The Nationals, players’ only meetings and automaton managers

MLB

Martinez RizzoWith the Washington Nationals reeling and desperately trying to turn out of their accelerating death spiral, the club held a players’ only meeting after yet another loss. As manager Dave Martinez faces scrutiny for the underachieving club whose championship window is not just closing but is about to be blown out of its frame, he seems at a loss for words with the following comment:

“We were a pretty good team in May. Not very good in June, but we’ll get better.”

“I know we’re going to get better. We’re going to continue, and we’re going to win a lot of games.”

This while the inevitable and perfectly reasonable question is being asked as to whether the Nationals would be in this position right now had they not decided to move on from Dusty Baker for the younger, more pliable and cheaper Martinez.

This is a repeat of the Nationals’ previous attempt to hire the cookie-cutter manager who did what he was told, Matt Williams, to replace the veteran and somewhat headstrong Davey Johnson. To compound the growing sense of “what might have been?”, Johnson came out in his book saying that he was basically an unwilling accomplice to “Incident X” in the Nationals downfall from would-be dynasty to historic underachiever: the 2012 shutdown of Stephen Strasburg.

Even more troubling is Jim Riggleman, the manager who Johnson replaced because he was a veteran caretaker manager whose role was to oversee the rebuild and keep the young players in line, is enjoying a renaissance as the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, having turned the club from 110-loss oblivion to playing around .500 ball under his stewardship following their atrocious 3-15 start under Bryan Price.

Martinez epitomizes the preferred manager in today’s game where collaboration takes precedence over competence and experience; where following orders is at or near the top of the job description when it wasn’t even included in the list of requirements before front offices took center stage as the hub around which entire organizations orbit.

To blame Martinez, Mickey Callaway or Paul Molitor for the poor seasons of their clubs and to credit Dave Roberts, Aaron Boone or Gabe Kapler for a club’s success misses the point of how managers are handled – not hired – handled today.

Martinez merely serves as the latest case study of why these new-age managers are largely interchangeable. His statement above is indicative of not knowing what to do while knowing what he’s allowed to do. He’s a figurehead and the players know it. The team meeting is a signal that they’re taking matters into their own hands to stack sandbags and prevent the flood from worsening because, judging by their history with Williams, they’ve seen this natural disaster before and are acting before it’s too late.

This is a grand distance from a Billy Martin explosion with the food table being flung across the room; a Lee Elia expletive-laced rant; or even Jim Leyland screaming at the players and telling the GM – his “boss” – to get the hell out of his office and stop telling him how to do his job and getting away with it.

Don Zimmer once started a team meeting by screaming at his players before coming to a dead stop and telling them that it wasn’t their fault that they stunk and couldn’t play, so there was no reason to yell at them for it.

None of this happens in today’s game even with the remaining veteran managers like Mike Scioscia, Buck Showalter and Ron Gardenhire who have a certain amount of leeway in dealing with the players.

Disposable managers with entry-level contracts know their place. Martinez appears devoid of passion not due to natural stoicism, but through borderline catatonia that was drilled in as a prerequisite for the job. That’s essentially the logical conclusion of hiring a manager whose role is to take orders and who, should he deviate from that, will be replaced by another manager who takes orders. When the Nationals caved and hired Baker, it was because they could not afford to hire another Williams and Baker was willing to take short money for the opportunity. After two years, two division titles, and two close-call Game 5 losses in the NLDS, the Nationals felt sufficiently emboldened in their arrogance that they were talented enough to win on cruise control and could hire another manager like Williams. The results are eerily similar not just on the field but with the players’ action and reaction.

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The Mets’ Wally Problem

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There was a mini-storm regarding the Mets decision to send Ike Davis down to Triple A Las Vegas this week not because they did it (they had to); and not because Davis complained about it publicly (it would take an audacity unmeasurable with current available tools for him to do so), but because Las Vegas manager Wally Backman went on WFAN with Mike Francesa on Monday and expressed his opinion as to what’s wrong with Davis and what he’s planning to do to fix it.

Some in the Mets organization (presumably those who have been working with Davis—futilely) were offended that Backman so openly went against what they’ve been doing with the first baseman even though what they’ve been doing has yielded a hitter with home run champion potential batting .161 with 4 homers in 207 plate appearances in 2013. This minor dustup has exacerbated the problem the Mets have as they endure a 2013 season in which they’re likely to lose 95 games and are preparing to use the freed up money from the contract expirations of Johan Santana and Jason Bay to acquire name free agents to make a move in 2014. Any veteran acquisitions along the lines of Shin-Soo Choo and/or Jacoby Ellsbury would be done to add to David Wright, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Daniel Murphy, Jonathon Niese and Bobby Parnell. Travis d’Arnaud is also on the way.

