Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The "Great Manager"

  • Reputations take a beating----and possibly so do their paychecks:

With Lou Piniella resigning as Cubs manager after failing in his quest to win a championship (or at least a pennant) on the North Side of Chicago; with Joe Torre teetering on falling short in guiding his team into the playoffs for a stunning 15th straight year (the Dodgers aren't dead yet); with Tony La Russa in a dogfight to win his division; and with Bobby Cox retiring, the old guard managers----managers who were considered imperative----are having their value questioned. While any lull in a history of long-term resume of winning can be seen as an anomaly, it doesn't diminish the legitimate wonderment of how much a manager adds or subtracts to his team.

How much of an affect does the manager have on his team? And are the above-mentioned "star" managers worthy of the accolades and money that they receive as a part of the circular process of winning equating value and vice versa?

Just as it's unfair to blame them for the failures, on the same token, isn't it logical to take a second look at their successes and wonder whether other managers cold have achieved the same results?

Piniella's reputation was diminished by the way the Cubs faltered in the playoffs the two times they made it under his guidance; what made his Chicago experience worse was how quickly things came apart in a season of mediocrity of 2009 and a disaster in 2010. The built-in excuses for Piniella that were present with the Yankees (deranged, meddling owner and constant turmoil); the Reds (he won that one title in 1990 before departing after 3 seasons); the Mariners (they kept running into the Yankees); and the Devil Rays (he was a bad fit for them in every respect other than he's from Tampa and needed a job), were not there for the job he did with the Cubs. Everything was designed to win immediately and he essentially got all the players he wanted and felt he needed to compete and win, but they didn't and a major reason for that was Piniella.

The 2007 team that he somehow coaxed into the playoffs was not very good and benefited from a weak division before being swept away in the playoffs. Piniella was called out for the loss to the Diamondbacks because of his decision to yank Carlos Zambrano after the seventh inning in game 1 despite Zambrano rolling along and having only thrown 85 pitches; I'm of the belief that they would've lost the series even had they won the first game.

In 2008, Piniella cost his team the series almost immediately by starting Ryan Dempster in game 1 over Zambrano, Ted Lilly or Rich Harden. He also alienated Kosuke Fukudome with his public criticisms; the team was dispatched by Torre's Dodgers before they could even blink.

You can't gloss over an 0-6 playoff record.

In fact, if Piniella left the Cubs of his own accord and decided he wanted to manage again, would there be the clamoring for him that there was after 2002 and 2006? Someone would hire him, but he wound have neither the power in personnel nor the big contract and blind, hypnotic belief that he'd figure it out one way or the other.

Ken Rosenthal wrote a laudatory column to Piniella as the news of his retirement became public. The entire text is available here, but Rosenthal does a ridiculous bit of absolution as to Piniella's role in the Cubs debacle:

"There is no question Piniella is blameless for much of what ails the Cubs," I wrote. "Managers, though, rarely are fired for a specific litany of sins. They're fired, more often than not, when teams need a new energy, a new start. Hello, Cubs."

Piniella was upset with the column. When I saw him a few weeks later, he said, "If you were around the team every day, you would know the problem is not the manager."

And then, in our meeting Saturday, he looked at me with that familiar glint in his eye, smiled and said, "Maybe you were right."

I doubt he actually meant that. In fact, I told Piniella that maybe he had been right. The Cubs proved to be such a poorly put-together club, it's difficult to say that a managerial change would have made any difference.

I would be stunned if there was one player with the Cubs that Piniella didn't agree to having on the roster; that he didn't have a great influence in the insane contract that netted Alfonso Soriano or the one that kept Aramis Ramirez. He named Kevin Gregg as his closer in 2009----his biggest mistake last year. How does he get a pass?

It's a wonderful, soda-rich, Mike Francesa-like world in which to live where nothing is ever anyone's fault and one is never wrong; but Piniella was hired for his personality and because he won. The personality was watered down as he aged and saw the Cubs crumbling; and he did win, but was responsible for the playoff downfalls.

Torre's, Cox's and La Russa's reputations are still intact and they'd get paid and receive the gala welcome in any venue should they decide to manage elsewhere, but would it yield the expected result?

Did Torre benefit from a team that was tired of having been under Buck Showalter's anal retentive thumb for years and ready to win after making their innocent climb? And was he due for a little luck after years of near misses as a player and manager in a career that did honor to the game but was never seen as being upper echelon quality?

