MLB managers starting 2015 on the hotseat

MLB

It’s never too early to speculate on managers that might be in trouble sooner rather than later. Let’s look at who’s going to open the season on the hotseat.

John Gibbons – Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays have a weird contract structure in which Gibbons’s contract rolls over with an option kicking on on January 1st each year, therefore he’s never a lame duck.

Gibbons is a good tactical manager, but he’s never had any notable success. It can’t be said that he hasn’t had the talent in his second go-round as Blue Jays manager either as they’ve spent and brought in big names and All-Stars. Some aspects of the teamwide failure – such as injuries to the likes of Josh Johnson in 2013 – are not his fault. In fact, it’s hard to blame him for the failures of the team. Even with that, someone has to take the fall if the Blue Jays stumble again with the American League East as wide open as it’s been since the mid-1990s.

General manager Alex Anthopoulos has been reluctant to blame Gibbons or anyone else for the team’s struggles since they became aggressive with their spending. After an extended flirtation amid questionable tactics and circumstances with Baltimore Orioles GM Dan Duquette their first choice to replace Paul Beeston as CEO and Beeston remaining as team CEO for 2015, Anthopoulos might be swept up in a housecleaning of the front office and on-field staff if this season is another mediocre one in Toronto. It’s easier to change the front office and manager than it is to clear out veteran players with onerous contracts. If the Blue Jays are faltering early in the season, Anthopoulos will have to take steps to fix it with a new manager.

A.J. Hinch – Houston Astros

No, Hinch isn’t on the hotseat because the current front office might fire him if the Astros get off to a bad start, but he’s on the hotseat because the front office might be on the hotseat if the Astros get off to a bad start.

Owner Jim Crane has high – you could even say ludicrous – expectations for this season believing they’re going to make a playoff run. He’s shown unwavering support to GM Jeff Luhnow and his blueprint, but the weight of Luhnow’s gaffes are becoming too heavy to ignore. If it’s late August and the Astros are again mired in last place in a very difficult AL West and the young players upon whom they’re banking their collective futures experience the often inevitable struggles young players experience, then the groundswell for wholesale changes will be too much for Crane to ignore. If Crane fires everyone in favor of Nolan Ryan, then no one, including the new manager, stat guy darling Hinch, will be safe.

Terry Collins – New York Mets

The Mets are expecting to contend this season and Collins is on the last year of his contract. The argument could be made that he’s served his purpose of steering the ship as best he could while the team rebuilt and waited for long-term contracts of useless veterans to expire. It’s not unusual for teams to have a competent, veteran caretaker manager who runs the club through the tough years and then bring in someone else when the front office believes they’re ready to win.

Collins will get the beginning of the season to see if they win under his stewardship. He’s earned that after playing the good soldier and keeping things in line for four years. However, if the team is off to a 9-15 start and there are calls for someone’s head before the season spirals out of control, Collins will be gone.

Mike Redmond – Miami Marlins

Just looking at owner Jeffrey Loria’s Steinbrennerean history with his managers is enough to say that even a successful manager shouldn’t feel too comfortable with his job status. He’s had seven different managers since he took over the team in 2002 and hired Jack McKeon twice. He fires people for a multitude of reasons and won’t hesitate before doing it again. When his teams have expectations, he’s got an even quicker trigger finger. Some believe that the Marlins are set to be legitimate contenders in 2015 putting Redmond in the position of being the obvious target if they get off to a poor start.

At the end of the 2014 season, Redmond signed an extension through 2017, but so what? Loria is still paying Ozzie Guillen for 2015. He’ll fire anyone regardless of contract status. Presumably, he won’t hire the 84-year-old McKeon to replace Redmond, but he’ll find someone to take the job and perhaps fire him at the end of the season too.

Ron Roenicke – Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers thought long and hard about it before deciding to bring Roenicke back for the 2015 season. They essentially collapsed over the second half of the 2014 season after a first half in which they were a surprise contender. That the team wasn’t particularly good to begin with and were playing over their heads when they achieved their heights in the first few months doesn’t matter. It’s the perception that the team faltered under Roenicke that could lead to a change. He’s got a contract option for 2016 and with the team set to struggle in 2015, he’ll be the scapegoat. He’s not a particularly good manager to begin with, so whomever they hire won’t have a tough act to follow.

