Managers/GMs on the 2012 Hotseat

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It’s never too early to talk about who might be in trouble in the front office and dugout.

Let’s take a look.

Jack Zduriencik, GM—Seattle Mariners

Zduriencik was hired in late October of 2008. In retrospect, the worst thing that could’ve happened for the Mariners was the turnaround from 2008-2009 when they went from 61-101 to 85-77.

The 2008 team wasn’t 100-loss bad. They sustained crippling injuries to closer J.J. Putz and would-be ace #2 Erik Bedard and the entire season came apart. By the end of May, they were 15 games under .500 and double-digits out of first place.

When the news came out that Mike Morse had signed a contract extension with the Nationals, the trade Zduriencik made sending Morse to Washington for Ryan Langerhans was referenced on Twitter along with the now-laughable ranking of the Mariners of the sixth best organization in baseball a couple of years ago.

The trending topic is #6org as if it’s the most absurd thing in the world.

But, like the rise from 100-losses to moderate contention in the span of a year, it’s all in the details.

Zduriencik has done many good things as he’s reduced the Mariners’ payroll from $117 million when he took over to around $94 million in 2012. His drafts have yielded Dustin Ackley, Daniel Hultzen and Kyle Seager.

He’s also done some stupid things like signing Chone Figgins and engaged in activities that, at best, are described as amoral such as trading for Josh Lueke, signing Milton Bradley and double-dealing on the Yankees in the Cliff Lee trade negotiations.

It’s not all his fault. Some of what’s happened has been forced on him by the front office (re-signing Ken Griffey Jr. and keeping Ichiro Suzuki). But he got the credit for the 2009 rise, he gets the blame for everything else. That’s how it works.

The Mariners are in a nightmarish division and just pulled off a risky trade sending Michael Pineda and prospect Jose Campos to the Yankees for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi. We won’t know the true end result of this trade for years, but if Pineda pitches well in pinstripes and Montero and Noesi don’t live up to expectations, that could be it for Zduriencik. The “right track” stuff won’t play if the Mariners again lose 90 games and with his contract running through 2013, Zduriencik may be running out of time.

Fredi Gonzalez, Manager—Atlanta Braves

Much to the chagrin of the more dialed-in Braves fans, unless they start the season 10-25, he’s not going anywhere.

He did a poor job last season even before the collapse that drove the Braves from a playoff spot that should’ve been assured. His strategic decisions were occasionally nonsensical and he appeared defensive and borderline arrogant in justifying the way he ran his team.

Do the Braves have an on-staff replacement and if they make a change? Would they be willing to hire an unproven Terry Pendleton? Probably not.

One intriguing option was Terry Francona, but Francona joined ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and I doubt he’s going to step out of the booth and back on the field in 2012. I’m getting the feeling that he took his interviews with the Cubs and Cardinals right after leaving the Red Sox looking to keep managing and when he didn’t get those jobs, he came to terms with broadcasting as a new career option and will enjoy being around the game without the stifling pressure from managing in Boston for 8 years—pressure that negatively affected his health.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Francona doesn’t return to managing at all for the foreseeable future.

The one name that’s possible with Gonzalez—not likely, but possible if the season is spiraling out of control and needs to be saved—is Bobby Cox.

The veterans would welcome him back and while he’d be reluctant to replace his hand-picked successor, if John Schuerholz and Frank Wren tell Cox that Gonzalez is gone whether he takes the job or not, he’ll take the job. Chipper Jones could go to upper management and says enough’s enough with Gonzalez and try to convince Cox to take over for the rest of the season.

Remember that Cox didn’t want to move from GM to manager in 1990 when Russ Nixon was fired and Cox subsequently stayed until 2010 and wrote his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Dusty Baker, Manager—Cincinnati Reds

Baker and GM Walt Jocketty have never been on the same page. Baker’s contract is up at the end of the season and the only thing that saved him from being fired at the conclusion of his last contract in 2010 was that he won the NL Central.

As evidenced by trading a large chunk of their minor league system for Mat Latos and the signings of Ryan Madson and Ryan Ludwick, the Reds are going for it now and have to win.

There’s no veteran successor on staff and Francona would be an option in Cincinnati if he were looking to get back in the dugout, but he’s not.

