Josh Byrnes remains one of the more likely candidates for the Chicago Cubs open general manager job, but, for some reason, you don’t hear a whole lot about him. Maybe it’s because he’s not a current GM, or because he doesn’t have the cachet of an Epstein, a Cashman, or a Friedman. Maybe there’s a reason to which we’re not privy.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been gathering links on Byrnes over the past week, and, in reviewing them, a clear sentiment emerges: he’s not many folks’ favorite to land the gig. That’s not to say he’s unlikely; it’s just that it doesn’t sound like too many people are a fan. I’m not sure I understand why.

At worst, I’m ambivalent on Byrnes. At best, I like him in the upper tier of candidates.

Just two years ago, I’m certain he would have been headlining many lists. At the time, he was a hot-shot, first-time GM, building an impressive stable of prospects on a cost-conscious team in Arizona. He had made his bones with the Rockies and then with the Red Sox when they finally won it all (he was Ben Cherington before Ben Cherington was Ben Cherington). He was a “new breed” GM, valuing emerging statistical models blended with scouting. By most accounts, he was an honest man of high integrity. What’s not to like? That guy certainly fits Tom Ricketts’ criteria for the Cubs’ job.

As near as I can tell, the primary reason Byrnes doesn’t excite as a candidate is because, despite that background, he was fired by the Diamondbacks mid-season last year. Brief Googling will tell you that the firing was shocking, and considering a huge mistake by many at the time.

For example, a Fangraphs article from just after the firing argues that the team’s woes at the time were not reflective of Byrnes’ tenure as GM – which had been considered largely successful. The article also notes things that ESPN’s Buster Olney was hearing from rival executives at the time, decrying the move as “a brutal decision,” and “absolutely crazy.” One executive said, “[The Diamondbacks] just tore apart one of the best front offices in baseball.” It’s no surprise, then, that Byrnes quickly caught on as the Director of Baseball Ops with the San Diego Padres, where he’s employed today.

Many would argue that the Diamondbacks’ current success is the product of Byrnes’ five years as Diamondbacks’ GM (November 2005 to June 2010). Most of the young core upon which the Diamondbacks have built their NL West-leading squad were either drafted, developed, or acquired under Byrnes’ watch, or are the product of trades involving players drafted, developed, or acquired under Byrnes’ watch.

So, if he was building such a solid base, why was he fired? No one knows for certain, but the most popular explanation is that upper management ordered Byrnes to fire then-ineffective manager AJ Hinch, and Byrnes refused. Thus, both were fired.

That explanation doesn’t put Byrnes in the most favorable light – indeed, it paints him as the kind of stubborn, loyal-to-a-fault type of GM with which the Cubs are all too familiar – but neither does it demonstrate he’s anything but the brilliant executive his past would otherwise indicate.

In any event, these are all things to keep in mind when considering the candidacy of Byrnes, and reading links like those that follow. I’m still not sure how I feel about Byrnes as a candidate, but I know that there are a lot of reasons to like him, and only mysterious, hard-to-articulate reasons to be wary. Byrnes is likely to remain in the discussion for a while, though, as he’s been rumored to be interested in the Cubs’ job for more than two months.

Some recent links of note:

  • Phil Rogers puts his position bluntly: “You can always spread around credit for a team’s success, and Byrnes certainly made moves that are still paying off, but this is a franchise that had been run into the ground before Kevin Towers restored credibility after Byrnes’ firing midway through 2010. Here’s hoping Tom Ricketts won’t get oversold on Byrnes. There are better candidates out there.” Harsh, bro.
  • Jon Heyman explains, in a list of prospective candidates, that Byrnes was the runner-up for the Mets job last year. Considering that he had just been fired, clearly the rest of baseball didn’t have its impression of Byrnes colored by the Diamondbacks’ abrupt decision.
  • Gordon Wittenmyer calls Byrnes a “flame-out” story, without any discussion. I would love to know why Wittenmyer considers Byrnes a flame-out. Does he know something about the reason for Byrnes’ termination that we don’t?

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