Was Cox's known laid back demeanor and reputation as a players' manager who fought for his troops to the end the reason the Braves won all those division titles or was it because he had a starting rotation of three Hall of Famers and a large payroll?

Is La Russa's cerebral, scientific approach and old-school sensibilities the reason his teams are constantly in contention? Or has he had a lot of talent and taken advantage of a pitching coach/partner/guru, Dave Duncan, who like the proverbial prosecutor that could indict a ham sandwich, could turn that same ham sandwich into a 12-15 game winner?

These men come with a reputation; they've been well-compensated and all (aside from Piniella) are Hall of Fame locks; but would the teams they had have been just as successful with a lesser-known manager?

I'm not of the belief that a manager should be a conduit between the on-field product and the front office; that he have no power whatsoever as was asserted as Moneyball; the faceless middle-manager theory of one who implements front office ideas can't work with a team of limited talent; but it's only fair to dole blame to the big names when according credit. It seems as if there's always an excuse for the failures with the "great manager", while he's getting paid lucratively for the positive outcome.

The "great manager" brings along with him immediate credibility for fans and players; they're able to recruit free agents and sell tickets and drum up interest. They do have value especially in comparison with their lower-paid brethren, some of whom plainly and simply don't know what they're doing (see John Russell of the Pirates); but to leave them blameless when things go wrong?

Baseball needs characters like Piniella, Torre, Cox and La Russa; but perhaps they shouldn't be so well-compensated for doing a job that others may have been able to do at least as well for a far more reasonable price. They're getting paid for their reputations and bottom line, but maybe it's time to re-think the value of the great manager, especially if he's not all that great practically and theoretically to begin with.

  • Speaking of the Cubs and Ken Rosenthal:

In that same column, Rosenthal advances the possibility that Yankees manager Joe Girardi might be both a fit and be interested in the Cubs job. Girardi is from Illinois; went to school at Northwestern; and played for the Cubs. Rosenthal doesn't believe it's likely, but possible and says he'll believe it when he sees it.

Then again, he also suggests that current Cubs GM Jim Hendry will be the one making the hire----something I'll believe when I see it. I have a hard time believing that the Cubs new owners----the Ricketts family----are going to keep Hendry. With the hiring of stat guy Ari Kaplan to work in the front office, it's the first step into a more numerical approach and I think it's going to lead to Hendry's dismissal or marginalization and the importing of Kevin Towers to be the new GM. Towers learned frugality* with the Padres, is respected and would be a great fit for the Cubs.

*The common misconception about the word "frugal" is that it means being cheap; it actually means avoiding waste, something Towers had to put into practice considering the Padres constantly fluctuating bottom line and repeated sell-offs due to off-field issues.

There's been some saber-rattling from Girardi about the Cubs job as well and he'd better be careful. I think it's more of a negotiating ploy with the Yankees than any desire to leave. He'd never make the money with the Cubs that he'll get with the Yankees; he won't have the same chance to win; and he'd be under just as much pressure in Chicago as he is with the Yankees. Other than going home, what's the point?

I think he's in for a rude awakening with the Yankees if he tries to leverage the Cubs opportunity into getting a better Yankees contract because the Yankees might turn around and tell him to not let the door hit him in the behind on the way out and name Tony Pena manager knowing that they'd win about the same number of games with Pena as they would with Girardi----maybe even a few more.

When Nationals broadcaster Rob Dibble went into his chauvinistic rant about women at the ballpark a couple of weeks ago, it caused a giant stir that was more of an attention-grabbing device by those who claimed to be so offended than a visceral reaction to the comments themselves.

I didn't care what Dibble said then; nor do I care about what he's saying now about the Nationals handling of Stephen Strasburg. The entire Dibble-prescription to fix that which ails Strasburg can be read here from the Washington Post D.C. Sports Blog by Dan Steinberg.

The one excerpt that made me literally burst out laughing was the following:

"I'm not a doctor, and I haven't read the MRI yet, but I'm pretty sure he's gonna come back fine."

He hasn't read the MRI yet? Are the Nationals going to provide Dibble with the results of the test to get his well-thought-out medical opinion before moving forward with a treatment plan for Strasburg?

I'd like to see Rob Dibble holding the MRI up to the light, glasses on the end of his nose, saying "Hmmmm", nodding with his lips pursed and stroking his chin as he comes to his conclusion in reading the results.

Is he serious?

Maybe there should be a reality show: Rob Dibble-non-M.D.