Don Mattingly – Los Angeles Dodgers

It would look pretty stupid for the Dodgers to fire Mattingly after new team president Andrew Friedman ran from the idea of Joe Maddon taking over after Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays and went to the Chicago Cubs. Mattingly isn’t a particularly good manager, but the Dodgers failings in his tenure haven’t been his fault. They’re altering the way the team is put together and need a manager who will follow the stat-centered template they’re trying to implement. Having trained under Joe Torre and played under the likes of Billy Martin and Buck Showalter, it’s hard to see Mattingly willingly and blindly doing whatever the front office says in terms of strategy.

The Dodgers made some odd moves this winter and got worse instead of better. If they get off to a bad start, Mattingly could finally be shown the door for someone who’s more amenable to what Friedman was hired to create.

Bud Black – San Diego Padres

Amid ownership changes, general manager changes and constant flux in the way the ballclub has been constructed, the one constant with the Padres over the past eight years has been manager Bud Black. Black is lauded for his handling of pitchers and running the clubhouse. The media likes him. He’s terrible when it comes to formulating an offensive game plan and this Padres team, reconstructed under new GM A.J. Preller, will be as reliant on its offense as it will be on pitching. He has to actually manage the team this year and his strategies will be imperative to whether the team is an 80 win disappointment or an 86-90 win contender for a playoff spot. That’s not a small thing. Black has overseen two separate late-season collapses in 2007 and 2010 in which mistakes he made were significant influences to the Padres missing the playoffs.

Preller has been aggressive and unrepentant in getting rid of players that were present when he arrived and in whom he had no investment. Black falls into that category. Black is in the final year of his contract and in spite of his likability is hindered by his predecessor, lifelong Padres player and manager Bruce Bochy, having won three World Series titles with the rival San Francisco Giants.

He won’t have much time to show that he can run this sort of team and will be fired quickly if he can’t.

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Analysis of the Braves-Diamondbacks Trade, Part II: For the Diamondbacks

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The avalanche of circumstances that necessitated the trade of Justin Upton began when Kevin Towers was hired as Diamondbacks GM. After a 65-97 season in 2010 during which longtime GM Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch were fired; interim GM Jerry Dipoto made several housecleaning trades by dispatching Dan Haren, Edwin Jackson, Conor Jackson, Chris Snyder, and Chad Qualls for prospects or salary relief; and years of mediocre drafts and failed trades had left the organization in retooling mode, it’s understandable that Towers arrived and made it clear that he’d be willing to discuss his best asset—Upton—to speed the refurbishment.

The Diamondbacks weren’t in the position of the Astros or Cubs in that the whole thing had to be gutted, but they certainly weren’t a trendy pick to rebound from 65 wins to 94 and the 2011 NL West title. Any realistic assessment of their roster in 2011 would have said, “We’re not as bad as we were last year. If everything breaks right with Ian Kennedy, Daniel Hudson and Joe Saunders pitching well; the new bullpen performing; a huge year from Upton; unexpected contributions from Gerardo Parra and Ryan Roberts; and youngsters like Paul Goldschmidt stepping up, we can hang around the periphery of contention and maybe—maybe—be in the Wild Card hunt.”

Stunningly, the club took to the fiery style of manager Kirk Gibson and overcame their limitations with teamwork, intensity and more than a little luck. Gibson himself was only there because Towers bought into the passionate presentation he gave when the interim manager was interviewed for the fulltime job.

Sometimes the planets align perfectly and that’s what happened with the 2011 Diamondbacks. After that season, there was no need to slowly build. Instead of seeing a team that needed time to develop and required significant changes, they were suddenly legitimate contenders and looking to bolster what was already there by trading for Trevor Cahill and surrendering a large chunk of the few prospects—Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Collin Cowgill—they’d accumulated in the draft. Parker and Cook were significant factors to the Athletics’ stunning run to the AL West title in 2012. Cahill was, at best, inconsistent for the Diamondbacks.

What went right for the Diamondbacks in 2011 went wrong in 2012. It would probably have been wise to realize that Roberts would fall back from his career year; that Kennedy wouldn’t be as lucky on balls in play; that the number of times they said, “I don’t believe this is happening,” was a warning sign not to believe that it was going to happen again the next year.