Is Davis part of the future? He’s going to have to be right now because he has no trade value and the team doesn’t have a ready-made first baseman to replace him. The only choice they currently have is to get Davis straight and that led to the demotion to Triple A.

The Backman comments came from a miscommunication or Backman simply ignoring what he was told when it came to what was going to be with Davis. The Mets are no longer a club where the major league staff will say and do one thing and the minor league staff will say and do another. There’s not a lack of cohesion from the lowest levels of the minor leagues and going step-by-step to different levels with a multitude of hitting and pitching coaches imparting diametrically opposed theories to clog the heads of the youngsters so they don’t know what’s what when they go from one place to the other as they listen to everyone. For better or worse, the way Dave Hudgens teaches hitting at the big league level is how hitting is to be taught all the way through the organization. And that’s where the disconnect came with Backman.

The front office and Backman had different ideas as to what was going to occur with Davis in Triple A. The Mets major league front office and on-field staff wanted Davis to go to Las Vegas and not worry about media attention, endless questions as to what’s wrong and what he would do in the event that he was demoted, and the constant tweaking to his batting stance and approach to the tune of having a different one from game-to-game and at bat-to-at bat. Backman was under the impression that the Mets were sending Davis down to be “fixed” and that he was the one to do it.

The only way to determine who’s right and who’s wrong here is whether it works because there’s no “right” or “wrong.” If Backman sits Davis down and gets into an old-school “your head is getting in the way of your abilities” and Davis starts hitting, then Backman will have been “right.” If it was a breather he needed to get away from the constant scrutiny, then the front office will have been “right.” Or everyone will have been “right.” Or everyone will have been “wrong.” It might just come down to Davis himself.

Regardless, it’s these types of territorial battles that get in the way of actually developing and correcting players and it’s precisely what the Mets were trying to get away from when they brought Sandy Alderson onboard as GM.

As for Backman and his hopes to manage the Mets one day, it’s still up in the air and unlikely. Reports have surfaced that there is no chance that Alderson will ever hire Backman. That doesn’t mean that ownership won’t overrule Alderson, but given the way Alderson has done essentially whatever he’s wanted since taking over, they probably won’t deviate now just as they’re about to get better. Fred and Jeff Wilpon accepted that the entire organization needed to be rebuilt without the desperation that led to the contracts such as the one Bay signed. They’re taking the hits and dealing with the fallout of the past three years looking forward to the farm system and loosened purse strings building a sustainable success. They’re not going to undercut him and force Backman on him even if Terry Collins is dismissed after the season.

Much like Collins can’t be blamed for the current state of the Mets big league product, nor is it as certain as those in the media and fanbase portray it that Backman is the answer to all the Mets’ problems. As much of a competitor and baseball rat that Backman is, he has had off-field issues and how he handles the day-to-day questioning and pressure he’ll face as a manager in New York with expectations hovering over him has the potential to result in a Billy Martin-style wave of self-destructiveness. Placating the fans and Backman-supporters in the media would bring a brief bout of happiness and good press that would disappear within a month if the team continued to play under Backman as they did under Collins. Or he might be just what they need. There’s no way of knowing.

Backman has patiently bided his time and rebuilt his image after the embarrassing hiring and immediate firing as manager of the Diamondbacks after he didn’t inform them of his DUI and financial problems during the interview. He’s worked his way up through the Mets organization managing from rung-to-rung and is right below the spot he truly and openly wants. One of Backman’s strengths is also a weakness: he has no pretense. He wants the Mets job and doesn’t care who knows it. The failure to adequately play politics has alienated him with many in the organization who are tired of looking over their shoulder at a popular and potentially good manager who is passive aggressively campaigning for the managerial position. Other minor league managers and bench coaches want managerial jobs, but are more adept at knowing their place and skillfully putting up a front of loyalty and humility. That’s not Backman. Backman is, “You’re goddamn right I could do a great job as manager.” It won’t endear him to people in the organization who don’t want to know that’s the opinion of their Triple A manager.

If the Mets continue on the trajectory they’re currently on, they cannot possibly bring Collins—in the final year of his contract—back for 2014 when they’re seriously intent on jumping into the fringes of contention if not outright challenging for the division title next year. They could roll the dice on Backman; they could promote one of their own coaches Tim Teufel or Bob Geren; they could bring in an available and competent veteran manager like Jim Tracy; or they could hire another club’s bench coach who’s waiting for a shot like Dave Martinez.