I'm not going to get into the content of his rant because it's a waste of time. Just click on the above link and read it. I can only sit here and shake my head not because of what he said, but because there are people bothering to respond to him for anything that comes out of his mouth.

  • Viewer Mail 8.25.2010:

Jeff (Acting Boss) at Red State Blue State writes RE Brandon Morrow, Tim Lincecum, Jose Bautista and Ivan Nova:

Thanks for calling out those other draftees that came before Timmeh. I get tired of hearing that critique of the Mariners. No one knew Timmeh was gonna be what he is.

Also, curious as to your thoughts on the Blue Jay/Yankees fracas from 8/23.

And looking at Bautista's numbers before this year... I'm wondering: is there something going on? I'd be an idiot not to ask.

Just like the savagery the Twins endured for taking Joe Mauer before Mark Prior, it's all a matter of "what have you done for me lately" and a "look, I was right" mentality more than well-thought-out analysis. I've said it again and again, I'd have taken Morrow over Lincecum as well.

No one is above suspicion for the stealth PED suggestion regarding Bautista. Who knows? His rise is a bit dubious, but there's always a chance that he's clean.

Regarding the fracas, it was a combination of Bautista trying to intimidate the young pitcher more than him truly believing that Nova was throwing at him. Much like the Kevin Youkilis-Johan Santana shouting match in Fenway last year, it backfired. Nova stood his ground and wasn't intimidated. Doubtless another team might try a similar act of gamesmanship, but word gets around quickly and they won't try it again with Nova. I was impressed with his stuff and his fearlessness and I'm sure his teammates and management were as well.

The Brooklyn Trolley Blogger (Brooklyn Capo) writes RE the Rays:

Rays Way ~ They may be in for a little trouble next year. But they are in damn good hands. It starts from the top with Sternberg.
Andrew Friedman and Gerry Hunsicker are very good Baseball executives. Joe Maddon has proven himself to be a good manager (if a little quirky) and is on the complete same page of music with his hierarchy as they are with him.
That formula works. Add in Don Zimmer and Mike Cubbage, and you have some very smart background voices. If next year presents a rough road for the Rays, I trust they'll smooth it out smartly and consistently with the ruthlessness you described.

I'm not on-board with calling Friedman the "best GM in baseball", but he's become gutsy and top tier. Hunsicker may be the next GM of the Mets and I'd approve the hiring.

I disagree regarding Maddon. I don't think he's a particularly good manager on the field; nor do I like the way he handles the clubhouse, but as stated earlier, it's the bottom line that's important and they're winning. That team would win with another competent manager----possibly win more than they do now.

Jane Heller at Confessions of a She-Fan writes RE Suzyn Waldman's "enthusiastic" response to Roger Clemens's return to the Yankees in 2007:

You posted the "celebration" and now my ears are bleeding!!!!!

Blame Suzyn, not me!!!!

I was a guest last Thursday with Sal at SportsFan Buzz. You can click the link to Sal's site to download the Podcast or listen directly here. Also, check Sal's Facebook page here.

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and It's available for download as an E-book here. You can also now get it for less that five bucks on BN via download here.


She-Fan said...

I don't see Tony Pena becoming the Yankees manager. Not that he isn't qualified, but if Girardi leaves I think the campaign would begin for Mattingly to take the reigns.

Jeff said...

Pretty sure Girardi is a lame duck manager. Bring him to the Chi! The lamer the better!

NapLajoieonSteroids said...

Girardi is bright enough to recognize that if he pushes too hard, Cashman himself will thank him for his service and drive him to the airport himself.

But I could definitely see Girardi going to the Cubs- consider this:

The Yankees don't have time on their side. Their roster (and money) is built around past-prime talents who will not be easily replaced. Sticking around such a competitive division could ruin his reputation and value.

The Cubs may be in worst shape now, but they play in a NL central which they can outspend if need be; they have young talent which plays to Girardi's managerial strengths, and he could probably finagle a four to five year window based on his current reputation and background [hometown boy/player; championship manager, etc.]

Also, I think he has enough of an ego to attempt to be the "man" who wins the Fall Classic and ends the drought.

Plus, if the Yankees win this year, and he is contrite with his exit (ie he doesn't piss off Cashman in a bidding war) I bet you he'd always have an opportunity to come back at a later date if things don't go terribly wrong there (at least 70+ win seasons.) He's still young, and now may be his best shot with the Cubs.