This is it. This season. Barring injuries — always an important disclaimer when talking about the Oakland Athletics — Bob Geren finally should be judged the way other managers are judged.
The A’s finally are a quality team.
The preseason vibe was somewhat similar in 2009, when the A’s added left fielder Matt Holliday, shortstop Orlando Cabrera and infielder Nomar Garciaparra. But that club wasn’t nearly as good as this one should be.
“At the end of the day, the front office basically puts the team together,” A’s general manager Billy Beane says. “I hold the manager responsible when he’s been given enough talent to win. It really is about having the talent to win. And he hasn’t had that.”
Now Geren does.
The Oakland rotation mainly consists of the same emerging pitchers who led the American League in ERA by nearly a half-run per game last season.
The bullpen, already a strength, is even deeper thanks to the free-agent signings of right-hander Grant Balfour and lefty Brian Fuentes.
And the offense, which produced the fourth-lowest run total in the AL last season, is significantly better due to the additions of designated hitter Hideki Matsui and outfielders David DeJesus and Josh Willingham.
The A’s, whose payroll still will be the lowest in the AL West, might not be as good as the Rangers or even the Angels, but it would be difficult to argue that they lack the talent to win the division. If the team fails, Beane might have little choice but to hold Geren accountable in the time-honored baseball manner.
Funny thing about Beane, though — he has fired only one manager, Ken Macha, since becoming GM in 1998. He might have fired Macha’s predecessor, Art Howe, but instead released Howe from the remaining year on his contract so he could go to the Mets.
Geren, the A’s manager since 2007, avoided his fourth straight losing record last season only when the team won its final four games. Beane exercised Geren’s option, but declined to award him an extension. Yet, to say Geren is on the “hot seat” would imply that Beane is even inclined to warm up the proverbial chair.
“To me, what you do with what you have is really how you judge someone,” Beane says. “We’re all very pleased with how he’s done with what he’s had, how he’s responded to the situation.
“Do I think he’s a good manager? Yes.”
The better question, frankly, is how much value Beane even places on the position.
The book, “Moneyball,” offered a hint. Beane’s mentor and predecessor, Sandy Alderson, neatly sums up the organization’s philosophy on managers. Alderson says that he hired Howe in 1996 “to implement the ideas of the front office, not his own.”
Another passage describes how “Billy Beane ran the whole show” after replacing Alderson, even instructing Howe on how to stand in the dugout — on the steps, chin up, seemingly conveying strength.
Talent wins, front offices assemble the talent and in the extreme view, anyone can manage. Geren’s critics view him as just that “anyone,” an unimaginative sort who will do whatever Beane tells him. That the two are close — Geren, well before he became manager, was the best man in Beane’s second wedding — only fuels the perception.
The narrative, like most narratives, isn’t that simple.
“When we were reducing the payroll, going with younger players, we were fortunate to have a guy like Bob,” Beane says. “He’s such an optimist, so positive.
“You don’t want to be going through those kinds of years — especially the injuries as well — if you don’t have a guy that brings the right attitude. No matter what players we give him, he can find something positive every single day.”
In fact, Geren is so positive, he disputes Beane’s assessment that the front office has provided him with inadequate talent — “We’ve had a good team every year coming out of spring training,” Geren says. “We just haven’t had the depth that we have this year.”
Geren is not colorful. Nor is he terribly insightful. As he puts it, “I’d rather be in the back, keep the team and players up front.” His dullness, however, should not be confused with a lack of intelligence. Both of his sons attend Princeton. Somebody in the Geren household must be doing something right.
Geren doesn’t deny that his friendship with Beane helped get him the job, saying, “I probably am here because Billy gave me the chance.” But he might have gotten an opportunity even without Beane. Geren took all the right steps, managing seven years in the minors, managing in winter ball, serving as a major league bench coach.
“This is my 32nd year,” says Geren, a former catcher who was selected by the Padres in the first round of the 1979 draft. “Probably 20 of ‘em have been in the minor leagues.
“I don’t think that I would have made it here without that experience. I needed that. You see other guys who get managing jobs who haven’t managed or haven’t coached. They get fast tracked up here and they do great. I couldn’t have done that. No way.
“I had to ride buses. I had to make mistakes. I had to feel like I could do it. I’ve always been my own biggest critic. I just want to make sure I’m ready before I do anything. When Billy gave me the chance, I thought I was ready.”
Yet, all these years later, it’s difficult to know just how good Geren is. Baseball Prospectus notes that the Rays’ Joe Maddon and White Sox’s Ozzie Guillen were the only two full-season managers to attempt more steals last season, and that Geren also tried to boost his offense by increasing his sacrifice and pinch-hit rates. That’s managing. But perceptions die hard.
And now comes the bigger test.
Beane, asked if it is finally fair to judge Geren, responds, “Sure. Sports is about judgment at some point. Not just for him, but for myself and everyone else.”
The GM’s answer sounds almost half-hearted. It certainly does not scream, “The manager is in trouble!” But if Beane defines the job as winning with the talent you have, then Geren indeed merits added scrutiny.