What I believe will happen, though, is this: The Angels are in worse shape than the Mets with a massive payroll and expectations, nine games under .500, going nowhere and in rampant disarray. Angels owner Arte Moreno will not sit quietly after spending all of this money to make the Angels into a World Series contender and being rewarded with a team closer to the woeful Astros than the first place A’s. But manager Mike Scioscia has a contract through 2018 and Moreno only recently hired GM Jerry Dipoto. Scioscia and Dipoto are not on the same page and Scioscia’s style clearly isn’t working anymore with the type of team that Dipoto and Moreno have handed him. Another wrench in making a change is that the Dodgers are likely to be looking for a new manager and Scioscia is a popular former Dodger who is precisely what their fans want and their players need. The last thing Moreno will want to see is Scioscia picking up and going to the Dodgers days after he’s fired from the Angels.

Here’s the solution: Trade Scioscia to the Mets.

If the Mets are looking for a new manager and a name manager, they’d have to give someone established with Scioscia’s resume a 4-5 year deal anyway. Scioscia is already signed through 2018 with an opt-out after 2015. He’d relish the opportunity to enter a new clubhouse in a new city with a load of young talent and none of the drama and onerous financial obligations with nonexistent communication between the front office and the manager that he’s facing in Anaheim. Moreno wouldn’t have to worry about the back of the Los Angeles newspapers screaming about what a great job Scioscia’s doing with the Dodgers as the Angels face an uncertain future and significant retooling. Sending him across the country and getting out from under the contract while acquiring a couple of mediocre minor leaguers to justify it would fill everyone’s needs simultaneously.

Ironically, it was Scioscia who took over as fulltime Angels manager in 2000 after Collins had been fired at mid-season the year before and replaced on an interim basis by Joe Maddon. It could happen again with the Mets and they can only hope that the extended run of success that the Angels enjoyed with Scioscia’s steady leadership is replicated in New York.

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West Coast Disaster Film

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The Red Sox have understandably dominated the headlines while a similar disaster film is underway and less prominent on the West Coast. Like the star-studded, “yeah, I’ll do it even with this ridiculous script just to get a paycheck” films of yesteryear like The Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure of the 1970s, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are writing their own script of shoving as many stars as possible into the mix without considering the director’s style and ability to handle the way such actors should be handled. The studio executives who come up with the money and the producer also have to be on the same page with the director or a change has to be made. In the worst case scenario, what you’ll see is a dead-on satire such as Tropic Thunder with a star-studded cast of enabled divas who don’t mesh together on-screen.

The Angels imported a cavalcade of stars before and during the season and are still hovering around .500 and, at the rate they’re going, will not make the playoffs. This is after signing Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson; trading for Zack Greinke in-season and stealing Ernest Frieri from the Padres; having Mike Trout arrive as a rookie and explode to the top of the list of contenders for Rookie of the Year and MVP; and hiring a respected baseball executive who understands scouting and stats in Jerry Dipoto.

The results have been less than spectacular and the familiarly insular style of manager Mike Scioscia in keeping the team issues within the confines of the clubhouse has been noticeably absent as complaints about hitting coach Mickey Hatcher resulted in his firing in May. Scioscia’s control of the organization—which had been seen as inherent prior to Dipoto’s hiring—was exposed as diminished or non-existent. That his managing style of speed, defense, bunting, hitting-and-running and old-school Tommy Lasorda National League baseball doesn’t complement with his roster or what his new, young GM advocates is only making the fissures more stark. If they were winning, it would be glossed over; but they’re not. They’re 62-59 and 3 ½ games out of a playoff spot. They can come back, of course, but coming back from a deficit requires a team to be playing reasonably well and showing signs of life, something that this Angels team is not doing.

Horribly inconsistent and frustrated, the one thing the Angels had in years past was a chain-of-command and stability. Scioscia was in charge and everyone knew it; the GMs, Bill Stoneman and Tony Reagins, receded into the background; the owner, Arte Moreno, was there with the money and support. Scioscia kept the media at bay and absorbed any criticism of his club; there were rarely whispers of discontent and sniping between teammates or organization members. But when you bring in a star the level of Pujols, it changes the entire dynamic. When that star struggles to start the season and has as a hitting coach someone who was an okay hitter but not anywhere near Pujols’s class, where’s the blame going to go? While Scioscia didn’t want Hatcher fired, the need to make a change for the sake of it trumped the manager’s desires and the Angels fired him. Whether Hatcher was there or not Pujols eventually would’ve started hitting, so the decision was largely irrelevant. What it did do, however, was to expose the diminished stature of the manager in terms of organizational hierarchy.

What’s going to happen in Anaheim if this team—that has everything on paper to be a World Series contender—falters and misses the playoffs entirely? If they finish at .500 or worse? If the clearly present issues that are bubbling under the surface in terms of strategies and personalities clashes suddenly leak out (and they will) as they have in Boston?

