Constructing an MLB roster remains and will always be one of the hardest jobs in all of sports.
As general manager of a baseball team, there are countless tasks to handle, which look at both the short-term and the long-term. There’s putting together a 26-man roster via player development, the draft, free-agent signings, and trades. There’s finding the balance between winning now and thinking about the long-term prognosis in every single move. There’s trying to project how well a pitcher will perform, both statistically and on the health side. Perhaps most difficult is trying to put together a farm system and evaluating what a guy might in 3-4 years. Put simply, constructing a baseball roster has its major difficulties.
That leads me here today to continue my series evaluating every general manager in Angels franchise history. Evaluating any general manager needs context, given that putting together a roster in the 1960s-1970s (prior to free agency) is way different than it is in the year 2020. My goal is to evaluate every general manager based on all of the given information we have about them and how much success the team had while he was there.
With this in mind, let’s get onto the fourth general manager in Angels franchise history.
PART 2: Dick Walsh
PART 3: Harry Dalton
Buzzie Bavasi (October 24, 1977-September 1, 1984)
Bavasi was part of the powerhouse front office for the Dodgers from 1951-1968. Following in the footsteps of Branch Rickey, arguably the most important front-office figure in baseball history, Bavasi was named Vice President after the 1950 season (he was named GM in 1958). Along with Fresco Thompson (who was also named Vice President) and scouting director Al Campanis, the Dodgers put together baseball’s best team in the ’50s and 60s sans the New York Yankees. In Bavasi’s 18 years at the helm, the Dodgers won 8 National League Pennants and 4 World Series titles.
Bavasi left the Dodgers to become a minority owner of the new San Diego Padres franchise for the 1969 season. Bavasi held this title through the 1977 season, experiencing little success with the Padres (this was typical for expansion teams prior to free agency). Following the 1977 season, Bavasi made his way to Anaheim to try to guide the Angels to their first playoff appearance (information from SABR).
Bavasi’s strong introduction
In a similar mold of his predecessor, Harry Dalton, Bavasi was super aggressive to re-shape the Angels roster. In his first offseason as Angels GM, Bavasi signed Lyman Bostock and Rick Miller while trading for Brian Downing, Don Aase, and Chris Knapp. Bavasi also made the popular decision to hire former Angels star Jim Fregosi as manager partway through the 1978 season. With the new additions and healthier seasons from Bobby Grich and Joe Rudi, the Angels jumped from 74 wins in 1977 to 87 wins in 1978. Those 87 wins were then a franchise-best as the club missed the playoffs by just five games. The season was not all positive, as Bostock was tragically killed at the end of the year.
Bavasi continued his aggressive roster-building in the ’78-’79 offseason. His signing of superstar Rod Carew and trade for Dan Ford signaled that the Angels were ready to take another jump. The roster-building by both Bavasi and Harry Dalton finally paid off: the Angels won their first division title in 1979. After 19 years of playoff-less baseball, the club finally had their first taste of October baseball. The club lost to the juggernaut Orioles in the ALCS but this was a huge step in the right direction for the club.
The tumultuous 1980-1981 seasons
The Angels’ decline from ’79 to ’80 was almost unfathomable. The club dropped from a franchise-best 88-win playoff season to a franchise-low 65 wins (at the time) in 1980. Some of this was not Bavasi’s fault. Don Baylor went from AL MVP in ’79 to a horrific injury-riddled ’80 season. Brian Downing played in just 30 games due to injury after a 5-win ’79 season. Carney Lansford was a replacement-level player after a 3.4-win ’79 season.
Bavasi does take the blame, however, for a handful of other head-scratching moves. Letting Nolan Ryan leave in free agency was bad enough in itself. When Bavasi one-upped himself by saying he could “replace Ryan with two 8-7 pitchers”, it haunted him (and Angels fans) for the duration of his tenure. Bavasi also made the perplexing move of trading Willie Aikens for a package of players who did nothing in Anaheim. Bad luck and bad decision-making played a pivotal role in the Angels’ steep decline in 1980.
