Skippers on the Hot Seat: Which managers need to win … or else?
Can a computer warm the hot seat?
No, I’m serious. Computers run almost everything in baseball these days. Managers use data when forming lineups. Pitchers use data when attacking hitters. Teams use data when positioning defenders.
How long before a computer tells a team when to fire its manager?
Heck, it already might have happened once or twice or a dozen times. Managers, in the view of some sabermetricians, are little more than middle-management functionaries, replacement players in the dugout.
Successful managers today are skilled at incorporating data while leading actual human beings — no small trick, when you think about it. The smart guys taking over mostly is a good thing, of course. Except for those of us who cherish personality — and, oh my gosh, dare I say it? — a little narrative.
Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon is one exception, a colorful eccentric in a black-and-white world. But the days of Ozzie Guillen, Lou Piniella, Dusty Baker, even Jim Leyland — they’re mostly gone.
And likewise, my annual "managers on the hot seat" column is losing its soul.
Case in point: I’m willing to bet that the Reds’ Bryan Price, Tigers’ Brad Ausmus and Nationals’ Matt Williams will be worthy skippers, even though none has managed before.
But will any of them be as interesting as their predecessors, Baker, Leyland and Davey Johnson? That’s like asking if Michael Buble will be as interesting as Ozzy Osbourne.
And will there ever be another Guillen, for whom the hot seat was permanently set to 212 degrees? The chances are about the same as me dunking a basketball.
My sabermetrically inclined friends, folks such as Rob Neyer and Dave Cameron, probably are shouting at their screens by now, screaming that I should embrace the sheer joy of more informed decision-making.
Well, I’ve experienced the sheer joy of Johnson explaining a decision as manager of the Orioles by barking, "I’m the manager. I’m the one making all the f—— money." And I can assure you, that is a special kind of bliss.
Without further ado, managers on the hot seat, 2014. Plug and play.
John Gibbons, Blue Jays
Poor Gibbons. He got a second chance to manage the Jays last season at a seemingly transformative moment in club history. Alas, the arrivals of Jose Reyes and Co. from the Marlins and acquisition of R.A. Dickey from the Mets translated to only 74 wins.
It wasn’t Gibbons’ fault, of course — the Jays blamed everything from injuries to the World Baseball Classic, and were not entirely wrong.
That said, it also won’t be Gibby’s fault if the Jays stink again this year. General manager Alex Anthopoulos left the rotation too thin, and even though the offense is fearsome, this remains a physically fragile bunch.
Gibbons’ option for 2015 vested when he was not fired by Jan. 1. No matter. That cute little rollover clause might not save him again if the Jays sputter again.
Kirk Gibson, Diamondbacks
The D-backs, who fancy themselves as the anti-Dodgers, borrowed a page out of Dodgers president Stan Kasten’s playbook when they declined to announce the lengths of the extensions for Gibson and general manager Kevin Towers, saying the two preferred it that way.
Clubs evidently believe that if they decline to publicly reveal end dates of contracts, the pesky media cannot make as much of an issue out of the job security of managers and GMs.
To which we say: Nice try.
As I wrote last week, the D-backs are coming off back-to-back .500 seasons. Team president Derrick Hall told the Arizona Republic that the payroll will be about $115 million, a franchise record. Managing general partner Ken Kendrick said of Gibson and Towers, "I think it’s important for them to go out and prove themselves once again."
Those sound practically like fighting words. And the spring-training losses of left-handed starter Patrick Corbin and right-handed reliever David Hernandez to elbow injuries will only add to Gibson’s challenge.
VICTIMS OF THE UNREALISTIC
Terry Collins, Mets
Collins agreed to a two-year extension at the end of last season, seemingly deferring talk on his job status.
Then in late February, John Harper of the New York Daily News reported that GM Sandy Alderson told Mets executives and baseball personnel that the team can and maybe even should win 90 games.
"We better win 90," owner Fred Wilpon added, according to Harper.
The Mets will not win 90 games. When they do not, the last person to blame will be Collins.
Alderson made brilliant trades to land right-handers Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard and catcher Travis d’Arnaud, but after more than three years on the job his roster still includes numerous holes.
Wilpon, meanwhile, again will field a payroll below $90 million while claiming that the team no longer faces financial problems.
Shame on both of them if this comes back to Collins.
Bo Porter, Astros
So now the Astros are trying to win, according to owner Jim Crane.
"We think the team’s good enough to be very competitive and give some people fits," Crane recently told the Houston Chronicle. "I’d love to see us get to .500. Would be a big step for us."
It would be a big step, all right: The Astros have averaged 108 losses the past three seasons. Twenty-seven more wins per year, and by golly they would have been right at .500.
