance to do major things for the team over the long haul. It's great in theory, but in practice I think the concept is flawed.

The one example Rosenthal uses where we almost saw this practice occur was when the Boston Red Sox attempted to sign Oakland Athletics' GM Billy Beane away from them for a pretty hefty sum. It seems like the perfect demonstration of how Rosenthal's system would play out. The Red Sox, a high-payroll team, notice the incredible talent in Beane, and with the ability to offer much more money than the small-market Athletics could, are able to buy him away. (As a fun anecdote, in "MoneyBall", it's noted that as part of the agreement of the A's letting Beane out of his contract with them, the Red Sox would have to trade over the favorite minor-league player of the A's would-be GM Paul DePodesta, Kevin Youkilis).

By all accounts, that's as much as there was to know about the situation. But in a world where 30 general managers are competing with each other every day, the possibility of negotiating going on relating to the actual GMs themselves is troublesome. While tampering is against the rules of all sports, in reality, it would be tough to know if it exists. If a rival GM is talking to a player during a season, there isn't much that a player can do to help his relationship with that rival team at the time - short of purely cheating and assisting the other team when they played against each other. With general managers though, it opens up a whole new set of possible problems that would be very easily hidden to the public by nature of the work itself. A GM that is talking with a rival team about a bigger contract could assist by staying away from a free agent he knows they have their eye on, or even making a trade he doesn't quite agree with, knowing it will make his job with them easier in down the road. 

Plus, a GM's job is far different than a star player. A player has to go out on the field every day and do his task - hit the ball, shoot the puck, catch the ball, block the shot - whatever that player does best. If the player signs with a new team every year, there's no valid reason for his performance to change much, other than any factors like the playing field or the competition, which are out of the player's control. A general manager has a whole different function. A good GM, at least, doesn't aim for great performance day-to-day, but over the long-term, and for most teams that means multi-year plans, rebuilding efforts, relationships with players and agents, and the ability to stay the course. A team with a new GM coming aboard every couple of years, or that has a GM leave in the middle of their rebuilding efforts, is bound for  difficulties in gaining and sustaining success.

Rosenthal's suggestion is certainly intriguing, but in reality, I feel like the treatment of general managers as if they were superstar athletes will only continue to create separation between sports' wealthy teams and the small-markets that chase after them. There's no doubt that great general managers are incredibly valuable to their teams, but perhaps finding the best ones should remain more of an exercise in scouting and development rather than free agency shopping sprees.

But hey, if one day the market does allow for GMs to make those massive amounts of money, then it's probably a good thing that Project Franchise is here to start giving people a chance to get experience in that line of work.