The club improved in 1981 but the season was shortened due to the owners/players strike. The club improved to 51-59 but the results were still subpar, which led to the eventual firing of Jim Fregosi and hiring of longtime baseball man Gene Mauch as manager. Prior to ’81, Bavasi made a major move in trading for Red Sox star Fred Lynn. In the midst of a heated arbitration hearing, Boston sent Lynn to Anaheim in exchange for Frank Tanana and Joe Rudi. Bavasi immediately extended Lynn to a four-year deal but Lynn struggled in his first year in Anaheim (0.1 WAR). Bavasi also traded for Ken Forsch and Rick Burleson, which brought immediate-short-term results (combined 7.1 WAR in ’81). Although, this did cost them Carney Lansford and Dickie Thon, who were much better in the long-term.
After a down two-year period, the Angels righted the ship and won their second division title in 1982. Much of this had to do with rebounds from key players like Brian Downing (5.4 WAR), Fred Lynn (4.6), and Rod Carew (4.3). But, staying true to character, Bavasi was incredibly aggressive in reshaping the roster for the 1982 season. Bavasi absolutely robbed the Orioles when he traded Dan Ford for Doug DeCinces, who was the most valuable Angel in ’82 (7.3 WAR). Bavasi also signed star Reggie Jackson to a four-year deal and swiped All-Star catcher Bob Boone from the Phillies.
All of these events led to staggering results from the Angels position players. The 34.1 WAR from the ’82 unit was the best in team history thanks to an all-around attack. Seven Angels position players had 3+ WAR, giving the team a plethora of weapons. The Angels won 93 games in the regular seasons and carried this over to the first two games of the ALCS against the Milwaukee Brewers. Unfortunately, the Angels blew a 2-0 lead and missed their first shot at a World Series.
’83 and ’84: Bavasi’s finale
While the ’82 team had plenty of success, Bavasi’s aggressive short-term mindset led to poor results in ’83 and ’84. With the oldest roster in baseball in ’82, the club had predictable declines and underperformances as the club faltered in a 70-win 1983 season. Following the season, Gene Autry informed Bavasi that 1984 would be his final season as Angels GM. The club improved in 1984 with an 81-win performance but fell way short of making the playoffs. It was an anti-climactic ending to a long career in baseball for Bavasi.
What Bavasi did well
The results were obvious: Bavasi helped guide the Angels to their first two playoff appearances. While Harry Dalton deserves a lot of credit for some of the success, Bavasi was ultra-aggressive in continuing to add to the rosters that got the Angels to the playoffs. The acquisitions of Brian Downing, Doug DeCinces, Rod Carew, Reggie Jackson, Fred Lynn, and Bob Boone were monstrous additions that undoubtedly benefitted the Angels. Two playoff appearances in seven years for a franchise that had never made the playoffs is quite the achievement.
On top of the MLB success Bavasi had, he also had a strong draft record. Chuck Finley, Mike Witt, Wally Joyner, Devon White, Kirk McCaskill, and Dick Schofield were all draftees during Bavasi’s time in Anaheim. All of those players made significant contributions to the Angels and helped build a better future post-Bavasi.
What Bavasi didn’t do well
For all the good that Bavasi did for the Angels, the club actually finished under .500 (535-545) in the seven years he was GM. This isn’t surprising given how steep the club fell off after each of their division titles in ’79 and ’82. The two playoff appearances are certainly a bright spot for Bavasi but the club was downright terrible in two seasons as well.
This isn’t too surprising given the way that Bavasi built his rosters. Other than his superb draft record, Bavasi didn’t show a real tendency towards building for the future. Trading players such as Carney Lansford, Dickie Thon, and Tom Brunansky helped in the short-term but had long-term ramifications. Bavasi’s heavy investment in older players also made year-to-year sustainability much more difficult. In all fairness, the Angels desperately needed time in the playoffs given their bleak history to that point. It’s hard to fault Bavasi for pushing all of his chips in to try to get the Angels to that next level.
It’s hard to argue with the results that Bavasi had and his ability to get the Angels to the playoffs for the first time(s). The ultra-aggressive Bavasi was able to add a ton of talent for the short-term during his tenure while also drafting well to build for the future. His track record is littered with strong free-agent signings, trade acquisitions, and draft selections. The year-to-year inconsistency is no-doubt an obvious blemish on his resume. The Angels never had back-to-back winning seasons during Bavasi’s tenure. But given the history of the franchise and what Bavasi was able to do, you’d be hard to argue against the results Bavasi had. While Buzzie Bavasi was ultimately done in baseball following the Angels tenure, his son, Bill, would later hold the same title with the Angels.