There’s nothing wrong with being lucky, but when that luck is translated into design and the original blueprint is ripped to shreds midstream and replaced with a new one, it’s easy to miss things and set traps for oneself. That’s what happened with Towers and Upton. When the team made that wondrous leap from last place to first place, Towers made the same mistake that Mariners’ GM Jack Zduriencik did in 2009-2010 when the Mariners overachieved to rise from 101 losses to 85 wins: he believed the hype that the team was better than it was and made decisions accordingly. These were decisions he might not have otherwise made if he’d adhered to the original plan.

What Towers was stuck with, through his own doing, was an excess of outfielders, a hole at shortstop, a sensitive player in Upton who was letting the trade talk affect his play, and the public shouting from loquacious managing general partner Ken Kendrick that Upton wasn’t living up to his contract.

Right after he was hired, Towers took offers for Upton. There was never a need to get Upton out of town because he was a malcontent, overrated or lazy. They were performing due diligence by seeing what they could get for him and if some club offered a Herschel Walker package, they’d trade him. It snowballed to the degree that they not only had to move Upton, but they had to formulate an excuse to justify it while simultaneously explaining their overpay for Cody Ross by saying that Upton wasn’t the grinding type of player they wanted their version of the Diamondbacks to exemplify. Gibson quickly ran away from the idea that he didn’t want Upton, leaving Towers and Kendrick as the likely culprits in the move and, as I said before, Towers didn’t want to trade Upton as a matter of course, he was simply seeing what was out there.

So now what?

The return for Upton is haphazard and odd. When they initially tossed his name out as negotiable, they wanted a huge package for their future. The trade they made with the Braves is a now-and-later deal. They received Martin Prado, who will fill a hole at third base, but is a free agent at the end of the season and wants a lot of money. The Diamondbacks have said they want to sign Prado and hope to get an extension done quickly, putting themselves in another precarious position similar to the one they dove headfirst into with Upton. Prado is a fine, versatile player with speed, power and defense and will help them in 2013.

They also received shortstop Nick Ahmed, third baseman Brandon Drury, righty pitcher Zeke Spruill, and righty pitcher Randall Delgado. It’s a solid return. Delgado, with his deceptive shotgun windup, has the stuff to be a big winner. You can read about the young players here on Baseball America.

There is a “but” and it’s a big one.

It’s a good trade, BUT what was the point? The problem for the Diamondbacks is that this increases the perception of ambiguity. Are they building for the future with the young players? Are they trying to win now? If Prado doesn’t sign, are they going to see where they are at mid-season and spin him off in a trade if they’re not contending or if they are, will they use this excess of young shortstops with Ahmed and Didi Gregorius to get veteran help?

A lack of definition is the hallmark of an absence of planning. The Diamondbacks may have had a plan when Towers was hired. One would assume he presented said plan to get the job. There’s no evident plan anymore. It’s an unsustainable tapdance to adapt to the on-the-fly alterations. The intention was to build slowly while being competitive. The new construct was rushed and adjusted due to situational concerns. The structure has become a box without a sufficient escape route. They’d better learn to live in it, because they have nowhere else to go. It might be good. Then again, it might not.

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Why Are the Diamondbacks So Desperate to Deal Justin Upton?

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The proposed trade of Justin Upton to the Mariners was rejected by Upton because the Mariners are one of four clubs on his no-trade list. With a heavy return consisting of a situational lefty (Charlie Furbush), a young middle infield prospect (Nick Franklin), a young righty reliever with closer potential (Stephen Pryor), and one of the following young starters: Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen or James Paxton, in theory the trade made sense for the Diamondbacks. Given their overflow of outfielders, someone (or two) has to go.

It has seemed at times that Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers is collecting outfielders just for the sake of it. Apart from the Upton trade talks a year ago, there was no reason for him to pay $16 million last winter to sign Jason Kubel when Kubel was replacing Gerardo Parra who had a career year offensively and defensively—winning a Gold Glove—in 2011. He signed Kubel anyway. Kubel had a hot start to the season making the signing look like the work of a genius, but once the National League figured out Kubel’s weaknesses (he has a slow bat and doesn’t hit lefties), he had a dreadful second half.

This winter, Towers replicated the Kubel signing more expensively from the opposite side of the plate by signing Cody Ross to a 3-year, $26 million contract. Ross can hit both lefties and righties and can crush a fastball, so he’s more of an everyday player than Kubel, but there’s a glaring redundancy of the flawed outfielders that Towers insists on signing to fill holes that didn’t exist.