One interesting scenario is if Tony LaRussa is bored in retirement and his old cohort from Oakland and St. Louis, Jocketty, comes calling. LaRussa and Baker despise each other and it probably wouldn’t sit well with several of the Reds players, but if they’re not fulfilling their mandate, they’d have no one to blame but themselves and, like the Red Sox with Bobby Valentine, would have to deal with the consequences.

It won’t matter because the Reds are going to play well this year and Baker’s a survivor, but the expiring contract is hovering over the manager and team.

They’d better get off to a good start.

Brad Mills, Manager—Houston Astros

The new front office led by Jeff Luhnow kept Mills, but that may be because it makes no sense to pay a different manager to run a team that’s going to lose 100 games in 2012 regardless of who’s in the manager’s office.

Mills’s contract is up at the end of the season. The Astros mess is not his fault and he seems to be a competent manager, but Luhnow and new owner Jim Crane inherited him and it’s only fair that they hire their own man if that’s what they’d like to do.

One can only hope they don’t hire a new manager and, like Sig Mejdal’s new age title of “Director of Decision Sciences”, they choose to refer to the manager as “Director of On-Field Strategic Interpretations and Implementations”.

Maybe they’ll hire Keith Law to manage the team. I know I’d love to see that as he deals with Brett Myers.

That would be a narrative!

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GMs The Second Time Around

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With two big general managing jobs open—the Angels and the Cubs—let’s take a look at recognizable title-winning GMs and how they’ve fared in second and third jobs.

John Schuerholz

Schuerholz won the World Series with the 1985 Royals and moved on to the Braves after the 1990 season because Bobby Cox had gone down on the field and handled both jobs after firing Russ Nixon. It was Cox who drafted Chipper Jones (because Todd Van Poppel insisted he was going to college, then didn’t—he probably should’ve); Kent Mercker; Mike Stanton; Steve Avery; Mark Wohlers; and Ryan Klesko. He also traded Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz.

Schuerholz made the fill-in moves like acquiring Charlie Leibrandt, Rafael Belliard, Otis Nixon, Alejandro Pena and Juan Berenguer; in later years, he signed Greg Maddux and traded for Fred McGriff.

It was, in fact, the predecessor to Cox—John Mullen—who drafted Ron Gant, Mark Lemke, Dave Justice and Tom Glavine.

The idea that Schuerholz “built” the Braves of the 1990s isn’t true. It’s never been true.

Andy MacPhail

MacPhail was never comfortable with spending a load of money. When he was with the Twins, that was the way they did business and he excelled at it building teams on the cheap with a template of the way the Twins played and a manager, Tom Kelly, to implement that.

He put together the Twins 1987 and 1991 championship clubs. MacPhail became the Cubs CEO in 1994 and stayed until 2006. The Cubs made it to the playoffs twice in MacPhail’s tenure and came close to winning that elusive pennant in 2003.

MacPhail’s legacy running the Cubs—fairly or not—is that he was in charge while Kerry Wood and Mark Prior were pushed very, very hard as young pitchers trying to win that championship.

It was a vicious circle. If the Cubs didn’t let them pitch, they wouldn’t have made the playoffs; and since they let them endure heavy workloads at a young age, they flamed out.

MacPhail went to the Orioles in 2007 and the team didn’t improve despite MacPhail seeming to prevail on owner Peter Angelos that his spending on shot veterans wasn’t working; MacPhail’s power was usurped when Buck Showalter was hired to be the manager and his future is uncertain.

Sandy Alderson

Credited as the “father” of Moneyball, he was a run-of-the-mill GM who won when he had money to spend, a brilliant manager in Tony LaRussa, and an all-world pitching coach Dave Duncan. When the well dried up, the A’s stopped contending and he was relegated to signing veteran players who had nowhere else to go (sort of like Moneyball), but couldn’t play (unlike Moneyball).

Alderson drafted Jason Giambi and Tim Hudson among a couple of others who contributed to the Athletics renaissance and the Billy Beane “genius”.

Moving on to the Padres as CEO in 2005, Alderson created factions in the front office between the stat people and scouting people and appeared more interested in accumulating legitimate, on-the-record credit for himself as a cut of the Moneyball pie than in building a winning team by any means necessary within the budget.

He joined the Mets as GM a year ago. Grade pending.

Pat Gillick

Gillick is in the Hall of Fame. He built the Blue Jays from the ground up, culminating in back-to-back championships in 1992 and 1993.

He’s retired and un-retired multiple times, ran the Orioles under Angelos and spent a ton of money and came close, but continually lost out to the Yankees.

