Tony La Russa topped my list of best managers in the game two years ago. But last year I switched to Mike Scioscia. This year I am back to La Russa. It's nothing Scioscia has done wrong. In fact, under impossible and tragic circumstances he's kept his Angels team together as well as anyone possibly could have. I am just back to recognizing the true genius of La Russa.
Here are my third-annual managerial rankings:
1. La Russa, Cardinals: We can't ever forget he won a World Series in 2006 with a team that was generally considered the eighth-best of eight in the playoffs. But even better, he and pitching coach Dave Duncan consistently have gotten the most out of their roster ever since. "He did his best job the last two years," one competing GM said. The Cardinals consistently play to win, and they consistently outplay their talent. La Russa might not win personality or popularity contests, but you can't argue with the results. It'll be interesting to see if he stays in one of the greatest jobs in sports beyond this season, because his contract's up again after the year and he doesn't appear as close to new GM John Mozeliak as he was to the deposed Walt Jocketty, now the Reds' GM.
2. Scioscia, Angels: He's kept his disheartened team focused on the field after the worst-imaginable scenario, the tragic death of promising pitcher Nick Adenhart, one of three victims hit by a drunk driver hours after Adenhart threw six shutout innings in his season debut. The team easily could have quit after that, or after the injuries to John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Vlad Guerrero. But Scioscia has made sure the Angels continue to give their best effort. The Angels are only two games back in the division race and Lackey and Santana are expected to return within two weeks. No one plays a more exciting brand of baseball than the Angels under Scioscia, a true leader. He just signed a 10-year contract, with the last three years voidable at his option. I don't know the price and can still say it's a good deal for the Angels.
3. Terry Francona, Red Sox: He knows how to treat people, even folks like Manny Ramirez, who may be a little bit whacky. Players said much of Man-Ram's wackiness in Boston never even made the papers, and that's probably to Francona's credit. He's also not bad with strategy, a fact that seems to be overlooked.
4. Joe Torre, Dodgers: Sure, I thought his time was up with the Yankees. And I've heard the claims that he's lucked into yet another great situation with the Dodgers. But his teams just keep winning, and you can't argue with that kind of success. On Tuesday night, they made it 12 straight home wins to start the year, tying the record of Ty Cobb's 1911 Tigers. The Yankee Years, the best-selling book written with Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci, has not adversely affected the Dodgers one iota, as Torre has this very young team playing hard and staying focused. Matt Kemp, for one, appears to be growing up before our eyes.
5. Ron Gardenhire, Twins: If La Russa gets the most out of seemingly average teams in the National League, Gardenhire has mastered that same trick in the AL -- the tougher league. Gardenhire has continued the tradition of Twins teams playing all-out all the time, which started with underrated skipper Tom Kelly. Gardenhire's overlooked on these lists all the time.
6. Cito Gaston, Blue Jays: It's really a shame the 65-year-old Gaston was out of the game for a ridiculous 11 years. It could have been because Gaston doesn't exactly light a room up with his personality, though closet racism on the part of some can't be ruled out as a cause. Whatever the reason, it was baseball's loss. It seems the Jays always play best when he's their manager.
7. Ozzie Guillen, White Sox: There's really no good reason not to love Ozzie besides occasional political incorrectness. Sure, he's goofy. But don't let that fool you. He's smart. We can't forget he ran the table with a very good but not great team in 2005.
8. Charlie Manuel, Phillies: He wasn't afraid to take on his biggest stars when necessary last year, and that was no small thing on the way to the Phillies' first World Series title in 28 seasons. This year he's keeping a team together with a pitching staff that seemingly allows two or three homers every game.
9. Joe Maddon, Rays: Like Torre, he always seems to know the right thing to say. And the right way to say it. And like Scioscia, a young mentor of his, he has his team playing a winning style of baseball. He performed a miracle last year by calling a 27-game improvement, and then pulling it off with room to spare in a historic 31-game improvement (66 wins to 97). He's running into tough going now, though, trying to get his team to duplicate that magic.
10. Lou Piniella, Cubs: One of the two most entertaining managers in the game (sharing honors with cross-town colleague Guillen). But that bad defeat in the division series to Torre's Dodgers is hard to ignore, so he's slipped a few spots. Piniella won with the 1990 Reds, which was certainly a very neat trick, but he's struggled in the playoffs since and wasted time in hometown Tampa.
Others: There was criticism in past years for ranking Bobby Cox in the second five, and I'll have to accept what comes my way now for omitting him altogether. But this isn't 1995 anymore. Cox was a very good manager in his heyday, and players consistently vouch for him, even today. But he was never great strategically and he's lost a vast majority of one-run road games in recent years, including a record 29 straight on the road that was ended last Sept. 13 (some of that may be attributable to a shaky bullpen, though).
It hurts me not to include a favorite, Jim Leyland, for the first time. However, last year was a complete waste for the Tigers, who had one of the highest payrolls in baseball and a consistently blah team that finished behind the upstart Royals.
Dusty Baker is a three-time manager of the year. But without Barry Bonds, he looks rather ordinary from here.