Compounded by the trade of Chris Young to the Athletics for a no-hit shortstop Cliff Pennington, the Diamondbacks now have three no-hit shortstops with Pennington, Willie Bloomquist and John McDonald. In addition, they traded their top young pitching prospect Trevor Bauer in a three-way trade to bring in a young shortstop, Didi Gregorius, who Towers ridiculously compared to Derek Jeter. Bauer had made no friends in the organization with his mouth and unwillingness to listen to suggestions from anyone and didn’t hesitate to make that known publicly. But Towers drafted Bauer. Shouldn’t he have been aware of his personality before the fact?

Interestingly, one of the reasons the Diamondbacks—under former GM Josh Byrnes—were able to acquire Ian Kennedy was because the Yankees had tired of his mouth and he didn’t listen.

Like the line from the film The Town, “You need a Venn diagram for these people.”

When Towers was hired, the Diamondbacks were an organization in apparent disarray. In the midst of a 2010 season in which they’d lose 97 games, they fired their longtime GM Byrnes at mid-season along with his hand-picked, inexperienced manager A.J. Hinch and replaced them with Jerry Dipoto and Kirk Gibson. Dipoto made several housecleaning trades that set the stage for the club’s stunning division title in 2011. Towers rebuilt the bullpen. The one thing Towers is good at is building a bullpen. Apart from that, his history has been one of haphazard, lateral maneuvers and a significant amount of luck.

No one has come up with an acceptable reason that Upton is on the block to begin with.

Is it attitude? There’s never been a report of Upton causing problems and he’s certainly got a better reputation than his brother B.J. Upton. The same B.J. Upton to whom the notoriously prickly and behavior-oriented Braves just gave $75 million. Any off-field problems and desire for “good guys” is counteracted by the Diamondbacks trading for Heath Bell. When compiling a list of players with bad reputations, Bell will be in everyone’s top 10.

Playing ability? Upton was the first overall pick in the 2005 MLB Draft, is a power hitter with speed and is a good defensive right fielder.

Age? He’ll be 26 in August.

Money? He’s signed at a comparatively cheap $38.5 million through 2015.

A better replacement? They don’t have a better replacement.

I suppose you can make the argument that he’s their biggest asset and would yield the largest return, but the team is trying to win. Doesn’t Upton help them in that goal better than replacing him with some conglomeration of a Furbush, Ross, Kubel and a mass of young players that may or may not make it?

In looking for a “why?” of Towers’s frantic attempts to trade Upton that seemingly were in place immediately upon getting the job, his accompanying decisions have made clear that there may not be a reason and if there is, the public doesn’t know about it. But we can only judge by what’s known and via that metric, combined with the other things Towers has done in his time on the job, Upton’s availability not as a “we’ll listen,” but as a “we have to get this guy outta here,” simply doesn’t pass the smell test.

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Carlos Quentin is a Good Risk For the Padres

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Say this about Padres GM Josh Byrnes: he follows through on what he believes strategically; trusts the people he trusts; and doesn’t care about perception when he makes his moves.

The Mat Latos trade came out of nowhere and Byrnes got a metric ton of young talent for a similarly young, talented pitcher still under team control for four years; he’s listening to offers for top prospect Anthony Rizzo; and he acquired an MVP-quality and injury-prone bat in Carlos Quentin for two minor leaguers.

As GM of the Diamondbacks, Byrnes proved he was willing to do anything and everything based on what he believed; sometimes it worked out as in the trade for Dan Haren; others it didn’t when he fired manager Bob Melvin and replaced him with the inexperienced A.J. Hinch and saddled him with the implication that he was a puppet of the front office by referencing the bizarrely phrased and cryptic term “organizational advocacy”.

In short, Byrnes’s philosophy isn’t about ego or positive press; it’s “this is what I’m doing, like it or not.”

Let’s look at the trade.

For the Padres:

It’s obvious now that Rizzo’s going to get traded and if they deal him for Matt Garza, the Padres will have had an understated and successful off-season.

Quentin’s big issue is staying healthy. When he’s healthy, he’s a middle-of-the-order, impact bat. The notion that he’s the product of friendly home parks is nonsense—he’s hit well on the road and when he’s struggled, his BAbip has been atrocious; he’s hit in bad luck. Quentin is an up-the-middle hitter; that tells me that he—in an Albert Pujols like fashion—sees the ball very well and hits it squarely on a regular basis. He’s a huge man (6’2”, 235) and has the power to get the ball out of Petco Park.

