Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 28, 2013

Plenty Of Managers With Reasons To Sweat

Opening Day is still a month away; the starting lineups for the early exhibition games in Florida and Arizona are still filled with unrecognizable names of players who have little chance of making the big league roster. Yet among the thirty men who currently hold the title there are already some who know too well that the job of major league manager is infamous for its lack of employment security. Currently the average manager has been on the job for 3.4 years according to STATS LLC, the sports data and technology company. Relatively speaking current managers are practically tenured, as that average is more than twice what it was three decades ago. Still the old adage that skippers are hired to be fired still holds true, and it’s easy to identify those teams that could well have someone new making out the lineup card come this time next year if things don’t go according to plan in the season that will soon be underway.

Some managers will go into the 2013 campaign carrying the heavy weight of great expectations. Certainly that is the case in Toronto where John Gibbons begins his second stint as manager of the Blue Jays. Gibbons managed the Jays from the middle of the 2004 season until midway through 2008, leading Toronto to a second place finish in the AL East in 2006. The team hasn’t had a better showing since, but this offseason general manager Alex Anthopoulos set about to change Toronto’s fortunes. First he sent prospects to Miami for a pair of All-Star pitchers in Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle and a former batting champion in shortstop Jose Reyes. Later he sent more prospects to Queens for Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. He also signed free agent outfielder Melky Cabrera, who had been on his way to a batting title until a fifty game PEDS suspension rudely interrupted his 2012 season.

Adding all that talent to a team that until now had leaned heavily on slugger Jose Bautista made the odds makers sit up and take notice. The legal bookies in Las Vegas have made Toronto a top choice, along with Detroit and L.A., for the American League crown. Fans in Toronto are ready to put five straight fourth place finishes in the AL East behind them. Given the talent that has been handed to Gibbons, they will be expecting him to deliver.

In the senior circuit no team has been more aggressive at collecting big names than the Los Angeles Dodgers. With Magic Johnson serving as the face of the new ownership team and veteran executive Stan Kasten installed as President and CEO, the Dodgers have been adding to their roster and their payroll since last July, when they acquired shortstop Hanley Ramirez from Miami. In August they completed a blockbuster trade with Boston that rivaled the later deal between the Blue Jays and Marlins. Now wearing Dodger blue are pitcher Josh Beckett, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and outfielder Carl Crawford. Then in the offseason the Dodgers gave right-hander Zack Greinke the second largest contract ever awarded to a pitcher. With the likes of former Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and former home run leader Matt Kemp already on the roster, the expectations are enormous for the Dodgers and third year manager Don Mattingly.

The problem for both Gibbons and Mattingly is that talent alone doesn’t win pennants. As with any team sport all of those individual parts have to come together. The Great Game places an especially high premium on team chemistry, because no matter how high the talent level, over the grinding course of the longest season every squad will face adversity. Teams that mesh, rosters filled with guy who have each other’s backs, will persevere through the tough times. Squads that fail to do so will live in locker rooms turned poisonous.

Whether all the talent that will be taking the field at either the Rogers Centre or in Chavez Ravine will come together remains to be seen, but a note of caution seems in order. Reyes has always been a bit of a prima donna, and none of the former Marlins sent north by Miami owner Jeffrey Loria were happy with the shock trade. Meanwhile the San Francisco Giants could have reinstated Cabrera for their playoff run. Instead, despite his gaudy batting numbers, they cut their ties with him.

Out at Dodger Stadium the new men in blue have at past stops been anything but team players. Ramirez pouted when the Marlins moved him from short to third, and Red Sox management and fans alike were happy to be rid of Beckett and Gonzalez. Then there is Greinke, who in an astonishing moment of candor just this week told CBS Sports that it really is all about the money. In an interview the right hander said he would have happily signed with a last place team if that was the franchise offering the biggest payday.

If Gibbons and Mattingly must find a way to manage both a team and outsize expectations, other skippers will be forced to answer the age-old query, what have you done for me lately? Minnesota has been a model franchise when it comes to managerial longevity. Tom Kelly led the team from 1986 until 2001, and Ron Gardenhire has been making out the lineup card ever since. Gardy has been extraordinarily successful with the small market franchise. He’s taken the Twins to the postseason six times, was named AL Manager of the Year in 2010 and finished runner-up in the balloting at the end of five other seasons. Under his leadership Minnesota has had just three losing seasons. Unfortunately for Gardenhire, two of the three were 2011 and 2012. After losing 99 games in 2011 the Twins were only three games better last year. There’s little to suggest that Minnesota is headed for a quick turnaround this year, and Gardenhire is in the final year of his contract. Before another Spring Training rolls around Minnesota owner Jim Pohlad may decide that Gardenhire’s considerable past success is too much in the past.

Of course it’s not just Gibbons and Mattingly and Gardenhire who have reason to worry about job security. The Angels’ Mike Scioscia has been given a lineup full of All-Stars, and there’s no doubt owner Arte Moreno is expecting a run deep into October. For all of his success in Texas, Ron Washington has never been able to quite get the Rangers over the final hurdle, and now must deal with the loss of Josh Hamilton. Joe Girardi won a championship in 2009, but given expectations in the Bronx that is extremely ancient history. Now the Yankees look very old and, with the departures of several sluggers and the loss of Curtis Granderson for the season’s first month, suddenly lacking in power.

Somewhere expectations will be met, and somewhere a skipper thought to be slipping will remind an owner of why he was hired in the first place. But since only one-third of the teams in both leagues go to the playoffs, and since in the end only one city gets to hold a parade, somewhere assuredly won’t be everywhere. The new season hasn’t even begun and the dog days of summer aren’t even a glimmer on the horizon, but for those on the managerial hot seat it’s already starting to feel warm.

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Responses

  1. Speaking of trying to lower expectations, (or at least to keep them modest publicly), I heard Jays manager John Gibbons tonight during the Yanks-Blue Jays game talking about how it’s a long season, the games have to be won on the field, and on and on. He sounded like the Jays will be lucky to win 75 games this year.

    It’s a bit weird, if you think about it. I mean, can you imagine an airplane pilot saying to his passengers, “Yeah, I mean I’ve got 32 years of experience flying these things, and this is state-of-the-art technology we’re talking about, but, hey, freak thunderstorms can happen, folks. Wind-shear’s a bitch. I mean, don’t put those rosary beads away quite yet folks. I haven’t slept in three days, and my co-pilot’s off his meds.”

    More good stuff, Mike
    Bill

    • Thanks Bill. I didn’t see Gibbons, but your account of his comments is laugh out loud funny! Of course, as the Marlins proved last year, he could be right!

      Thanks as always,
      Mike


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