Are these new Astros, with their supposedly improved bullpen and additions of right-hander Scott Feldman and outfielder Dexter Fowler, capable of making up that difference?
I don’t know, but with Porter planning to hit the 5-foot-5 Jose Altuve cleanup, I will defend the manager on every medium in which I appear and maybe even with graffiti.
Altuve is about the only big leaguer I can look in the eye.
Ned Yost, Royals
Yost not only kept his job through the Royals’ 4-19 collapse last May, but also earned a two-year extension after leading the club to its first winning season since 2003.
What, then, is the problem?
Well, the Royals are a trendy pick to contend in right-hander James Shields’ final season before free agency, and the pressure will mount now that the stakes are higher.
Yost does not exactly give off a relaxed vibe, but his occasionally prickly relationship with the media matters only if his players also perceive him as uptight. By virtually all accounts, they do not. As Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star wrote last September, Yost is well-liked in his clubhouse.
The question, then, is this: Can Yost elevate the Royals to the next level? The issue might not be as much substance — Yost, like all managers, can employ questionable strategy — but style.
Remember: The Brewers fired Yost with 12 games left in the 2008 season, fearing they were about to blow a wild card that they eventually won. The move, triggered by owner Mark Attanasio, struck many as inappropriate. Nearly six years later, Yost surely has grown in the job.
For the Royals’ sake — and his own reputation — Yost needs to get the most out of this team.
Brad Ausmus, Tigers
On Nov. 3, the day Ausmus was hired, the Tigers had Prince Fielder at first, Jose Iglesias at short and right-hander Doug Fister in the rotation; righty Bruce Rondon as a setup man and Andy Dirks as part of a left-field platoon.
Oops! All are now either injured or gone.
Indeed, this is a much different Tigers team than the one that won 93 games last season and advanced to the American League Championship Series under Leyland.
It’s not a bad team, mind you, not with Miguel Cabrera batting third and righties Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez heading the rotation. If things go wrong, GM Dave Dombrowski likely will get more of the blame than Ausmus, who is starting a three-year contract.
Still, Ausmus is a first-time manager replacing a legend for a veteran club with high expectations. The Cardinals’ Mike Matheny, another cerebral former catcher, did just fine under such circumstances. But he took over a better team.
Almost no one in baseball expects Ausmus to fail, but he almost certainly will face roadblocks. Verlander, for example, is a veteran with a strong personality. Will he react the same way to an early hook from Ausmus the way he did with Leyland? Or will he test his new manager’s authority?
Matt Williams, Nationals
Ah, here’s a surprise: A major-league team playing, "the opposite game."
Old manager runs a loose, laid-back ship and the club under-performs. New manager arrives, slaves over every detail and is hailed as the solution.
The old manager was Johnson. The new manager is Williams. And while Williams drew raves all spring for his crisp approach, I’m eager to see how he will react to the Nationals’ first five-game losing streak — and how the Nats’ veterans will react if they perceive him as too tight.
So far, so good — Williams seems to have a sense of humor about himself, and let’s face it, the Nats needed a kick in the rear. It’s also worth noting that when Williams was a Diamondbacks coach, several of the D-backs’ players felt he would make a fine manager.
Still, Williams is under even more pressure than Ausmus and Price; no team appears to have as clear a path to the division title as the Nats (the Reds, in fact, don’t have a clear path at all; that’s why I left Price off this list).
Yes, Matheny is an inspiration for every first-time manager, and the Dodgers’ Don Mattingly, White Sox’s Robin Ventura, Rockies’ Walt Weiss and Marlins’ Mike Redmond also have proved quite capable.
Doesn’t mean everyone will succeed.
COOL FOR NOW
Mike Scioscia, Angels
General manager Jerry Dipoto likely will be in greater trouble if the Angels miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season. Scioscia is under contract through 2018.
Ryne Sandberg, Phillies
See above. Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is under much greater scrutiny as Sandberg begins the first year of a three-year contract. Still, the potential for collapse increases the potential for friction. Paging Jimmy Rollins.
Don Mattingly, Dodgers
No, I’m not predicting he will be fired — that was last year, and I owned up to being wrong. Mattingly, armed with a new three-year contract, actually should be safe for quite some time. But when you’re managing a team with a projected $235 million payroll, is trouble ever far behind?
Ron Washington, Rangers
It took the team until late February to extend his contract through 2015. A stunning wave of injuries actually should ease any pressure on Washington early in the season, but if the Rangers ever get healthy, expectations will rise in kind.
Ozzie Guillen. I miss you, brother. And you know the deal: If you ever get another job, I’m immediately writing that you’re in trouble.