In advance of the 2014 MLB season, Cliff Corcoran and Jay Jaffe are debating some of the big questions heading into the year. Today's topic: Which three managers are on the hottest seats in 2014?
CLIFF: My three choices: Ron Washington, John Gibbons, and Lloyd McClendon.
Washington is the obvious choice here. The Rangers failed to make the Division Series in either of the last two years and have seen their win totals decline three years in a row. Washington, who will turn 62 in April, is entering his eighth season on the job. The Rangers gave him an extension last month that erased his lame-duck status this season, but it's telling that that extension was for just one year (2015), whereas his last two extensions were for two years each. With Texas having added a great deal of salary by trading for Prince Fielder and signing Shin-Soo Choo, the front office can claim it did its part to help the team win. In reality, the Rangers failed to fortify their rotation, which could give Washington a viable excuse if Texas falls short again.
Gibbons was the man entrusted with taking Toronto back into contention after their big 2012-13 offseason, but he and the revamped Blue Jays barely moved the needle in Year One. With Gibbons only signed through 2015, the team could look to replace him if their outlook doesn't start to improve in the coming season.
McClendon is a bit of a reach considering he has yet to manage his first game for the M's, but he makes my list largely due to the Mariners' apparent front-office dysfunction and the increased expectations that will follow Robinson Cano and his $240 million contract to Seattle. McClendon will be the Mariners' eighth manager in twelve seasons since Lou Piniella was traded to Tampa Bay, three of whom—John McLaren, Jim Riggleman, and Daren Brown—failed to last 162 games. Brown was, admittedly, an interim, and the other two served under the previous administration. Still, of the six newly hired managers at the start of the coming season, McClendon is the only one whose "multi-year" contract terms are not known. In fact, of the 30 managers, the contract duration has been made public for all but McClendon, the Astros' Bo Porter, the White Sox's Robin Ventura, and the Diamondbacks' Kirk Gibson, the last two of whom signed extensions earlier this year. Still, that seems telling in all four cases.
JAY: My three in order of likelihood are Washington, Mike Scioscia and Gibson.
For Washington, the Rangers have been moving backwards since about the seventh inning of Game 6 in the 2011 World Series. Since those back-to-back trips to the World Series, they've had stretches in each of the past two seasons where they looked like the league's best team, but they've gone 27-32 in September/October, and have been eliminated in the final game of the regular season in two straight years. Those showings manage to undermine Washington's reputation as a leader and motivator and highlight his lack of tactical acumen, and especially the over-reliance on smallball—guess which month has featured the most sacrifice bunts? You can point to injuries as a factor, and particularly for last year, to general manager Jon Daniels' failure to break up the infield logjam or to bring in a power hitter to replace Josh Hamilton. But now that Ian Kinsler's gone and Jurickson Profar has a place to play, and now that the the offense has Choo and Fielder, it's on Washington to get this team back to the playoffs.
Scioscia hasn't taken the Angels to the playoffs since 2009, and he's presided over two sub-.500 seasons and three third-place finishes in the past four years. The last two have come despite considerable spending in the free agent market on C.J. Wilson, Albert Pujols and Hamilton, and the arrival of once-in-a-generation (or more) talent in Mike Trout. There's been a fair bit of friction between him and the front office, as well as regrettable moves like the Mike Napoli-for-Vernon Wells swap, but Scioscia wasn't the biggest Napoli fan, and his departure cost the team dearly. Scioscia also seems to have lost his magic touch with the bullpen, which was once a defining characteristic of his teams. He's signed through 2018, but if he can't turn a team with a payroll in the top 20th percentile into a winner, it's going to be his neck sooner or later.
As for Gibson, the Diamondbacks have gone 81-81 for two straight years despite a whole lot of chest-thumping about gritty, hard-nosed baseball and curious personnel purges that seem to have more to do with personality than talent. Neither managing partner Ken Kendrick nor general manager Kevin Towers have been shy about voicing their concerns regarding the perceived flaws of the team, and sooner or later, they're going to run out of places to point fingers besides at themselves, so it figures Gibson could draw some heat. Given the number of guys who've been ridden out of town on a rail, I have to wonder about how he's perceived in that clubhouse — if players are concerned about whether he'll stand up for them. That's just spitballing, though.
