Tuesday, February 1, 2011

BD Hot Stove: AL Managers | Baseball Digest

BD Hot Stove: AL Managers | Baseball Digest

Only 14 of 30 managers have the same position they held when I last took a lot at the major league skippers back in March, 2009. Some were fired (and some were then rehired elsewhere), and others have retired. With spring training a couple of weeks away it’s time once again to see who should make the cut for a full season, who’s walking the tightrope, and who is on the thinnest of ice. The hot stove starts the two part series by looking at the American League.

AL East

This is one of the most secure divisions for a manager to lead in baseball with four, and possibly all five, managers sitting as comfy as an old man on a porch swing. Joe Girardi (2009), Terry Francona (2007), and Joe Maddon (2008) have all made it to the World Series in the last four seasons. Francona had the toughest task of the three last season and arguably did the best job in all of baseball. With injuries to players like Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, and Josh Beckett, Francona kept his team in contention for a playoff spot until the final weeks of the season.

Girardi signed a new three year deal this off-season that will pay him $9M. You can bet he hopes for a bounce back season from A.J. Burnett, another year out of Andy Pettitte, and some good fortune out of the collection of Bartolo Colon, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and others for the back end of the rotation. Maddonhas his work cut out for him this year. The Rays won their second division in three years in 2010, but much of that team is now gone. Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Carlos Pena, Joaquin Benoit, Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler are among the players who signed or were traded elsewhere. And now he gets to deal with the “Manny being Manny” show.

There are two new kids on the block, though one isn’t really new. Buck Showalter managed the last 57 games for Baltimore last season and had them 11 games over .500 (34-23). He, along with president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, are trying to change perceptions and attitudes in Baltimore. A team that was powerful in the ’60s and ’70s and still competitive through the ’90s, has been awful in the new millenium. Showalter’s deal keeps him in black, orange, and white through 2013. Showalter has already helped turn teams around in NY, Texas, and Arizona. Crabtown hopes he can do the same for them.

The rookie manager of the division is Toronto’s John Farrell, who spent the last five seasons as the Red Sox pitching coach, and had been fielding managerial requests for the last few years. He’s taking the reins of a team that is in a rebuilding stage, having jettisoned veteran centerfielder Vernon Wells (and his enormous contract) and its best pitcher, Shaun Marcum. Farrell has said he wants the team to be much more aggressive on the basepaths this season, contradicting the moneyball vision previous GM J.P. Ricciardi had instilled.

AL Central

Our cover boy/man Jim Leyland is indeed in trouble as he enters his sixth season at the Detroit Tigers helm. For one thing, he has no contract beyond this season. But most important is success, and Leyland’s Tigers are just five games over .500 for the last three seasons combined. A slow start or a mid-season fade could spell the end for this fiery, “take no prisoners”-style skipper. Leyland isn’t worried about being a lame duck manager, and told mlb.com’s Jason Beck that he’s excited about this season. “Am I excited about our team? Yeah, I think we have a good team. I really do. I know we have a good team. I don’t think there’s any question about that. We have a good team.” Verlander, Porcello, Coke, Scherzer, Penny, etc. will be the key players to determine if Leyland is right.

Ron Gardenhire wins, plain and simple. Unfortunately for him and the Minnesota Twins’ fan base, he hasn’t been able to lead the team to a World Series. Gardenhire has a .656 winning pct. in his nine seasons in the Twin Cities and has captured AL Central titles. A 94 win campaign in 2010 led to the AL Manager of the Year award, but the team fell to the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight season. The Twins need a healthy Justin Morneau and someone to step up offensively for Gardenhire to finally heard his name over the PA during the World Series.

