Josh Byrnes got his first big break in baseball 27 years ago while shagging fly balls in the outfield before the annual alumni game at Haverford College.
Could it be that his next opportunity returns him to the city where it all began?
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Byrnes, the Los Angeles Dodgers senior vice president of baseball operations, has interviewed with the Phillies, a source said. The meeting was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. The team has not begun a second round of interviews.
The Phillies have kept their search private, so it isn’t known how many candidates are under consideration. The Athletic reported that former Miami Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill interviewed last week; Kansas City Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo and Dodgers assistant GM Jeff Kingston, both South Jersey natives, are believed to be in the mix, too.
It’s also unclear whether the Phillies intend to hire only a general manager after demoting Matt Klentak on Oct. 3, or a GM and a president of baseball operations to ostensibly replace team president Andy MacPhail, who will retire after the 2021 season.
Regardless, Byrnes’ diverse set of experiences since leaving the Main Line in 1992 with a degree in English from Haverford figure to make him appealing to Phillies managing partner John Middleton.
In addition to spending his formative front-office years working for respected Mark Shapiro in Cleveland and Dan O’Dowd in Colorado, Byrnes was a general manager in Arizona (2006-10) and San Diego (2011-14). He also was the top deputy to Theo Epstein and Andrew Friedman, two of the preeminent executives of the last 20 years, helping to build the curse-busting 2004 Red Sox and this year’s World Series-winning Dodgers, respectively.
“Josh’s pedigree is pretty darn strong,” former Haverford baseball coach Ed Molush said recently by phone. “And by now it’s pretty diverse, too. Everywhere you go, you’re going to have a different owner, you’re going to have a different perspective on the way money is handled, what they want from the minor leagues, what they want for scouts, what they want for a coaching staff, what they want for their fans. All of that comes into the mix.
“But from everything I can tell, he has found the best mix in a tutor and coworker in Andrew Friedman.”
Indeed, Byrnes has burnished his resume in six seasons of riding shotgun for Friedman.
In Arizona, Byrnes had the foresight to hire A.J. Hinch for his first managerial job in 2009. But a clash with ownership over firing Hinch a year and a half later led to Byrnes’ eventual termination. Back-to-back 76-86 finishes precipitated his demise in San Diego.
But Friedman brought in Byrnes to oversee scouting and player development, departments that operate independently in many organizations, and the Dodgers have been a developmental powerhouse, churning out MVP center fielder Cody Bellinger, catcher Will Smith, and pitchers Walker Buehler, Dustin May, Tony Gonsolin, and Julio Urias, among others. Byrnes is also the link between Friedman and on-field personnel.
Byrnes enjoys the “hands-on” nature of the job, according to Molush. And given the Dodgers’ success — eight consecutive division titles, three pennants, and a World Series championship — it might be tempting for Byrnes, who has two teenage daughters, to stay put as Friedman’s No. 2.
Then again, his executive stock can’t get higher, especially if he wants to run a team again.
Molush, a Phillies minor-league pitcher from 1972 to 1975, quickly recognized Byrnes as a front-office prospect. As a freshman, he paid uncommon attention to detail and had ideas for enhancing Haverford’s baseball facility and making practices more efficient.
Byrnes also had a head for the game. Even though Haverford’s 290-foot right-field fence was enticing for a left-handed hitter, he realized the wind blew out to left-center in the spring and hit all 14 of his career homers to left-center.
“I knew right away when he came in that he was really perceptive, he was cerebral, and he had his eyes almost on a swivel watching anything and everything that was going on,” Molush said. “He was very serious about everything being important when we stepped onto that field for two hours in a practice. He wasn’t a psycho about it. He wasn’t annoying to other players or too overbearing. He was just intense. He wanted to be that good. He wanted us to be that good.”
An arm injury quashed Byrnes’ chances of continuing his playing career. But he wanted to stay in baseball, and at the Haverford alumni game in 1993, Molush introduced him to Ron Shapiro, an influential agent whose son worked in the Indians’ front office. Soon after, Cleveland hired Byrnes as an intern.
Foot firmly in the door, Byrnes got promoted up the ranks to scouting director. With the Indians, he got to know Charlie Manuel, then Cleveland’s hitting coach. Manuel is believed to have Middleton’s ear in the Phillies’ hiring process.
Another endorsement might have come from Epstein.
Reportedly contacted by Middleton last week, the former Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations doesn’t plan to jump back into a front-office role in 2021. But Epstein likely vouched for his former assistant, who handled tough contract negotiations with the Red Sox, led their postseason scouting, and had a hand in signing David Ortiz in 2003.
“[Klentak] had a pretty successful track record with free agents. We just haven’t been able to bring up the people internally to support them,” Middleton said in October. “I think successful GMs have that. It’s the acquisition and the development of talent that is critical. I’ll be looking for people who have proven that they can do that. That’s where my target is.”
It might lead him to Byrnes.