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Even newbie managers at risk in 2012
Once upon a time, managerial firings were as predictable as clockwork, occurring right around my son Sam’s birthday.
In fact, as I’ve written before, on each of the first three days of Sam’s life — May 21 to 23, 1991 — a manager got fired. Don Zimmer by the Cubs, John Wathan by the Royals and Frank Robinson by the Orioles, for those keeping score.
The late Jerome Holtzman, writing in the Chicago Tribune, called it, “The Curse of Samuel Joseph.” But the curse, like so much else in life, has gone astray.
Sam is a junior in college now, far too busy to occupy himself with baseball teams that can’t get out of their own way.
The clubs, meanwhile, fire managers in any month of the year and at any hour of the day.
Which brings us to the 2012 season, and yet another new wrinkle to my annual “Managers on the Hot Seat” column.
I’m not sure anyone actually will get fired this season.
Maybe I’m just intoxicated by spring training, which for even the most hapless clubs is akin to the summer of love.
Or maybe we’re simply entering a brief lull in dismissals, seeing as how few managerial contracts are set to expire.
In any case, I will not be caught unprepared.
Sam turns 21 this year. You’ll know who to blame if all hell breaks loose.
Without further ado, managers on the hot seat, 2012:
Bobby Valentine, Red Sox
The consensus around baseball is that Bobby V will succeed in his first season and grate on his players in his second. Who says it will take him that long?
All spring, we’ve heard about how Valentine is the anti-Terry Francona, full of energy and attention to detail. There’s just one problem: Francona was the most successful manager in Red Sox history. And his players generally were quite fond of him.
Now, it’s true the Red Sox needed a kick in the rear — some of them, at least. Veterans such as second baseman Dustin Pedroia, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury, third baseman Kevin Youkilis and designated hitter David Ortiz were not the issue. And look out if Valentine mocks any of them publicly the way he recently mocked reliever Mark Melancon. (“I thought he backed up the bases really well. He had that down.”)
No player is sacred under Valentine, no headline too small, no point above nitpicking (coaches using real bats instead of fungos, really?) One rival executive says he looks forward to Valentine becoming the Red Sox’s Hank Steinbrenner. That might be too extreme, but the potential for Valentine’s act to obscure his pure baseball intellect is quite real.
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Yes, Bobby V is in only the first year of a two-year deal, and ownership will not easily admit a mistake, if that’s what this turns out to be. Frankly, the manager might be the least of the Sox’s concerns, considering the unsettled state of their pitching staff, uncertainty at shortstop and difficult early schedule.
If all goes well, Bobby being Bobby could prove as popular in Boston as Manny being Manny was back in the day. But let’s see how this team comes together. It will take all of Valentine’s creativity and skill to put the Sox in the best possible position to succeed.
Fredi Gonzalez, Braves
Gonzalez didn’t just lose the National League wild card during the Braves’ collapse last September. He lost the benefit of the doubt.
The Braves’ uninspired play this spring raises new questions. The team’s rotation is decidedly fragile. And Gonzalez must avoid overworking his top relievers, the way he did last season.
Other than that, everything is just peachy.
Gonzalez is signed through ‘13, and the Braves historically preach stability. But April will be crucial: The Phillies are in a weakened state, and 13 of the Braves’ first 23 games are against the Mets, Astros and Pirates.
A poor start, then, would be borderline inexcusable, even as right-hander Tim Hudson continues his recovery from back surgery. The Braves’ payroll isn’t what it once was, but general manager Frank Wren did little this offseason, essentially signaling that the team was good enough.
Wren, too, will face heat if the Braves stumble, but he won’t be the first to go. Gonzalez needs to show that the final month of last season was an aberration. Otherwise, the cloud above him will linger and then burst.
Brad Mills, Astros
Managerial candidates routinely jump at even the worst jobs, reasoning that any opening is one of only 30. The Astros officially are one of 30 major-league teams, yes. But don’t you think Mills would like a do-over?
His team will be fortunate to avoid a second straight 100-loss season, and Mills is entering the final year of his contract under a new GM, Jeff Luhnow, and owner, Jim Crane.
Not exactly a stable situation.
Never mind that the Astros’ talent is atrocious or that scapegoating Mills would be absurd. Firing the manager is the time-honored way of changing the status quo, and I seriously doubt that Luhnow’s newly appointed director of decision sciences will tell him otherwise.
Jim Riggleman, who worked under Luhnow in the Cardinals’ farm system, is one possible replacement. Riggleman, after quitting on the Nationals last summer, is managing the Reds’ Double-A affiliate this season.
Dusty Baker, Reds
Just sayin’ on this one. There is no reason to believe that Baker actually is in trouble. He makes this list largely because he is in the final year of his contract.
Baker frequently draws criticism for his handling of pitching and occasionally is sensitive to questions about the Reds’ lineup, which lacks a legitimate leadoff hitter.
Still, how much can go wrong here?
The Cardinals should be weaker without Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols and possibly right-hander Chris Carpenter, who is out indefinitely with shoulder/neck weakness. The Brewers should be weaker without first baseman Prince Fielder.
Baker coaxed an NL Central title out of the Reds in 2010, and this might be his most talented group yet in Cincinnati. An in-season change is doubtful unless the Reds sleepwalk in the first half. But Baker, entering his fifth year with the Reds, could face an uphill battle for a new contract if the team’s season ends in disappointment.
Mike Matheny, Cardinals
Robin Ventura, White Sox
Whoa, aren’t they just starting their managerial careers? Of course. But Matheny, in particular, is in a difficult spot, replacing La Russa, a Hall of Fame manager, for the defending World Series champions. Ventura only is replacing Ozzie Guillen, who — for everyone’s sake — needed to leave Chicago.
The early reviews on both rookies are good, but running spring training is hardly the same as managing a 162-game season. Both Matheny and Ventura were well-regarded players; neither has ever managed a game professionally or served as a coach in the majors.
Matheny signed for two years, Ventura for three. Their job security will come into question only if they look completely overmatched, which is unlikely. Still, things can change quickly. Players who rave about new managers will turn in a heartbeat if they sense incompetence.
Joe Girardi, Yankees
This one is a stretch, yet it’s worth noting that Girardi is fortunate to be working for Hal Steinbrenner and not George.
The Yankees, mind you, have averaged 98 wins under Girardi the past three seasons. But during that time, they’ve gone from winning the World Series to losing the American League Championship Series to losing in the Division Series.
George Steinbrenner might not have tolerated such atrocities, but under Hal the new, rational Yankees just hum along. Girardi is signed through ’13, and the team should again be quite good, if old in certain key spots.
A failure to reach the postseason could change the dynamic, but don’t count on it. Girardi and his famous binder should remain fixtures in the Yankees’ dugout.
Ozzie Guillen, Marlins
Pay no attention to his four-year contract. For Guillen, as I’ve written previously, the hot seat is an endowed chair. He is hotseatus emeritus; no list would be complete without him.
But seriously, how long can the Fish remain sickeningly sweet?
Here’s what will happen: Ozzie will rip some aspect of the Marlins’ new ballpark. Loria will take offense over any slight to his pride and joy.
Maybe Loria will stick his head into the dugout, the way he once did with Girardi. And maybe — no, definitely — Ozzie will reply with a string of expletives, setting club records for profanity in both English and Spanish.
The two will meet after the game and agree that it’s time for a change. Loria then will announce Jack McKeon, 81, as the team’s new manager.
Mark the date May 21 on your calendar.
“The Curse of Samuel Joseph” has been dormant too long.
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