In contrast to their roster of mostly underachieving kids, the Orioles have assembled a list of experienced, accomplished managers as prime candidates to replace the recently fired Dave Trembley for what might be the hardest job in sports, what one baseball executive called a "hell". Internally, even Davey Johnson has been mentioned along with other fellow ex-managers Bobby Valentine, Buck Showalter, Bob Melvin and Eric Wedge.
Johnson, who took the Orioles to the playoffs in 1996 and '97 but hasn't managed in the majors since 2000, is surely the most intriguing new name of the group. But Melvin, who managed the Diamondbacks, Showalter (Yankees, D-backs and Rangers), and Wedge (Indians) are all more likely to accept an offer. Melvin is said to have a positive connection to Orioles owner Peter Angelos from Melvin's playing days in Baltimore from 1989-91. Johnson and the more sought-after Valentine, who managed the Rangers and Mets before going on to a successful stint in Japan, would seem to be long shots to join the Orioles.
Speaking candidly about the last-place Orioles' current struggles and their recent history that includes zero winning seasons in the past 12 years, club president Andy MacPhail said by phone, "Let's be honest, I'm not sure this gig's for everyone. We may have more interest in some guys than they have in us.''
It's clear that the Orioles favor big-time experience after going with rookies in their last three choices as manager -- Lee Mazzilli, Sam Perlozzo and Trembley, all of whom failed to return the Orioles to their glory years. (In fairness, they all faced extremely difficult odds, with Mazzilli having by far the most good moments). "We have made no secret, given the composition of our roster, that experience is something we put a premium on,'' MacPhail said, while also suggesting they will at least interview a few less experienced men and that interim manager Juan Samuel is genuinely auditioning (though it can't be too comforting to him to see the interviewees line up).
Some have heard the Orioles may move quickly on this, but while MacPhail has already set up interviews with several viable candidates, he said there's no timetable and he hasn't even started with all the candidates currently connected to teams (that would include Melvin, a Mets scout who appeared to be Jerry Manuel's likely successor until the Mets' recent turnaround). MacPhail is also realistic enough to understand they may not get their first choice, or even their second or third. The AL East is a bear, the team hasn't had a winning season since 1997, Angelos has a reputation for being overbearing and the presence of Angelos' son John is also said to be viewed as a negative by some. And while they possess promising young players like center fielder Adam Jones, catcher Matt Wieters and pitcher Brian Matusz, they are already 30 games under .500.
As for the names who have leaked so far, Valentine has been pursued to one degree or another for nearly every managerial opening the past few years, and his seemingly lukewarm stance toward the Indians job last winter leaves the impression he may wait for something closer to his optimum. With uncertainty surrounding potentially more desirable jobs such as the Cubs, Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Brewers, it's hard to imagine Valentine jumping at the Orioles opportunity. One competing exec said he thought the free-wheeling Valentine and the buttoned-down MacPhail would make an unlikely pairing. And yet another competing GM said, "I can't imagine Valentine and Angelos working together. Bobby would be perfect for the Cubs job if they decide to make a change. He could be the manager and Ryne Sandberg the bench coach.''
Johnson's name is perhaps the most interesting to be bandied around the Orioles' backrooms. Angelos has mostly fond recollections of his days with Johnson and is said to be feeling pangs of remorse over losing him 13 years ago in a silly contract squabble. But people familiar with the situation say that while Johnson feels an intense connection with the Orioles and Baltimore, he's at a stage in his life where he's unlikely to jump at the job. Beyond that, Angelos' underlings don't appear as anxious to turn the clock back now, anyway. One person familiar with the Orioles' thinking about him said, "It's not 1997 anymore."
Johnson appeared to have a real shot at an interview three years ago with then-Orioles honchos Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette before MacPhail took over their baseball operations. By phone, Johnson remembered getting a call in 2007 but "nothing coming from it.'' Johnson diplomatically didn't wish to discuss this new situation, saying, "I'm working with the Nationals. I don't think it's appropriate for me to comment on other jobs. Having said that, my kids were born there, I played there. I managed there. I watch them. I root for them. I hate to see things going the way they're going -- 30 games under before the All-Star break. It's a great baseball town ... My heart goes out to them.''
The 67-year-old Johnson, who played for the Orioles from 1965-1972, has extremely strong ties to the city (even stronger than in New York, where Johnson managed the Mets to the 1986 world championship). He is said by friends to be enjoying his advisory role with the Nationals, his managerial duties for USA baseball and his nice family set-up in Orlando, and would only consider a managerial job under the most perfect of circumstances.