Manny Acta is in his second season of a three year contract (with an option for a fourth season) as the manager of the Cleveland Indians; a team that was this close to making the 2007 World Series, but it is now in a major rebuilding phase. Pending free agent aces CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, as well as slugger Victor Martinez, were dealt away. Injuries have taken a major toll on the rising star of Grady Sizemore. All of this translated to this near-pennant winner going from 96 wins in 2007 to 65 two years later. The team improved only slightly last year under Acta, winning 69 games. The length of his contract shows the team is committed to Acta, who is still considered an “up and comer” as a manager. For Acta’s sake, the Indians farm system will have to get its act together soon.

Kansas City has not been the place to be for major league managers. Tony Muser, Tony Pena, Buddy Bell, Trey Hillman, and Ned Yost have been trying to make something out of nothing in KC for over a decade. Only Pena’s 2003 squad finished over .500. Yost gets his first spring training with the team after taking over for Hillman last year after 35 games. The Royals have young talent in the system led by the team’s best hitter, Billy Butler, and minor league prospects Mike Moustakkas and Kila Ka’aihue. But with Zack Greinke traded and the injured Gil Meche retired, Yost is still looking at guys like Kyle Davies and Bruce Chen to give him quality starts. Yost will be safe in 2011, but the team could go in another direction the following year.

It was thought that Ozzie Guillen’s job could be in jeopardy as he entered the final year of his contract. But after GM Kenny Williams brought in Adam Dunn and Jesse Crain and re-signed Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynksi, the team committed to Guillen by picking up his option for 2012. The outspoken, fiery Guillen should be fine unless the team plays well below ownership’s expectations. If that were to happen, someone else would definitely be steering the White Sox in the second half.

AL West

Ron Washington may not always do things by the book, but he found tremendous success last year, leading Texas to their first World Series. Now he has to try to repeat the feat without Cliff Lee. Washington’s stock rose exponentially and the victory rewarded team president Nolan Ryan’s faith in him after the manager admitted to snorting cocaine in 2009. Ryan paid him back with a new two-year contract that will keep Washington in Arlington through 2012. But reading between the lines, you could say “just” a two year contract. Washington has a chance to lead the team to back-to-back division titles for the first time since 1998-1999, but the real test may be surviving beyond this season.

Mike Scioscia is arguably the best manager in baseball. Entering his 12th season with the Los Angeles Angels, Sciosia has had his team above .500 in eight of eleven seasons, and he’s won five division titles and one World Series championship. The team fell on hard times last year after a combo of injuries, tragedy, and free agent departures weakened the squad. Thanks in large part to Scioscia, the team still finished just two games under .500. The former Dodger is getting to be like his old manager Tommy Lasorda, who served as skipper in Chavez Ravine for 21 seasons. Sciosia signed a 10 year extension prior to the 2009 season that would have him managing for the Halos through 2018 (He can opt out after 2015).

Seattle’s Eric Wedge returns to managing for the first time since he was let go by the Indians after the 2009 season and seven years in Cleveland. Things are not promising for Seattle, which won 61 games in two of the last three seasons. Outside of Felix Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki, and Franklin Gutierrez, there’s not much on the 25 man roster to get excited about. Wedge received a three-year deal, which will give youngsters like Dustin Ackley and Michael Pindea time to develop.

Bob Geren is in the final year of his current contract with the Oakland A’s. Geren led the team to its first .500 season since he took over for Ken Macha’s 93 game winner in 2006. With a limited budget, Geren has to do more with less; not an easy task when managing under GM Billy Beane, who got rid of both Macha and Art Howe in the off-season following division titles. With no future contract, Geren’s job is very tenuous.

Rumors, News, and Transactions

It may not be a sign for the future, but mlb.com’s Bryan Hoch reported that Andy Pettitte has an autograph session set up in New York for February 15. That’s after pitchers and catchers are set to report to Tampa for spring training.

The Rays have signed 1st baseman Casey Kotchman to a minor league deal. With Dan Johnson pencilled in at 1st base, Kotchman should have a good shot at winning a job.

The Spanish language newspaper El Nuevo Herald reports that the White Sox have signed shortstopAlexei Ramirez to a four year extension worth $32.5M.

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