The suspense of playoff baseball is nearing and so, too, is awards season. The ultimate prize comes in October but recognition for serving as a top skipper is nice, too. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the three AL and NL managers most likely to win the award, with the (still early) picks at the end.
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John Gibbons -- Toronto Blue Jays (AL)
Between injuries, bullpen turmoil, front-office upheaval that saw longtime GM Alex Anthopoulos resign last October, and the departure of their 2015 front-of-the-rotation rental David Price, this very easily could have been a lost season for the Blue Jays after a 93-win campaign that ended in an ALCS loss to the eventual champion Royals. Marcus Stroman hasn’t quite reached his potential one year removed from a torn ACL, but 24-year-old Aaron Sanchez established himself as the team’s de facto ace. Thanks to Gibbons’ use of a six-man rotation, Sanchez should be available to pitch into October if the Jays get there. And despite the loss of Price to Boston, a resurgent J.A. Happ and Marco Estrada have actually helped lead the Jays to the best rotation ERA in the American League (3.81).
Meanwhile, Gibbons entrusted the closer gig to a guy who’s barely of drinking age -- 21-year-old Roberto Osuna -- who has rewarded Gibbons’ faith and has blown just one save since early June. Oh yeah, it helps to have reigning MVP Josh Donaldson and his 7.0 WAR and Edwin Encarnacion (3.3 WAR) anchoring the batting order, but injuries to Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki, Devon Travis and others have tested the team. And although the AL East has proven a very competitive division, the Jays have remained steady and look to poised to claim at least a wild-card spot.
Getty ImagesBrian Blanco
Terry Francona -- Cleveland Indians (AL)
Francona has a better starting rotation (one of the best in baseball, led by Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar) than he did when he won the Manager of the Year Award in his first season in Cleveland in 2013. But a season-ending shoulder injury to top outfielder Michael Brantley and catcher Yan Gomes’ own shoulder injury that sent him to the 60-day DL in July left big holes in the order. The experienced Francona has managed to keep the train humming with AL Rookie of the Year candidate Tyler Naquin holding down center field and Lonnie Chisenhall settling into right, which has allowed Jose Ramirez to flourish in a mostly full-time gig at third base.
Of course, the strength of the team is the middle infield with Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis. Pencil those two in and any team will do OK. Francona has led the squad to a dominant performance over division-mates Detroit (11-1 record against), Chicago (9-3) and Kansas City (8-5) as the Indians looked poised to make a deep playoff run.
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Jeff Banister -- Texas Rangers (AL)
Will the voters give any manager the award in back-to-back years? It’s happened only once when the Braves’ Bobby Cox got the nod in 2004 and 2005. That aside, the follow-up to the Rangers’ surprising 2015 AL West title has been impressive and challenging for Banister. Foremost, having to get by without staff co-ace Yu Darvish until almost June after returning from Tommy John surgery.
Setting aside Darvish’s 13 starts (and 3.45 ERA) and Colby Lewis' 15 starts (and 3.21 ERA), only Cole Hamels is on the right side of a 4.00 as A.J. Griffin, Martin Perez and Derek Holland have all struggled. Plus, Texas has the worst bullpen ERA in the American League despite Sam Dyson’s solid work and the Matt Bush revelation. Not exactly feathers in Banister’s cap, yet the team has just kept winning by scoring runs aplenty -- a task made more difficult when Prince Fielder went down with season- and career-ending neck surgery.
Getty ImagesJoe Robbins
Dusty Baker -- Washington Nationals
The Nationals got flogged pretty badly for the Baker hire after lowballing their reported first choice, Bud Black, after the Nats' tormenting 83-79 finish despite being favorites to win the World Series (and certainly win the division!). There’s no lack of talent on this team, particularly with Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and breakout starter Tanner Roark, but talent obviously was not the problem last season. Baker probably wasn’t sad to see the volatile Jonathan Papelbon get released in August in favor of closer Mark Melancon, who was acquired from Pittsburgh.
Incredibly, Bryce Harper (2.1) isn’t even top five on the team in WAR this year. The Nats are actually led in that category by Anthony Rendon (3.9) and Daniel Murphy (3.8), who just hit another home run in the 2015 NLCS. Baker showed some good aggressiveness installing top prospect Trea Turner (.366 OBP) into the leadoff spot immediately upon his July call-up. Baker, a real throwback, already has three Manager of the Year Awards on his resume -- all from his tenure in San Francisco (1993, 1997, 2000). If the Baker-led Nationals keep destroying fellow NL East teams and make a deep run, the loss of Black may prove a happy gaffe.
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Joe Maddon -- Chicago Cubs
The three-time Manager of the Year (2008, 2011 in Tampa Bay) and reigning NL winner has never had a deeper, more explosive roster. A stacked roster (Bryzzo, Fowler, Zobrist and Russell, to name a few) leads to winning and winning cures everything.
In a remodeled clubhouse and training facilities, Maddon has used zoo animals and other mood-lightening tactics for the Cubs, who will soon see the pressure turn up to hydraulic press levels when the end of September nears. Maddon will have to remind the Cubs about how they came up short last season and lean on veterans Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester to take them to the promised land. Should voters hold the embarrassment of riches against Maddon? That question is a cousin to the MVP vs. “best player” debate. In any case, Theo Epstein build a roster version of a Lamborghini and you can’t hand those keys to just anyone.
Getty ImagesDylan Buell
Dave Roberts -- Los Angeles Dodgers
For starters, the Dodgers went from having a lethal combination of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in 2015 to having neither in 2016 once Kershaw hit the 60-day DL in late June (after posting an obscene 16:1 K/BB ratio). Los Angeles also lost starters Alex Wood, Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson and Hyun-Jin Ryu, among others, forcing Roberts to lean on Kenta Maeda, top prospect Julio Urias, Bud Norris, Ross Stripling and many others for help after Scott Kazmir also went down too after a fairly disappointing 25 starts (4.59 ERA). But Roberts has kept the Dodgers rolling anyhow, seizing control of the NL West from the struggling Giants.
Rookie of the Year front-runner, shortstop Corey Seager, has posted a 5.9 WAR to date while aging infield-mates Adrian Gonzalez (34) and Chase Utley (37) don’t scare pitchers the way they used to. Meanwhile Yasiel Puig’s disappointing slide led to trade market exploration, a longer way of saying that the lineup isn’t particularly potent. Yet here are the Dodgers -- nearly 20 games above .500 (79-60) with a 5-game lead over San Francisco and Kershaw set to rejoin the rotation on Friday.
Getty ImagesDenis Poroy
The (early) picks
Gibbons and Roberts, with nods to the other managers discussed -- and honorable mentions to Joe Girardi (the roster is shedding and the future is bright) and Don Mattingly (better than anyone expected despite injuries, Dee Gordon’s suspension and a lesser roster than in Los Angeles).