Porter in as Astros manager, Acta out in Cleveland
The managerial merry-go-round took a couple of turns on Thursday. The Astros named current Nationals third base coach Bo Porter to pilot their team next year, while the Indians gave Manny Acta the axe, a move that seemed farfetched last month but quite likely by the time I investigated it earlier this week. Former Indians catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. will serve as interim skipper for the final week of the regular season, and is believed to be the favorite to take over for next season. Both clubs are in the midst of not only losing 2012 seasons, but strings of four straight sub-.500 records. The question remains as to how much of a chance the new skippers will have to turn things around.
For the Astros and Porter, that's a big question indeed. Purchased by Jim Crane over the winter, the Astros are only in the first year of a long-overdue rebuilding plan, and at 51-105, the team is one loss away from tying last year's franchise record for losses. Their front office makeover, from the hiring of general manager Jeff Luhnow on down, has drawn raves for its mix of old school scouting and new school statistical analysis, and while the team's drafts have improved markedly in the last couple of years, the club lacks impact prospects at the upper level, and few players on the team's current roster are likely to be part of the next winning Astros team in 2015, 2016 or whenever "next year" arrives.
As with predecessors Cecil Cooper and Brad Mills, the 40-year-old Porter will be managing a big league club for the first time. He was one of 49 initial candidates put together by the organization; other candidates interviewed included Brad Ausmus and Larry Bowa, both of whom withdrew themselves from consideration after being interviewed, deciding this challenge wasn't for them. Also interviewed were Red Sox bench coach Tim Bogar (a potential replacement for the embattled Bobby Valentine in Boston) and Rays bench coach Dave Martinez.
A three-sport All-State athlete in high school and a communications major at the University of Iowa, Porter spent 10 years playing professional baseball, and played briefly in the majors with the Cubs (who drafted him in 1993), A's and Rangers from 1999-2001, garnering just 142 plate appearances across 89 games as a reserve outfielder. He hung up his spikes after the 2003 season, and spent two years working for A-ball teams in the Marlins' organization, serving as the hitting coach for the Greensboro Grasshoppers of the South Atlantic League in 2005, and managing the Jamestown Jammers of the New York-Penn League in 2006. His team, which featured an 18-year-old Logan Morrison and a 21-year-old Chris Coghlan, went 33-39, finishing last in their division. From 2007-2009, he was the Marlins' third base coach and outfield and baserunning instructor under manager Fredi Gonzalez. He left to work as the Diamondbacks' third base coach in 2010, shifting to bench coach when manager A.J. Hinch was fired and replaced by Kirk Gibson during the season. He's been with the Nationals for the past two seasons under managers Jim Riggleman and Davey Johnson, after being a finalist for both the Marlins' and Pirates' managerial openings. He'll continue in his current capacity with the Nationals until their postseason run ends, a rare arrangement, but one that was a condition of him accepting the job. Interim manager Tony DeFrancesco will continue managing the Astros through the end of the season.
While tactical concerns — when to bunt, when to run, how to handle a bullpen — are what garners the attention when it comes to most managers, they're of secondary concern at the moment for the Astros, who are banking upon Porter's experience handling young players, teaching them the ins and outs of life in the major leagues, and understanding their need to grow. "When you talk about our young players and our system, we need someone with a real specific emphasis on playing baseball the right way," said Luhnow at the press conference to introduce Porter. "We have a lot of young, exciting players who are still learning the game at times at the big league level, and it's important we have a manager and staff that reinforce that."
What will be interesting to see with regards to the Porter-Luhnow relationship is the extent to which the front office's sabermetric bent filters down to the dugout; such an arrangement produced some success but much tension in Oakland, particularly under Art Howe and Ken Macha, but has been better received in Boston under Terry Francona and in Tampa Bay under Joe Maddon. "The Extra 2%" (to borrow the Rays' term) may not be of the utmost importance on a 100-loss team, but as a means of instilling such views organization-wide — when smallball tactics are appropriate and when they're not, for example — particularly on impressionable youngsters who are less set in their ways, could have value.
As for the Indians, they're 65-91, their third season out of the last four with at least 90 losses. Unlike the Astros, Cleveland looked to have a fighting chance coming into the year, with a strong foundation of young major league talent — Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Lonnie Chisenhall and Michael Brantley are all 26 or younger. In fact, the Indians were 27-21 and in first place in the AL Central as late as May 28. Alas, injuries to Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner, and a mismatch between a shaky infield defense and a low-strikeout pitching staff — one where Ubaldo Jimenez was expected to be the ace instead of a 5.55 ERA tomato can — contributed to their downfall, far beyond what the sabermetrically-minded Acta could counteract. As late as last month, the 43-year-old skipper was said to be likely to return, but a 15-38 record in August and September apparently changed the minds of general manager Chris Antonetti, club president Mark Shapiro and CEO Paul Dolan, with Antonetti publicly critical of the team's offense, rotation and bullpen. Antonetti has major work to do to shore up the roster, but the new manager will have to get more out of the talent on hand than Acta, who compiled a .446 winning percentage (214-266) in his three years at the helm.
For the remainder of the season, the Cleveland brass will take a close look at the 46-year-old Alomar, the 1990 AL Rookie of the Year for the Indians, a six-time All-Star over the course of a 20-year big league career, the brother of Hall of Fame second baseman (and former teammate) Roberto Alomar and the son of a 16-year major league veteran who spent time as a coach as well. Since retiring in 2007, the younger Alomar spent two yeas as a hitting instructor in the Mets chain, and three seasons on the Indians staff, moving from first base coach to bench coach this season. He interviewed for the Blue Jays' managerial position that went to John Farrell prior to the 2011 season, and was said to be considered by the Red Sox and Cubs last winter.
Alomar is the favorite but he's hardly the only candidate for the job. The 53-year-old Francona has ties to the Indians, having played for them in 1988 and spent a year as a special assistant to general manager John Hart in 2001. He spent 12 years as a big league manager with the Phillies (1997-2000) and Red Sox (2004-2011), compiling a .529 winning percentage and winning world championships in 2004 and 2007. He spent the past season as an analyst on ESPN's baseball broadcasts, and took to it well enough that he isn't likely to simply leap at the first managerial offer that comes his way. For one thing, he also has historical ties to Detroit, where Jim Leyland may be on the outs. Another name in circulation is that of Torey Lovullo, a 47-year-old who spent eight years in the majors as a player, and nine in the minors as a manager, eight of them (2002-2009) in the Indians chain and one (2010) in the Red Sox chain before joining the Blue Jays' big league staff as Farrell's first base coach. Highly regarded in major league circles, he interviewed for the Red Sox job last winter, and has also interviewed with the Dodgers and Pirates. Within a week, there may be even more jobs open, including one in Miami. In fact, it's said that the Astros agreed to Porter's arrangement in part because of the fear that he might return to the Marlins as Ozzie Guillen's successor or draw interest from other teams with vacancies. Such intrigue abounds at this time of year.