Front and center: Managers are pivotal

While the Rays’ overtaking of the Yankees has created a stir in the American League East, the races in both Central divisions are noteworthy — and not just because they’re so tight.

It’s the managers themselves who could be the deciding factor, as all four of the contending teams’ skippers are linked by their experience and playoff pedigree. But each race features a gunslinger: it’s the loose and hip Dusty Baker against Tony La Russa in the National League and Ozzie Guillen’s ego (and mouth) taking on Ron Gardenhire in the American League.

So, which approach will prevail in the final two months? The distribution of talent between the teams is fairly even, so it could come down to who outwits whom. Here’s a breakdown of the brains behind the AL and NL Central.

 

American League

Ron Gardenhire, Minnesota Twins

Strengths: Has been around long enough to take pennant race pressure in stride. With a strong relationship with GM Bill Smith, Gardenhire isn’t managing for his job. The AL Central has been weak for a number of years, and Gardenhire’s taken full advantage of it, finishing in first place five times since 2002. He’s successfully convinced the Twins that fundamentals and defense matter, as they currently lead the majors with a .991 fielding percentage.

Weaknesses: The Twins have been unable to shake the White Sox, wasting an opportunity in June when they led the division by 4.5 games. As much success as Gardenhire’s had in the regular season, his teams have lost 19 of their last 25 games in the playoffs. They’ve appeared tentative and unsure; there’s no killer instinct.

Worth noting: Joe Mauer finally returned to the lineup Tuesday night, albeit as the DH. His recovery from shoulder problems will ultimately make Gardenhire look smarter, but the Twins need Justin Morneau, who continues to suffer from headaches as a result of a recent concussion.

Ozzie Guillen, Chicago White Sox

Strengths: For all the attention to Guillen’s outrageous behavior, he’s still a remarkably good tactician. Jack McKeon says the Marlins’ championship season in 2003 was due, in part, to input from Ozzie, who served as Florida’s third base coach. Today, Guillen’s considered one of the game’s sharpest in-game managers. One rival executive says, “Ozzie has clearly grown on the job, in terms of running a game. His players sense that about him.”

Put it this way: It takes skill to win a World Series, and Ozzie did just that in 2005.

Weaknesses: Ozzie can become a distraction, speaking from the heart every time he opens his mouth. The latest brush with controversy this week was a doozy, when he complained that young Latin players aren’t afforded the same chance to assimilate as Asian players.

Ozzie’s had problems with umpires, too, most recently Phil Cuzzi. Those feuds could have an impact on the Sox down the stretch. You never know when GM Kenny Williams and Jerry Reinsdorf will finally tire of Ozzie’s over-the-top behavior, although, to be fair, he never rips his own players. His loyalty factor is mostly good.

Worth noting: The White Sox really could’ve used Adam Dunn at the trade deadline. Without him they remain a middle-of-the pack offense that trails the Twins in runs, on-base percentage and OPS. The pitching staffs are fairly equal, so it’s up to Ozzie to get the most out of the recently acquired Edwin Jackson and Wednesday’s strong debut was a nice start.
 

National League

Dusty Baker, Cincinnati Reds

Strengths: Baker’s squeezed every ounce of talent out of the Reds, which says something about his survival skills. He has no contract for 2011, and even though he’s formally asked for an extension, his future in Cincinnati will likely be determined in these next two months.

Baker’s the antithesis of La Russa, managing entirely by feel, even if it means going against conventional wisdom. He’s got one pennant to his name, although his teams have failed to finish higher than fourth since 2004. He’s a people-person, as loose as La Russa is tightly wound. The Reds seems to genuinely like him, and it shows in the standings.

Weaknesses: Baker has a history of being propelled by superstars, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but he’s struggled when flying solo. His career record is 474-498 since his divorce from the Giants and Barry Bonds (although that doesn’t count this season).

He has a notorious reputation for wearing down and ultimately burning out his pitchers. And unlike most managers in the sabermetric era, Baker doesn’t place great emphasis on the on-base metric. The Reds are more about home runs than manufacturing runs. They lead the NL in runs, but are only ninth in walks.

Worth noting: Baker may soon get the bullpen help he needs, in the form of Aroldis Chapman. The Cuban refugee, who’s spent the season at Triple-A Louisville, is still evolving (although lighting up the radar gun with speeds up to 102 mph). However, the lefthander has an 0.82 ERA in his last 11 innings, holding opponents to a .175 average.

Tony La Russa, St. Louis Cardinals

Strengths: La Russa’s cerebral approach has become legendary in the industry, even if it leaves him open to criticism of over-managing. But it’s hard to argue with the resume. La Russa’s won with the A’s, White Sox and now the Cardinals and is the all-time leader among active managers with 2,612 victories.

La Russa’s gutsy enough to bat his pitcher in the No. 8 spot, which, he explains, gives Albert Pujols the chance to hit with a greater number of runners on base. This philosophy’s been affirmed by numerous simulation programs, which estimate the Cardinals will score an extra 5-10 runs over the course of the season this way.

Weaknesses: La Russa keeps his distance from his players, obviously more comfortable with numbers than people. He’s proved that warm-and-fuzzy doesn’t guarantee success, but he’s nevertheless feuded with his best player, Pujols, which is rarely a good idea.

Will his impersonal style hinder the Cardinals down the stretch? His players know the manager is almost always making the right tactical decisions, but the loyalty factor isn’t a high as Baker’s.

Worth noting: La Russa and the Cardinals have a mutual contract option for the 2011 season, which means he’s a virtual lock to return next year.