There are some fine up-and-comers, and I especially like the Marlins' Fredi Gonzalez, who has to combine babysitting duties with managerial stratagems at times with his very young club. Don Wakamatsu is off to a nice start in Seattle. The Indians' Eric Wedge has his moments, though not lately. Jerry Manuel did a nice job for the Mets last year. And I'm not giving up on Joe Girardi yet, though his team better get back to health if he wants to make it to a third year managing in the Bronx.
The 2005 draft class, which I highlighted in this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, may be the best of all time, and the first round was just ridiculous in terms of talent. Here were the top 12 picks:
1. Justin Upton, Arizona 2. Alex Gordon, Kansas City3. Jeff Clement, Seattle 4. Ryan Zimmerman, Washington5. Ryan Braun, Milwaukee 6. Ricky Romero, Toronto7. Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado8. Wade Townsend, Tampa Bay9. Mike Pelfrey, New York Mets10. Cameron Maybin, Detroit11. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh12. Jay Bruce, Cincinnati
And here's how I'd re-pick the top 12 now, given the chance:
1. Braun2. Upton 3. Matt Garza4. Zimmerman5. Chris Volstad6. Bruce7. Gordon8. Maybin9. Tulowitzki10. Jacoby Ellsbury11. Romero12. McCutchen
Braun -- whose 71 home runs in his first two seasons eclipses all but three players in baseball history, all Hall of Famers -- is the first All-Star in the vaunted group, and the surest thing. "It was a helluva draft," recalls Jack Zduriencik, then the Brewers' scouting director and now the Mariners' GM. "Had we picked higher, I think we still would have taken Braun ... He was so athletic we knew he could go to left field if he had to."
Going in, then Diamondbacks scouting director Mike Rizzo (who's now the Nationals' acting GM) understood that this draft was a doozy. He also knew Upton was his guy. Even in that draft, Rizzo said Upton's athleticism, determination and seriousness stood out. "He was the clear No. 1 pick, at least to me." It's been an unusual route for Upton, Rizzo conceded, with the ultra-quick start followed by serious slumping. But Rizzo still sees a bright future for the 21-year-old: "I see him flourishing and becoming the player everyone thinks and knows he's going to be." Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes agrees. "I'd be surprised if he's not a star."
• The Dodgers really have something special going. It's pretty telling they lead the league in runs, considering they play in a historic pitcher's park. Their young nucleus is as superb as advertised; take a bow, Logan White. And the rotation that looked thin and lost Hiroki Kuroda has gotten by. Jeff Weaver stepped in Wednesday night to beat the rival Diamondbacks, 3-1, the latest indication that maybe this is their year.
• Joba Chamberlain put on a nice strikeout display Tuesday night, with 12 K's in 5 2/3 innings in the Yankees' 7-3 defeat to the rival Red Sox. And while the Yankees' bullpen has been "terrible," in the words of one Yankees executive, one reason they say they aren't considering moving Joba to the 'pen is his struggles in the first inning; Chamberlain gave up a four-spot in the first vs. Boston before dominating most of the next 4 2/3 innings.
• Johnny Damon said in a recent interview with Boston's WEEI that the Yankees treat their older stars better than the Red Sox, and it's true the Yankees have a much harder time letting go. Hint, hint. Damon seems to hope the Yankees would like to take him back, and he's certainly hitting enough (homers in two straight games vs. his old BoSox). But I'd say the chances for that don't look great. Damon, Hideki Matsui and Xavier Nady are all free agents after the year, and there's no certainty the Yankees will make a strong play to keep any of them.
• The Yankees won't say for sure, but Friday looks like the day for A-Rod, barring some unforeseen problem. Saturday is the backup plan.
• I know this will sound crazy. But I actually think Ollie Perez will get it back. He certainly has been awful (9.97 ERA). But that's Ollie: periods of awfulness followed by periods of greatness. He's just due for greatness now -- although, he'll have to regain it as a bullpen man for now. He certainly isn't winning admirers in his own organization, though. Speaking of 40-year-old Japanese import Ken Takahashi (who got out of Perez's mess last Saturday), one Mets official said, "At least he competed." Takahashi, the most-likely starter Friday, is a big story back in Japan (several reporters were trailing him even when he was just a mop-up man), but his presence has pretty much flown under the radar here.
• It's been speculated that the Nats might again pick University of Missouri pitcher Aaron Crow at No. 10 (their compensation pick for failing to sign him last year) now that GM Jim Bowden isn't around. I haven't written many nice things about Bowden, but he wasn't the reason they failed to sign Crow. Bowden and Rizzo wanted to pay the freight, but club president Stan Kasten drew the line. In any case, there should be a rule against the same team picking the same prospect again. From Crow's perspective, he'd probably rather take the waterboarding option. The Nats, of course, also have the first-overall pick, and that's going to be San Diego State phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg.
• Rizzo, by the way, should get the Nats' full-time GM job. And I think his support from the club-owning Lerners is such that he will get the job eventually.
• Joe Mauer hitting a home run on his first swing ... simply amazing.