Baseball-lifer Arbuckle has certainly paid his dues

In the second of two interviews, Rob has a Q&A session with Phillies assistant GM Mike Arbuckle.

Originally Published: January 2, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

In a recent, decidedly non-scientific survey, Baseball America senior writer and ESPN.com contributor Alan Schwarz asked 41 baseball executives, "Who is the best GM candidate in the game?"

Athletics assistant GM Paul DePodesta and Mets assistant GM Jim Duquette -- both of them fairly well known -- tied for first place with six votes apiece. But right behind them, with five votes apiece, were a pair of relative unknowns, Astros assistant GM Tim Purpura and Phillies assistant GM Mike Arbuckle.

Monday, we published an interview with Purpura, and today it's Arbuckle's turn. The interview below was conducted over the telephone on December 19, 2002.

Rob Neyer: Mike, you entered professional baseball as a scout in 1979, took over as the Phillies' Director of Scouting in 1992, and then two years ago you were promoted to Assistant General Manager, Scouting and Player Development. That's more than 20 years in scouting and player development, so I'm wondering what sort of philosophy you've developed over the years.

I think it's important that your philosophy is something that meshes the major leagues, the minor leagues, and scouting. Those elements have to mesh. In some organizations, there's almost a rivalry between the minor leagues and scouting, but I think it's important that everyone has the same philosophy. If you're going to focus on drafting crude high-school players, then you need instructors in the minors who can work with those guys. As opposed to more polished college guys, who might need a different kind of instruction.
Mike Arbuckle, Phillies assistant general manager

Mike Arbuckle: I think you need a philosophy of not just player development. I think it's important that your philosophy is something that meshes the major leagues, the minor leagues, and scouting. Those elements have to mesh.

In some organizations, there's almost a rivalry between the minor leagues and scouting, but I think it's important that everyone has the same philosophy. If you're going to focus on drafting crude high-school players, then you need instructors in the minors who can work with those guys. As opposed to more polished college guys, who might need a different kind of instruction.

Also, the GM and people at the major-league level have to understand what everybody else in the organization are trying to do. Everybody's got to understand what the philosophy is, and then work together to see that it's implemented. In Philadelphia, in the early years we took a lot of arms in the draft, and when you do that you've got to be oriented toward developing those young arms, which doesn't always work out so well. You have to know that stuff going in; everybody has to be on the same page.

Neyer: Do you give any credence to the studies showing that college players are better bets than high-school players -- and especially high-school pitchers -- for success?

Arbuckle: What we've always done in the draft is go for the higher-ceiling players. Some years that might be a college guy like Pat Burrell, and some years it might be a high-school guy like Reggie Taylor. But we always try to take the highest-ceiling player where we pick.

Neyer: Do you think it's harder to project a high-school player than a college player?

Arbuckle: No question about it. There's physical maturity, emotional maturity, and the different levels of competition.

Neyer: Do you have much use for the sabermetric approach that seems to be inching its way into baseball these days? Have the Phillies ever employed, or considered employing, somebody as essentially a statistical analyst?

Arbuckle: No, we haven't. I do think there's some value in that approach, but mostly at the professional level. At the amateur level, the competition level varies so much that you can outsmart yourself.

At the professional level, it adds something to the equation, but if you start saying that element is going to outweigh the experience of the scouts -- most of the time, multiple scouts have seen the player you're talking about -- then you can get in trouble. I do think it's a good supplementary tool, if you're going to make a deal, that may clarify some gray areas.

Neyer: If you were a GM, who would you look to for statistical analysis?

Arbuckle: I think a lot of that can be produced in house. I think a lot of teams are doing it that way, rather than go out and hire a Bill James or somebody. A lot of teams are going to their own ideas for what statistical information is important, and if you do it in house, you're always going to have what you need at hand.

Neyer: With the departure of Doug Glanville, it's generally assumed that Marlon Byrd is going to be the Phillies' Opening Day center fielder. It's also generally assumed that Byrd's the only hitting prospect who's ready for the majors. Which is OK, because the existing lineup is set, and it's impressive. But what about pitchers? There's certainly room in both the rotation and the bullpen ...

Arbuckle: Well, you're right, the center-field job is Byrd's to lose in spring training, because we don't have a more experienced player at that position, and of course he's earned the job with his performance in the minors. I do think (second baseman) Chase Utley is close to ready, but it's going to be very hard for him to break into the lineup considering who we've already got.

As for the pitchers, Eric Junge, who came up and pitched well for us in September, is a guy who has a chance. Other than that, we've got some guys who are probably a year or so away from being able to help. Ryan Madsen probably could use a year of Triple-A, and Gavin Floyd (the Phillies' first-round pick in last June's draft) is still a few years away.

(editor's note: this interview was conducted before the Phillies acquired Kevin Millwood.)

Neyer: You work for the Phillies but live near Kansas City, which must make you one of the very few assistant GMs who don't go to the ballpark most days. How have you been able to make that work?

Arbuckle: I spend a lot of time on the road, and I'm actually in Philadelphia about as much as anyone in my role would be. I was on the road this past year about 280, 290 days. I try to work it during the season where when the club's home, I'm there, and when they're on the road, I'm out looking at players, mostly amateur free agents. And in the offseason, I'm in Philadelphia four or five days a week.

Neyer: Mike, thanks for doing this interview. I'd like to close with a question that I get all the time, but unfortunately it's a question that I'm completely unqualified to answer ... "How do I, a bright college senior, become the general manager of a major-league baseball team?"

Arbuckle: Well, I think there are different avenues to becoming a general manager.

The current trend is the law-school graduate, the Ivy League graduate. And I don't say that with any malice; that's just the trend. For a long time, if you hadn't been a major-league player, your chances weren't good. But that's definitely changed in recent years.

Basically, I think there are two different pathways to getting there.

One, you're an "office guy" who comes in at a low level, works your way up and is successful at each level. This is generally the path if you're not an ex-player, and you have to start as an intern or something, whether it be in operations or whatever. Ed Wade, for example, started out as a PR intern with the Phillies. He worked in public relations for a while, then left to work for Tal Smith (who prepared arbitration cases for clubs), then came to the Phillies to work under Lee Thomas. And now he's our GM.

Or two, you're a "field guy" who works in scouting and eventually reaches a director's position. It's hard to get in on the development side, though, if you haven't played at least college ball.

In the end, it really comes down to work ethic and success at each level.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published next spring by Fireside, will be appearing here regularly and irregularly during the offseason.

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