Dipoto would not hire a Scioscia-type as his manager if he’s allowed to make that decision. While Dipoto has scouting bona fides, he’s also worked in front offices with a list of clearly delineated parameters for the front office and field staff. This isn’t to suggest that he’s going to want a figurehead as a manager, but given the roster, the statistically-conscious adherence to power and letting the game evolve with high-percentage calls rather than the constant pressure-pressure-pressure of the old-school National Leaguers, it’s obvious that there’s going to be a culture clash with the new GM and his manager. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a personal issue between the factions, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to work either.

It’s not hard to picture Dipoto wanting to change the manager after this season and for Scioscia to leave given how he’s essentially been stripped of his power with the construction of the club. That’s not to imply that Dipoto will install a faceless and cheap automaton to manage the club and take orders from the front office as is the implied ideal in the creative non-fiction known as Moneyball, but that he’ll hire someone who’s going to be more agreeable to what Dipoto is going to want on the field. Terry Francona, Dave Martinez or Pete Mackanin would be far more fitting for both the roster and the front office in multiple ways.

Scioscia’s contract runs through 2018 with an opt-out after 2015, but if he wants to leave the front office won’t stand in his way. In fact, both sides would presumably prefer it given how little say he has in the way the team’s been built and that he doesn’t manage the way Dipoto would like.

Here’s an idea that’s far more reasonable than any that have come out to solve problems on the aforementioned East Coast: How about Scioscia to the Red Sox?

He has the cachet to deal with the media; he’d put a stop to the leaks that have sabotaged Bobby Valentine; he’s not reviled like Valentine is; and he certainly wouldn’t let the veterans behave in the entitled manner they’ve grown accustomed to.

It’s not a failure to admit a lack of cohesion and make requisite changes. If something’s not working, it’s the height of arrogance to stick to it regardless of reality. The reality in Anaheim is that the manager no longer fits in with what the front office has done and plans to do. That’s when it’s time to part ways for the betterment of all involved and, possibly, for another team that needs exactly what it is that Scioscia does well.

It’s almost necessary at this point.

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White Sox Hire….Robin Ventura?!?

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Baseball’s James Bond Villain, White Sox GM Kenny Williams, has seen his evil schemes in recent years turn out…well, like those of an actual James Bond villain, meaning that they didn’t work; in fact, they were overwrought (taking Alexis Rios‘s contract from the Blue Jays); expensive and miserable (Adam Dunn); and undermined by a treacherous second in command (Ozzie Guillen).

Now he’s done something for which “outside-the-box” doesn’t even fit by hiring Robin Ventura as the new White Sox manager.

In theory and as a person, Ventura would be a fine managerial candidate; but he’s never managed anywhere and only joined the White Sox as special assistant to director of player development Buddy Bell last June. The understated, thoughtful and happy-go-lucky Ventura is the opposite of the manic and combative former manager Guillen. The media at large will be pleased in the sense that they won’t require a translator or repeated re-typing of their stories to counteract spell-check trying to manufacture Guillen’s quotes into something intelligible. (Yes. That’s what he really said! It’s supposed to be: “I didn’t know nothin when I brung Floyd off ‘da game.”)

Ventura’s never managed at any level, but we see managers all over the place with loads of experience who do endlessly ridiculous things, so what’s the difference? He’ll handle the media, be respected in the clubhouse and if he gets a veteran bench coach who preferably has managerial experience, it could work.

There are things to be concerned about. He’s never done it, so he might not like it; and the strategic issues cannot be ignored. But the White Sox are decisive in their maneuverings and they decided that the former White Sox star player Ventura was the guy.

Why not? Give it a shot and see. If it doesn’t go well, they’ll get someone else.

On another note, former Mets GM and connoisseur of interns and underlings for sexual thrills Steve Phillips, said that he doesn’t feel as if Tampa Bay Rays bench coach and suggested candidate for several managerial jobs including that of the White Sox, Dave Martinez has the “presence” to be a big league manager.

I’m not sure how Phillips would know this, but it’s a bit irresponsible for the man who hired Art Howe—not exactly Mr. Personality—to run the Mets in replacing the larger-than-life and ego as big as Neptune Bobby Valentine to be publicly denigrating someone he doesn’t even know.

But with Phillips there’s always an agenda and presumably there’s one at work here.

He hired Howe because the club’s first choice, Lou Piniella, was going to cost compensation in terms of players and, more importantly, would’ve usurped Phillips’s power. Howe wasn’t going to do that.

The funniest bit about that whole episode was Valentine’s reaction when told he was fired by the Mets; referring to Phillips he said, “And he stays?!?” in disbelief.

Yes. He stayed. Until May the next year when Phillips was fired too.

Maybe it was his presence that was the problem. The Mets didn’t want it around anymore and they made it disappear early the next season.

Valentine must’ve been amused.

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