He’s had injuries to his knee, wrist, heel and shoulder; he might miss substantial time with maladies—he’s never played more than 131 games and his fractured wrist in 2008 likely cost him the American League MVP.

Quentin went to Stanford and knows what’s at stake in 2012: he’s playing for his contract and if he stays on the field and puts up big numbers playing in a pitchers’ park, he’s going to be an inviting free agent target for all the big money clubs in baseball.

It’s no risk and massive reward for the Padres since the young players they surrendered—LHP Pedro Hernandez and RHP Simon Castro—pitched poorly in Triple A and the Padres have pitching to spare. They needed a bat.

If they’re contending, they’ll have a power bat who will be the reason they’re contending; if they’re not and Quentin’s hitting well, they can trade him for a greater return than they gave up; if he gets hurt, he gets hurt.

For the White Sox:

Quentin was out of the lineup as much as he was in it, they weren’t going to keep him after next season and needed to slash payroll somewhere.

As negatively rated as the two young pitchers are, you never know with pitchers and White Sox GM Ken Williams is the same man who was in love with Gavin Floyd when no one else was and, in spite of atrocious numbers, traded for him and watched him become a top-tier starter.

The White Sox aren’t doing a full-scale teardown as Williams implied after Ozzie Guillen and Mark Buehrle left and he announced they were open for business for anyone on the roster; they signed John Danks to an extension and have yet to make any significant trades of players who would bring back name prospects. They cleared the Quentin salary, got two pitchers and will have a look at Dayan Viciedo as an everyday player.

Because the AL Central is so up-for-grabs, the White Sox can still compete; it makes no sense to do anything too drastic right now.

The trade makes sense for both sides and was crafted by two GMs who don’t let public reaction influence what they do one way or the other.

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Because He’s LaRussa…Again

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During that 20-inning loss to the Mets in April of 2010, Tony LaRussa used position players Felipe Lopez and Joe Mather to pitch and lost the game. I said at the time that if then-Mets manager Jerry Manuel had done that, there would be people calling for his job. (Well, more people calling for his job because he was already under siege.)

But because LaRussa is LaRussa, has the reputation he has; the record he has; the Hall of Fame career he has, he gets away with things that other managers wouldn’t.

It’s the same situation with the World Series bullpen mix-up and the freedom Albert Pujols has to call his own hit-and-run plays.

They were mistakes. They happen throughout the course of a season with every team no matter who’s managing, but these were magnified because that might have cost the Cardinals the game and they happened one after the other.

Regardless of your opinion as to whether LaRussa should accord such leeway for a player to call his own risky hit-and-runs, Pujols and LaRussa have both earned the trust to make those decisions.

As for the bullpen gaffe, those that think LaRussa is lying are fools.

He doesn’t have to lie about such a mistake and he took the responsibility on himself. Another manager without such security might’ve said something to inspire accusations of conspiracy because they would have incentive to lie. LaRussa doesn’t.

But still he has to endure the absurd critiques from those in the media who think they know, but don’t know; who have self-created expertise because they understand a series of stats but haven’t the faintest clue of how difficult it is to navigate a roomful of egos; the stifling media; and the competition.

We’ve seen the end result of the “middle-manager” who’s known to be such and hasn’t the experience nor the savvy to handle all aspects of managing in the big leagues.

A.J. Hinch was installed by the Diamondbacks to institute “organizational advocacy”; he’s extremely smart and played in the big leagues, but had zero managerial experience; it was a disaster that cost both Hinch and GM Josh Byrnes their jobs.

Grady Little was fired because, in part, he left Pedro Martinez in too long in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS and the Yankees came back and won. But he was already on thin ice because he wasn’t the type of manager who’d adhere to statistics to the degree that the Red Sox wanted and only a World Series win was going to save him.

LaRussa has been managing in the big leagues since 1979. He certainly doesn’t need to formulate cover stories or lie to the likes of those who have all the guts in the world in a blog post or on Twitter, but would faint if they were in that position in the corner of the dugout making decisions that win or lose ballgames.

Because he’s LaRussa, he gets a pass. And he deserves it.

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