Johnson isn't the only big name from a bygone era that's been thrown out there. MacPhail is a former exec with the Twins and Cubs, so it's no surprise that former Minnesota manager Tom Kelly's name will always come up when MacPhail is involved. He tried without success to get Kelly to come to the Cubs several years ago, so it's virtually impossible to believe Kelly would take on a much more trying job many years later. MacPhail did say, "I love Tom Kelly.'' And why wouldn't he? He's a terrific manager who won two World Series titles for him in Minnesota. But someone else close to Kelly, who turns 60 in August, said managing just isn't in his future plans: "That ship has sailed.''
While the much younger Showalter (who is 54), Melvin (48) and Wedge (42), are accomplished in their own right, they may not be as picky. And actually, Showalter would appear to be a decent fit. He has the rep for being very proficient with start-up situations as the manager of the expansion D-backs and was able to navigate George Steinbrenner in his heyday (for a few years, anyway). "He got the Yankees going, and he got Arizona going,'' one baseball executive pointed out. "He's known as a control freak. But maybe they need some control over there.'' Wedge took the Indians to the ALCS just three years ago, the same year Melvin guided the D-backs to the NLCS.
Here are some other definite and possible managerial openings for 2011.
Bobby Cox has said he will step down after the season, whether he wants to or not. If the Marlins' Fredi Gonzalez, a Cox disciple doing excellent work in Florida, is available, he has to be the choice.
• Cito Gaston has done his job but it's time to go. The team and job are both better than most envisioned.
Their bosses privately tell folks they worry about Lou Piniella's health. Sandberg, who has done the apprenticeship by managing in the minors (he's currently at Triple-A Iowa), is the natural pick. But that would be a gamble in a difficult job.
Joe Torre and owner Frank McCourt couldn't reach agreement this spring on a new contract for 2011. The Dodgers made an offer, but Torre declined it. This looks like a repeat of Torre's L'Affaire Yankee, where the offer isn't to his liking. Most baseball people see McCourt moving on. Dodgers bench coach Don Mattingly, a great guy, hard worker and Yankee icon, is the heir apparent, though some still wonder whether he's ready.
Ken Macha is in the last year of a two-year deal. While the pathetic pitching isn't his fault, word is some players don't especially love him, either.
John Russell's contract for 2011 was secretly extended last winter and news of it just came out within the past days. But the team's on an 11-game losing streak, and even they have some standards.
Gonzalez doesn't seem to be as appreciated as he should be by owner Jeffrey Loria, who seems to think he has a championship-caliber roster.
There are all sorts of crazy rumors out there. One thing's for sure, GM Josh Byrnes is fighting to keep his handpicked choice, A.J. Hinch. But there are some whispers that even the well-regarded Byrnes might not be totally safe. Apparently everything is under discussion, but firing the bright young Byrnes would be absolute insanity.
• Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said in a phone interview he was going to give it a little more time before he makes ace pitcher Cliff Lee available. Once he does, Lee will be by far the most coveted pitcher on the market.
• Some believe Seattle will seek a catching prospect -- though there are a few needs there. If so, the Twins, with top catching prospect Wilson Ramos, could be in good position to obtain Lee (assuming they'd part with Ramos, a greater likelihood considering they are committed to Joe Mauer -- though Mauer is also athletic enough to change positions). The Yankees aren't desperate for a starting pitcher but they have a strong trio of young catchers in Jesus Montero, Austin Romine and Francisco Cervelli.
• The Mets appear more likely to seek a starter than a reliever, though they could reverse course there. The initial guess is that they wouldn't spend the $30 million for Roy Oswalt (they wouldn't be alone there) and would prefer Lee, anyway.
• The starting pitcher market has a few other arms, such as Baltimore's Kevin Millwood (who needs a change of scenery), Jake Westbrook and Ben Sheets. Though one scout calls the talented, injury-prone Sheets "a risk.''
• The initial number going around for No. 1 overall draft choice Bryce Harper is $12 million -- though a person close to Harper called that a "management'' number. Many execs see Harper beating Mark Teixeira's $9.5 million record for a position player but falling short of Stephen Strasburg's record $15.067-million bonus -- though the Nationals are making so much money on Strasburg, it'll be interesting to see whether that loosens their purse strings on Harper.
• Chipper Jones deserves praise for confronting reality and understanding it may be time to retire. He's had a great career and it's a true blessing to know when to go out, too.
• Condolences to the family of longtime Dodgers and Red Sox scout Jerry Stephenson, a former big-league pitcher, who died of lung cancer at 66. He was beloved in baseball circles.
• The Johan Santana Foundation is holding its annual bowling event June 21 at Lucky Strike at 42nd St. and 12th Ave. in Manhattan. Santana's charity targets melanoma, which claimed Lynne Greenberg, the wife of Ed Greenberg, one of Santana's agents, at age 42. It's a great cause.