Some things never change.
Already, fans and sportswriters for certain teams are suggesting, even demanding, that their favorite under-achieving franchise fire the manager.
But when is it time to fire a major league manager?
Another way of asking the question is, how much actual difference does firing a manager make in turning around a particular team’s fortunes? Also, if nothing is expected of a team going into a season, as with Kansas City, Cleveland, Baltimore or Pittsburgh, then what exactly is the point of firing one of their respective managers once it is apparent that another unsuccessful season is in the offing?
Lets take these questions one at a time.
Yes, sometimes, although not as often as fans and some sportswriters like to think, a managerial change can make a positive difference. Last season for example, after getting off to an 18-28 start, the Rockies fired manager Clint Hurdle and replaced him with Jim Tracy. From that point on, the Rockies went on a 74-42 run, finishing second in the N.L. West.
Notice that the Rockies fired Hurdle after 46 games, about the middle of May. That’s just about where we are this season, which is why this issue is now relevant.
Taking the second question, is there much point in firing the manager of a team that is universally expected to be bad?
That depends. How bad is bad? Is the team at all competitive? The Pirates, for example, currently have a predictably poor 14-18 win-loss record. But considering their run differential (runs scored minus runs allowed) of -83 is the worst in baseball, they have actually over-achieved this season.
In other words, their on-field talent is so poor that their record should be something more like 9-23. So not much point in firing the manager there.
So how about under-performing teams like the Dodgers, Braves, Cubs, White Sox (sorry, Chicago), and Mariners?
Taking the first three of those teams, no one is going to fire Joe Torre, Bobby Cox (in his last season, anyway), or Lou Piniella, at least not this year. They have accumulated more than enough managerial capital over the course of their careers to make it politically impossible for them to be terminated.
Not so the case, however, of Ozzie Guillen of the White Sox and Don Wakamatsu of Seattle. Taking the White Sox first, they are 13-19 on the season, already a full eight games out of first place. Guillen also a tendency to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time, and he has had his share of run-ins with G.M. Ken Williams over the years.
Lately, the blame for the White Sox poor start has fallen disproportionately on the shoulders of closer Bobby Jenks. Admittedly, Jenks, never one to care much about conditioning, hasn’t done his job very well. But, with the exception of first baseman Paul Konerko and pitcher John Danks, few of the White Sox players have gotten off to a good start.
Finally, Guillen, despite winning one World Championship in 2005, doesn’t exactly have a long track record of success, and his tendency to call out his players in public, rather than in private, will catch up to him eventually in terms of being able to motivate his players. In fact, it may already have.
Guillen, therefore, is certainly a possible candidate to lose his job this season.
Don Wakamatsu, manager of the Seattle Mariners, is, if anything, on an even hotter seat in his town than is Guillen. With the splashy additions of Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins, many people, including yours truly, expected the Mariners to have a legitimate chance of winning the mediocre A.L. West division.
The Angels were weakened by off-season losses of key personnel, and neither the A’s or the Rangers were obvious choices to replace the Angels atop this division.
But the Mariners anemic offense, the worst in their league, coupled with the injury to Cliff Lee, may have doomed their chances of stealing the crown. Although the Mariners are only 5 1/2 games out, a record of 12-19, and a team playing without any apparent spark at all, is a major disappointment.
And Wakamatsu has little in the way of a track record to buttress his reputation. Already, the Mariners have fired their hitting coach, Don Cockrell. Firing a coach or two is often a warning to a manager that things better improve sooner than later.
If Seattle continues to languish in their ineptitude over the next several weeks, don’t be surprised to see this team decide to change its manager.
Other teams whose managers might not survive the season include Baltimore’s Dave Trembley (9-23), Houston’s Brad Mills (10-21), Kansas City’s Trey Hillman (11-21) and Arizona’s A.J. Hinch (14-19.)
Although not much was expected of the first three of those teams, there is bad, and then there is really bad. Kansas City, for example, made a big show in the off-season of signing a couple of free agents (Rick Ankiel and Jason Kendall), and during spring training their players and manager all said the right things like, “People are going to be surprised this year. We’re going to make some noise in our division.”
Nonsense, of course. Ankiel and Kendall were poor signings, and this is a team that could only avoid last place due to its fortuitous geography of being in the same division as the Indians.
But if some of the powers-that-be within the Royals organization really believed, however erroneously, that their Royals should be much more competitive this year, then Manager Hillman might be looking for work before the end of summer.
Hinch, in Arizona, also appears to be vulnerable. Granted, the Diamondbacks have several young players still in their initial stage of development, but if this season ends up being an organizational step backwards, it is doubtful that this turn of events will be tolerated in Arizona.
Houston manager Brad Mills, is in his first full season as the field commander, will be allowed a significant honeymoon period. The truth is, Houston is a lousy, and in some quarters, overrated team with a handful of good players surrounded by a cast of replacement level talent. The inevitable overhaul of this franchise starts at the top. Mills, therefore, appears to be safe at this point.
The truth is, of course, that none of us know how the 2010 season will progress from here. Surprising turnarounds happen all the time. When we look at the standings come the All-Star Break, they could, and probably will be, significantly different from what they look like today.
One thing is certain, however. At some point, perhaps sooner than later, we will be reading about how a particular team has come to the unavoidable conclusion that it is time to change horses. References to last year’s Rockies will be made, and the expectations laid upon the head of the new manager will be many.
Yet it is also virtually certain that the teams who actually make the playoffs are not going to be the teams who change managers this season.
The teams that make the playoffs will be, as always, the teams that actually have the best players.
Some things never change.