CLIFF: Gibson and Scioscia are both good picks here. The thing that kept me from listing Scioscia was his contract. Not just the fact that he's signed through 2018 (Buck Showalter is the only other manager with as long of a guarantee), but also the fact that he has an opt-out after the 2015 season. That could be a get-out-of-Sosh-free card for the Angels, for whom Scioscia has been the most successful manager in franchise history, having led them to six of their nine playoff appearances and their only pennant and championship. Its easy enough to blame the team's struggles last year on the back of the rotation, Hamilton's struggles, and Pujols' injury, and, in 2012, they won more regular-season games than the pennant-winning Tigers. The end does seem near for Scioscia, but I don't think it's imminent.
As for Gibson, I think he should be on the hot seat, but there seems to be enough organizational group-think there that I don't think he's going to go before Towers does. The Diamondbacks don't strike me as a team on the verge of a major management turnover, though if they finish at or below .500 this year, we could see some change happen come the fall.
For what it's worth, the only two managers who are entering this season as lame ducks are Pittsburgh's Clint Hurdle and Milwaukee's Ron Roenicke. Both have options for 2015, and Hurdle's job seems safe now that he has led the Pirates to their first winning season and first playoff berth since 1992. Roenicke may have to win to stay in Milwaukee beyond this year, but I don't see him getting the ax during the season unless Ryan Braun's return really rattles that clubhouse.
Two others that bear watching, I think, are the Mets' Terry Collins and the Twins' Ron Gardenhire, both of whom were extended in September but are still only signed through 2015. Gardenhire has been saddled with some lousy clubs of late, but he's also entering his 13th year on the job. The only thing that seems to be holding him in place at this point is the rate of turnover in Minnesota. The Twins have had two managers, Gardy and Tom Kelly, since the end of the 1986 season. Collins is similarly not to blame for the Mets struggles, but the team has nonetheless flat-lined on his watch, he's entering his fourth season on the job, and he'll be 65 in May.
JAY: Given how close Scioscia appeared to be to the precipice of departure last year, I feel pretty comfortable in suggesting that he's got less job security than his contract implies. If he were fired, he'd probably have to forfeit a chunk of what's remaining if he took another managerial job.
Roenicke is one whom I hadn't considered closely, if only because I can barely remember to think of the Brewers these days. It seems like only yesterday he was being hailed for the job he did in Milwaukee, but he's got two seasons of diminishing returns since then, less due to his own doing than to the departure of Prince Fielder, the injuries to Corey Hart, the Ryan Braun mess, and more Yuniesky Betancourt than any innocent man deserves. The fact that younger players like Jean Segura, Carlos Gomez and Jonathan Lucroy have flourished under him might buy him time, as those are core guys to build around, but you're right: If he doesn't have a contract for next year, the ice is particularly thin.
I don't think Gardenhire or Collins have anything to worry about beyond the quality of their teams. For a GM to extend them for two years and then fire them after one is the admission of having made a glaring mistake, and I don't see either Terry Ryan or Sandy Alderson reversing course that quickly.
CLIFF: The counter-argument on Gardenhire and Collins is one that brings us back to Washington. There's a considerable stigma associated with a manager having what has become perceived as lame-duck status. We saw how ugly that situation can get last year with Don Mattingly and the Dodgers, and it was a refusal to work on a one-year contract that led to Joe Torre's eventual departure from the Yankees. The argument, then, is that managers are increasingly saying that being a lame duck makes it impossible for them to do their job effectively. By giving Washington, Gardenhire, Collins, and Ned Yost (who was also extended through 2015 in October and who faces considerable expectations with the Royals this season) extensions just long enough to remove their lame-duck status, their teams have effectively removed that excuse and thus, from a certain perspective, made them easier to fire. JAY: Touché. While conceding that point — that those extended may suddenly be easier to fire, while maintaining that the differing expectations for the Rangers (contenders) and Twins/Mets (not so much) are still the big separator here, which is why Washington was the one guy we both agreed was on the hot seat.