It's not what you want, Joe Girardi may as well have said. Despite managing a young, upstart Yankees squad to its highest win total in five years and within one win of the team's first World Series berth in eight years, Girardi will not return as their manager in 2018—and not by his choice. "With a heavy heart, I come to you because the Yankees have decided not to bring me back," said the 53-year-old skipper via a statement to WFAN on Thursday. Girardi’s departure after 10 years on the job, a timespan once unthinkable in the Bronx, may signal an end to a rare period of stability for the Yankees. It’s also a chance for general manager/senior vice president Brian Cashman to further modernize the team in an era predominated by analytics, but with this change comes significant risk.
Girardi guided the team through a rocky transition, from the last vestiges of the Yankees' turn-of-the-millennium dynasty to the cusp of what they hope will be their next one. He did not have the same success as predecessor Joe Torre, who did nothing less than evolve from tabloid target "Clueless Joe" to 2014 Hall of Fame inductee. Torre won six pennants and four world championships, and Girardi never had a chance of doing that. While the Yankees made 12 straight playoff appearances under Torre and won the AL East 10 times, the big contracts they handed out to stretch that run of success even further eventually caught up to them, resulting in an aging, expensive roster lacking in flexibility and a manager tasked with guiding former teammates into the sunsets of their careers.
A catcher who won three championships during his four-year stint with the Yankees (1996–99) within a 15-year major league career (1989–2003), Girardi began his managerial career with the Marlins in 2006. Though his team finished with a 78–84 record, they challenged for a wild card spot into mid-September despite having by far the majors' lowest payroll, less than half that of the 29th-ranked Devil Rays ($16.96 million versus $38.32 million) thanks to the teardown of their 2003 championship squad. That showing, plus the thankless task of dealing with owner Jeffrey Loria, with whom he feuded, earned Girardi NL Manager of the Year honors—and a pink slip at season's end. After losing out on the chance to succeed Dusty Baker as the Cubs' manager, he spent a year in the Yankees' YES Network booth, then beat out coaches Tony Peña and Don Mattingly for the Yankees' post after Torre's 94-win 2007 club was engulfed by a swarm of midges in Cleveland during the ALDS.
In Girardi's first year, the Yankees won 89 games but missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. In an earlier era, that would have been enough for owner George Steinbrenner to fire him. After all, the team changed managers 12 times between their 1981 World Series loss to the Dodgers and their next playoff appearance in 1995, and 20 times dating back to Ralph Houk’s resignation in 1973. But with injuries to Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui and Chien-Ming Wang contributing to the 2008 shortfall—along with the failures of young Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy to stick in the rotation—Girardi received a pass.
The combination of the Yankees $423.5 million splurge in the free agent market that winter (CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira) and resiliency of the homegrown "Core Four" (Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera) paid off with 103 wins during the regular season as well as the team's 27th championship. The Yankees won two AL East titles and one wild card berth over the next three years, advancing to the ALCS twice, but couldn't get further before age caught up to the roster, and the distractions multiplied.
The circus surrounding Alex Rodriguez—his 2012 left hip injury, postseason benching, offseason surgery, connection to the PED-dispensing Biogenesis clinic, war of words with Cashman and team doctors, the late-summer return that forced Girardi to play him, and finally his year-long suspension—engulfed and nearly overshadowed the Yankees’ play in 2013. Pettitte and Rivera retired after that season, with the latter treated to a farewell tour. With Rodriguez's absence, injuries to the once-durable Sabathia and Teixeira and dreadful performances from several members of their aging core, including Jeter (in his final year), Carlos Beltran, and Ichiro Suzuki, 2014 was a mess as well. Enough geezers rebounded to push the team to a last-hurrah wild card berth in 2015, but they lost that game to the Astros, and amid further declines in 2016, Cashman persuaded managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner that it was time to blow up the roster, make way for the fruits of the rebuilt farm system, and retool.
