Friday May 14th, 2010

Managers aren't quite like Jenga blocks in which one's fall necessarily precipitates the demise of more, but the Royals' firing of Trey Hillman on Thursday marks the beginning of 2010's open season on skippers.

That Hillman received a vote of confidence from Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore just one day before his dismissal shows that no amount of verbal support ever makes a manager truly secure.

The same way a manager will sometimes argue with an umpire just to get ejected and provide a spark for the club, some teams seem to fire a skipper in the hopes it will serve as a midseason catalyst toward October. Yet only four times since 1990 has a team that changed managers during the year made the playoffs. In 2003, the Marlins replaced Jeff Torborg with Jack McKeon in mid-May and wound up winning the World Series. In 2004, Phil Garner took over for Jimy Williams in Houston and guided the Astros to the Wild Card. In 2008, the Brewers won the Wild Card after firing Ned Yost (who was hired yesterday to take over for Hillman in Kansas City) in mid-September and replacing him with Dale Sveum. And last season, the Rockies fired Clint Hurdle in late May after an 18-28 start and brought in Jim Tracy, who led Colorado to a 74-42 finish and Wild Card berth.

Those are the exceptions, but that won't stop some clubs from making a change in the hopes they find similar success. And May seems to be a popular month to do it -- it's deep enough in the year for a sufficient sample size of the season yet early enough where a new manager can change the course of the team.

Here are five managers who appear to be on the hot seat, unless their clubs start winning.

When Trembley was named interim manager in June 2007, the charge was simple: Develop the young players now, win later. Trembley had managed 20 years in the minors and was entrusted with preparing Baltimore's young core to compete in the AL East. This spring, however, president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said publicly that the Orioles must now start winning more games and that it was "the right thing" to give Trembley the first opportunity to do that.

Trembley gave a similar assessment before the season started, saying, "We've turned the corner. Now it's time to step it up and win more games. There have been drafts, there's been patience that's been exhibited by management and myself to allow the younger players to go through some ups and downs at the major-league level."

Instead, Baltimore's only had more downs to this point of the season and has continued on a downward trajectory since Trembley took over. The Orioles went 40-53 (.430) under his watch to finish 2007, but then have regressed with each passing year: 68-93 (.422) in 2008; 64-98 (.395) in '09; 11-24 (.314) so far in '10. After having weathered a 2-16 start, Trembley has guided the O's to a 9-8 mark over the last 17 games. Such success will need to continue to keep him in the Camden Yards dugout.

Outside of center fielder Andrew McCutchen and reliever Evan Meek, there haven't been many bright spots for the Pirates this season. Then again, there haven't been many bright spots in any of the past 17 seasons either, all of which ended with a losing record, just as this one seems destined to. Russell, in his third year, is an easy target because the manager is always the first to go when a club is mired in a rut, and Pittsburgh has been very inconsistent this season. Three times it has won three straight games, but usually such streaks have been interspersed by losing spells of at least that long.

And it's how the Pirates are losing that's been troubling. In one stretch of seven straight losses, they were outscored 72-12; that included a 20-0 demolition at the hands of the Brewers, who won three games by a combined 36-1, and there was a sweep by the lowly Astros. Pittsburgh hasn't even been competitive in 70 percent of its losses, as 14 of its 20 defeats have been by at least five runs.

Obviously the Marlins and owner Jeffrey Loria are no strangers to in-season changes, having made a similar move almost exactly seven years ago. McKeon replaced Torborg on May 11, 2003 with the team sitting at 16-22. Through May 13 this season, the Marlins are 17-18, and heading into this week, they had won just four of their past 14 games. They've since won a series in Chicago and taken the opener against the Mets, but they are still in fourth place in the NL East.

Florida leads the majors with 33 errors, and when Loria met with reporters recently, he asked, "Who could be thrilled with being two games under .500?" Loria noted that the team lacked intensity and added, "This team is better than that. There is a lot of room to get better. We came out of spring a little flat and are working our way out of it now."

But Loria also said, "Fredi and the Marlins are just fine," and Gonzalez did lead Florida to 87 wins last season. Barring a monumental collapse, Gonzalez shouldn't be in danger for a while, at least into the beginning of the Mike Stanton era; the franchise's top prospect, a power-hitting outfielder, is expected in the big leagues in June or July.

Manuel's name has been churned through the hot seat rumor mill seemingly from the moment he took over the reigns as a midseason replacement himself for the fired Willie Randolph in June 2008. New York's horrific collapse at the end of that season and underwhelming '09, in which it won only 70 games despite a nearly $150 million payroll, are not exactly first-line résumé material.

The Mets' recent stretch of 10 wins in 11 games has certainly bought Manuel some time, but their style of play has been uninspiring. Until a six-run eighth inning against the Nationals on Tuesday, the Mets had proven incapable of rallying from any lead of more than two runs. In consecutive games against the Phillies, for instance, they failed to even get a hit after falling behind early. Without the offensive firepower need for comebacks, the Mets -- and Manuel -- will only go as far as their starting pitching takes them.

Owner Mark Attanasio continues to expand the Brewers' payroll -- this year it's a club record $90 million, up from $28 million just six years ago. Along with such expenditures come expectations, and Milwaukee has not lived up to its talent level this season. The Brewers are four games under .500 and have been especially disappointing in front of the home crowd, winning just four of 15 games at Miller Park.

General manager Doug Melvin made some supportive comments of Macha recently -- "We're not performing well but Ken, I haven't seen him swing at a bad breaking ball yet. I haven't seen him give up two runs, three runs in an inning yet" -- but the Brewers are moving in the wrong direction after reaching the playoffs in 2008. Undoubtedly, hired gun CC Sabathia was a catalyst for that year's wild-card team, but even after he left at season's end, much of the same core returned in '09. Yet Milwaukee still finished under .500. Now, with the Brewers struggling at 15-19 and Prince Fielder set to become a free agent at the end of the 2011 season, it's a critical juncture for the club.

Meanwhile, three of baseball's cellar-dwellers are led by managers who nevertheless seem safe. Houston's Brad Mills, the former longtime Red Sox bench coach, is in only the second month of his managerial career, so he'll receive some time to turn around an Astros club that is admittedly a little low on talent.

Arizona's A.J. Hinch, hired last May, is only now at the one-year mark of his tenure; he received a strong initial vote of confidence (a contract through 2012), in order to help persuade him to leave the front-office track he was on. And as recently as two weeks ago general manager Josh Byrnes described his leadership as "very effective" and his overall job performance as "very good."

And Seattle's Don Wakamatsu, in his second year at the helm of the Mariners, appears to be well respected by his players, an opinion that was no doubt enhanced by his vociferous defense of Ken Griffey Jr. after the recent report that alleged Griffey missed a pinch-hitting opportunity because he was napping in the clubhouse. Yes, the M's are underachieving and have held an increasing number of team meetings to right the ship, but they're unlikely to make another move after already firing hitting coach Alan Cockrell.

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