He took over the Mariners and built a powerhouse with Lou Piniella; they came close…but couldn’t get by the Yankees.

He went to the Phillies, built upon the foundation that had been laid by the disrespected former GM Ed Wade and scouting guru Mike Arbuckle and got credit for the 2008 championship.

He says he’s retired, but I’m not buying it even at age 74. The Mariners are the job I’d see him taking if it’s offered and with another bad year from Jack Zduriencik’s crew in 2012, it just might be.

Walt Jocketty

Jocketty won the 2006 World Series and, along with LaRussa, built the Cardinals into an annual contender. He was forced out in a power-struggle between those in the Cardinals from office that wanted to go the Moneyball route and Jocketty’s people that didn’t. One year after the World Series win, he was fired.

At mid-season 2008, he was hired by the Reds and was given credit for the 2010 NL Central championship, but that credit was a bit shaky.

Wayne Krivsky was the GM before Jocketty and traded for Brandon Phillips and Bronson Arroyo.

Dan O’Brien Jr. preceded Krivsky and drafted Jay Bruce and signed Johnny Cueto.

And it was Jim Bowden who drafted Joey Votto.

The common denominator with the names above and the levels of success or failure they achieved had to do with the groundwork that had been placed and, in part, what they did after their arrival.

The Cubs and Angels are both well-stocked for their choices to look very smart, very quickly; but the hiring of a “name” GM doesn’t automatically imply that the success from the prior stop is going to be repeated and that has to be considered with whomever the two teams decide to hire.

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Showalter For Manager/GM?

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It has been whispered that the Orioles should do something decidedly old-school and name manager Buck Showalter GM as well.

There hasn’t been a manager/GM since Bobby Cox went back on the field to replace Russ Nixon as Braves manager in 1990 and that didn’t last long as John Schuerholz was hired as GM after that season and Cox stayed on the field for…well, forever.

Jack McKeon was the GM/manager for the Padres in the late-1980s; Whitey Herzog did it for the Cardinals in the early 1980s.

It’s all but impossible to do both jobs correctly in today’s game of GM-rock stardom. There’s really no way Showalter could do it and maintain his sanity and/or health.

That said, there’s a way to go about it if the Orioles want to give Showalter final say in the direction of the franchise.

Herzog joined the Cardinals as manager in 1980; late in the season they fired GM John Clairborne and named Herzog GM as well. Completely out of contention, Herzog handed the managerial reins to Red Schoendienst for the rest of 1980. Herzog didn’t do both jobs simultaneously. That’s a good thing given Herzog’s penchant for saying whatever popped into his head without concern as to how it was framed or perceived (think J.P. Ricciardi to the tenth power); it would be a PR disaster in today’s game.

But he was able to find players and he’d do the same thing today.

Showalter can do it in a similar fashion if he steps off the field because he’s more tight-lipped and manipulative of the media than Herzog was. Herzog was a gruff, intimidating type; Showalter is more nuanced and calculating.

Herzog built the Cardinals for the spacious dimensions of Busch Stadium with improved speed by getting Lonnie Smith, and installing Tommy Herr at 2nd base; he shored up the defense and attitude by trading Garry Templeton for Ozzie Smith; traded for a defensive minded catcher, Darrell Porter; brought in pitchers who threw strikes like Joaquin Andujar; and got the game’s best closer in Bruce Sutter.

By 1982, the Cardinals were World Series champions and won two more pennants under Herzog in the next five years.

Could Showalter do that as GM?

The Orioles can hit, but their top-to-bottom pitching is so awful that they’re going to have to consider trading some of their young bats Nick Markakis or Adam Jones to find some arms. Those arms would have to strike people out or coax ground balls to mitigate the bandbox of Camden Yards; he needs to improve the bullpen and the infield defense.

Trading talented bats like Jones, Markakis and Matt Wieters are not easy decisions to make.

If someone is going to make that call, it has to be the man who’s entrusted with the future of the organization and is completely responsible for what happens, good or bad.

Showalter would have to stop managing for a time to do the GM job properly; he’d have to be given an autonomy that owner Peter Angelos might balk at providing, but if the Orioles are going to have Showalter give his approval to whom is hired as the new GM, it’s probably easier to let Showalter do it while the Orioles are rebuilding and then have him go back on the field when he has the players he wants.

That’s the only way it could work.

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