June arrives next week. It’s no longer “early” for baseball teams and the people who run them.
The fans sense it, too. Around this time every season, talk-show gadflies contact their local ombudsmen to propose the same solution.
Fire the manager.
Does that always solve the problem? Of course not. Three teams changed managers last June – the A’s, Marlins and Nationals – and none finished with a winning record.
In 2010, six clubs replaced their manager during the season. All ended up below .500.
Mathematics and self-preservation – more so than the manager’s culpability – guide the decisions. General managers have an easier time telling their owners, “We need to terminate one employee with $500,000 left on his contract,” than, “You gave me a $125 million budget, and I bought all the wrong groceries.”
So, the in-season firings go on. They happen every year.
Except maybe this one.
At the risk of underestimating the inevitable turmoil of a baseball season, no big league manager is in immediate danger of losing his job.
It’s rare that we can make such a statement this deep into the season. And that may change if, say, the disappointing Colorado Rockies go on a 10-game losing streak. (Jim Tracy may have the warmest seat in the majors.) But in general, the job security of major league managers is at a relative high point.
After speaking with a number of GMs Tuesday, here are several theories that may explain why.
1. LONG-TERM CONTRACTS
Detroit’s Jim Leyland, Cincinnati’s Dusty Baker and Houston’s Brad Mills are the only managers whose contracts are set to expire at the end of this year, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
Typically, it’s easiest to fire a manager when he is near the end of his contract. But Leyland, Baker and Mills don’t appear headed for in-season dismissals.
Leyland, 67, has the longest big-league tenure (21 seasons) and most victories (1,608) among active managers. That matters. The Tigers have underperformed so far this season, but the fact they came within two wins of the World Series last year has shielded Leyland from speculation about his job security.
Leyland told reporters in spring training that he wants to manage “a while” after 2012.
“At the end of last season we both discussed how one year at a time works well due to Jim’s experience,” Tigers club president/general manager Dave Dombrowski told FOXSports.com in an email Tuesday. “We are hopeful he will be with us for many years to come.”
Reds officials generally have remained mum on Baker’s status, but it would be a surprise if he didn’t at least finish the season. The Reds reached the postseason under Baker in 2010 and entered Tuesday a half-game behind first-place St. Louis in the National League Central.
Mills has the murkiest future of the three, largely because the Astros are under new ownership. The previous regime hired Mills, which rarely bodes well for a manager – particularly coming off a 106-loss season in 2011.
But the Astros are having a respectable year, with young infielders Jose Altuve, Jed Lowrie and Chris Johnson showing that they can be everyday players. While Houston may struggle down the stretch if Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers are moved at the trade deadline, Mills has earned the right to complete the season at the very least.
When asked to assess Mills’ status Tuesday, first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow said simply, “Brad is doing a good job.”
2. EXPANDED PLAYOFFS = INCREASED HOPE
The Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies are on the short list of baseball’s most disappointing teams, all hovering around the .500 mark as the week began.
But the most important column in the standings is not record or winning percentage. It is games back. And in that regard, things don’t look as bad for the East Coast titans. Boston, New York and Philadelphia entered Tuesday 2 1/2 games out of a playoff spot.
For that, they have the second wild card to thank.
“Postseason contention” is more liberally defined now than ever before, and teams rarely change managers when they feel an October berth is within reach.
“The added wild card is going to keep more teams in the race for a lot longer,” said Barry Axelrod, a player agent who also has advised managers on their contracts. “It doesn’t seem like much to add one wild card, but I was looking at the standings today and there are only four or five teams in each league who aren’t in it. The Angels are probably one of them, and they might come back strong.”
The Angels, for the record, entered Tuesday six games out of the second wild-card spot.
3. ORGANIZATIONS VALUE STABILITY
Speaking of the Angels, there is almost no talk of Mike Scioscia being fired even though his team is off to one of the most confounding starts in baseball.
Scioscia is under contract through 2018 – longer than any other major-league manager.
Scioscia is the longest-tenured manager in the American League. No. 2 on that list — Minnesota’s Ron Gardenhire — has a team that is a shell of its former self, due to injuries and substandard pitching. But Gardenhire, like Scioscia, built up capital with management through perennial playoff appearances in years gone by.
“A lot of clubs have long-term commitments with their managers, and some of the teams not doing well — like Colorado, Minnesota and (the Angels) — have good managers in place,” said Dan Duquette, general manager of the (suddenly stable) Baltimore Orioles. “I haven’t heard about any imminent changes.”
The Rockies, though, are worth monitoring. Tracy led them to a surprise postseason berth in 2009, but they have the fewest victories of any National League West team over the past three seasons — despite having a higher payroll than the Diamondbacks and Padres.
"We obviously are really struggling right now and trying to look at our struggles from every angle, but Jim is not in any trouble at all,” Rockies general manager Dan O’Dowd told FOXSports.com.
4. WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR
As one National League GM pointed out Tuesday, “In general, managerial changes happen when a team has performed below expectations for a period of time. I don’t think contractual timelines govern the decisions as much as performance relative to expectations.”
And that’s the thing: Many current managers haven’t been on the job long enough to really screw up, with 19 starting their jobs since the end of the 2009 season.
Some fans called for Miami’s Ozzie Guillen and Boston’s Bobby Valentine to be fired last month — albeit for very different reasons. But that wasn’t going to happen during the early weeks of their multiyear contracts, even if Valentine is signed only through next year.
In that regard, the landscape could have a much different look one year from now. Seventeen managers have contracts that will expire after the 2013 season, including those with some of the highest-profile franchises in the sport: the Red Sox, Yankees, Phillies, Mets, Cardinals, Braves and Giants.
If your idea of fun is speculating about where Terry Francona will manage next, my suggestion is to wait another 12 to 16 months and stay busy in the interim with this year’s midsummer trade rumors. Those pearls are headed your way soon enough.