Building and Maintaining a Roster
Aside from being the face of an organization, the general manager's main job is building a major-league roster. The goal of every franchise is to win the World Series, and in order to win the World Series, the major league roster must contain enough talent to be successful. There are several ways the general manager can build a roster.
The most common way to bring players into the organization is through the first-year player draft. The draft now lasts 40 rounds and gives each organization the opportunity to draft players out of high school and college. Drafting and developing players is crucial to the long-term success of most organizations, especially for organizations in small markets that don't bring in a lot of revenue. Though the general manager doesn't always scout the players, it is his job to gather the information, analyze the information, and make the final decision on who should or shouldn't be drafted.
The decision on who to draft and not to draft can't be evaluated right away because it takes time for that player to develop in the minor leagues. It can take as much as 10-15 years for a player to reach his potential, but it often takes much less time to determine whether that player is a bust or whether they still have the ability to possibly reach their potential. At a minimum, it probably takes at least five years to determine whether or not the general manager made a good decision in drafting a particular player.
Another method for player acquisition is through free agency. These are players that are available to each organization. Most often they are major-league players that have reached the end of their contract. In addition to major-league players that have reached the end of their contract, there are minor league free agents. They are also international free agents, who are players from outside the United States without experience playing major league baseball.
The most well-known free agents are those that already have experience in the major leagues. These are often the players that have the highest profile and earn the highest salaries in free agency. The biggest risk they pose is that they command larger salaries, although they have a better chance of panning out, due to their proven track record. The most expensive free agents only work with clubs that have the financial means that are required in order to pay for their services - this prevents many of the smaller market teams from acquiring the best talent in free agency.
Minor-league free agents rarely do anything other than add depth to the minor league rosters. These are players that were not added to the 40-man roster of their team. After six years, if they are not placed on the roster, they are granted free agency and are free to sign with any team. Once in a while, a diamond in the rough will be found, but these players rarely turn into regular major league players.
International free agency is becoming more and more important to Major League Baseball. When players did not graduate from an American, Canadian, or Puerto Rican high school or college, they are eligible for free agency after they turn 16 years old. Players that played professionally in Japan or Cuba have other rules specific to their circumstances (Japan has a bidding system in which the team with the highest blind bid wins the rights to negotiate with a certain player. If a Cuban player wishes to play major league baseball, he must first defect from Cuba and then go through a separate system, after which he will be granted free agency). Because of MLB's recent implementation of a international free agency pool, most teams have an equal chance to acquire international free agency. International free agents are often very young, and there is a lot of risk in paying them a large amount of money, especially when you consider that it will often take 4-8 years before you see those players in the big leagues. Some of the game's biggest starts started out as 16 year olds in third world countries, and because of that potential, general managers have to be adept at picking the right players in which to invest their money.
The last way in which general managers can improve their roster is by trading with other organizations. Often, general managers will deal from a strength within their organization in order to acquire someone that will improve a weak part of that organization. The difficulty with trades is that everyone looks for a "winner" in each trade. Sometimes, the winner can be decided within a year of the deal, but at other times, it could take many years to see the full impact of a trade on the organization. Each general manager that participates in a trade is looking to improve their organization - none of them are in it to just help out another team. Trades involving highly-rated prospects or established all-star level players happen rarely because of the risk involved. Money, service time, and position(s) played are often key factors involved in trades involving higher-caliber players. Smaller-market teams are again sometimes at a disadvantage in trades because they simply can't afford to pay their best players once they hit their prime years.
The 25-Man Roster
One of the key responsibilities of a general manager is maintaining a balanced 25-man roster. The primary role in this is that the team has a starting-level player at each position on the field. However, organizations must have a plan in place for when players get injured or don't perform as expected. It is important that each starter on the field has someone on the bench that can step up in an emergency situation. If that backup player is someone that the team's manager isn't comfortable playing on a day-to-day basis, then an effective general manager would have at least one option in the minor leagues that can fill in for a more lengthy time.
Maintaining a pitching staff is also important. Nearly every team in MLB has a five-man starting rotation, so it's apparent that there should be at least five pitchers that can be trusted to start a game on a regular basis. Most teams have a seven-man bullpen (give or take a player), and those pitchers have certain roles they are used to filling. Whether a player is the mop-up guy or the closer, or the 8th inning guy or the left specialist, it's important that he knows what his role currently is and what it could become if the need arises.
Other factors to consider when maintaining a 25-man roster is knowing whether or not someone needs to go on the disabled list. If a player isn't performing like he should, then his spot on the 25-man roster must be considered by the general manager. The goal should always be to win games, and if someone else can do a better job, then that player must be given the opportunity to prove himself. At the same time, maintaining loyalty to each player is important as well. If you make it a habit of sending every slumping player to the minor leagues, then you will have too many roster moves throughout the season, and that makes it hard to develop a comfort-level and consistency in the clubhouse.
Managing the Manager
The general manager of an organization should be working together with the manager of the major league team. It is imperative that they are on the same page as to the direction of the franchise and the hitting/pitching/fielding philosophies that are taught throughout the system. It doesn't do anyone any good if a player is taught how to something a certain way his entire minor league career only to have it change once he reaches the major league level. The manager and general manager must also work together to figure out the best arrangement and options for maintaining the 25-man roster. The general manager must also be there to critique the manager. Ultimately, the general manager is responsible for the performance of the manager. The general manager is likely the one that hired the manager, and it would stand to reason that the manager was hired because he holds a similar baseball belief system to the general manager. If a manager consistently mismanages the bullpen or refuses to make changes that obviously need to be made, then the general manager needs to find someone that will match the organization's baseball philosophy. Sometimes it's as simple as the players needing a new voice telling them what to do. Knowing when to change managers is difficult, but it's the responsibility of the general manager to make sure that the best person is in place in such a crucial position.
Contract Negotiation / Agent Relationships
The last two criteria that will be explored will be linked together. Contract negotiation and relationships with players' agents often go hand-in-hand and are dependent upon one another. Usually, the agent's primary job is to get as much money as possible for his client from an organization in which he wants to play or has been drafted to play. In contrast, the general manager's job is to bring the best players into the organizations for the least amount of money. Negotiating contracts that are agreeable to both the player and the organization is sometimes a difficult job. If the general manager has a good relationship with the agent in the contract negotiation, it allows the negotiation to work a little quicker. Simply having a good relationship with an agent might open doors to players that otherwise wouldn't exist.