Girardi survived all of that turmoil, showing his human side when it came to his aging charges (recall his handling of Posada’s meltdown), and the team's seemingly overnight rebirth with a nucleus of players 27 or younger—Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, Didi Gregorius, Starlin Castro, Aaron Hicks, Ronald Torreyes, Luis Severino, Jordan Montgomery and Chad Green—appeared to reinvigorate him during this year's 91–71 campaign. The Yankees went through rough patches, both collectively and individually, but after going 41–42 in June, July and August, they went 20–9 after August 31, claiming the top AL Wild Card seed. When Severino blew up in the first inning of the game with the Twins, Girardi wasted no time with the hook, and expertly used Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Aroldis Chapman to get the final 26 outs while the lineup went to town on the Twins.
Despite making a mess of Game 2 of the ALCS by failing to challenge an incorrect hit-by-pitch call, frittering away a five-run lead and botching the aftermath by not instantly holding himself accountable, Girardi was able to guide the Yankees back from a two-games-to-none deficit to knock off the defending AL champion Indians in the five-game Division Series, winning the rubber match in Cleveland. “This one’s for Joe,” said third baseman Todd Frazier of the team’s comeback. The Yankees then took the 101-win Astros to seven games in the ALCS, losing out in an epic series in which the home team won every game.
In an interview with Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal in the immediate aftermath of the Yankees' elimination, an emotional Girardi spoke highly of his club. "There's a ton of talent in that room, and this team grew up a lot in front of our eyes, we had people step up in a big way." Asked about returning, he said, "I love what I do, and obviously, there’s a lot of things that have to happen before you move forward, but who wouldn't love managing this group? ...The way they fight and pull for each other and pick each other up, who wouldn't love it?"
Alas, via FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman, “The tension between Girardi and the club’s front office, including ... Cashman, has bubbled up in recent days… the decision appears to be more about what the Yankees wanted rather than Girardi’s wishes.” In his own piece for The Athletic, published Wednesday, Rosenthal mentioned that those tensions run both ways, writing “[S]ome close to the Yankees suggest that Girardi is weary of the dance, weary of protecting the front office when it mandates decisions that might rankle players.” At the same time, Rosenthal noted that for all of his strengths, Girardi’s intensity might not have worn well on players, and he was rarely called “a player’s manager.” One need only think of Girardi’s public criticism of Sanchez’s defense, and of his failure to trust the catcher’s claim that Chad Green’s Division Series Game 2 pitch hit Lonnie Chisenhall’s bat and not his hand by calling for an instant replay review. Perhaps those tensions could be smoothed over, but perhaps not. Ninety-one wins or no, that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise, particularly when you don’t have a contract for next year.
Girardi ends his Yankees tenure with a 910 wins (sixth in team history), 710 losses (fifth) and a .562 winning percentage (sixth among the 11 with at least 400 games). Four of the five managers with more wins are in the Hall of Fame: Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Miller Huggins and Torre; the fifth is Houk, with the lowest winning percentage of the group. As Baseball Prospectus' Aaron Gleeman pointed out, only 13 managers have more games (1,782, including his year with the Marlins) and a higher winning percentage than his .554, and 11 of them are in the Hall of Fame (Steve O'Neill, who guided the Tigers to the 1945 championship but never won another pennant despite finishing above .500 every year at four stops, is the other outlier).
Via YES Network researcher James Smyth, Girardi is part of a very small group. Just three teams have kept back-to-back managers in place for at least 10 years: the Dodgers with Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda (1954-mid-1996), the Twins with Tom Kelly and Ron Gardenhire (1986–2014) and the Yankees with Torre and Girardi (1995–2017). Had the elder Steinbrenner not mellowed with age thanks to the success of Torre's early years, such stability would have once been unthinkable. Whoever succeeds Girardi has his work cut out.
As to who that might be, the strong hunch here is that this won't mark a return to the fold for Mattingly, a soft landing for the recently-ousted Baker or John Farrell, or a long-awaited (and deserved) second managerial chance for Peña or Willie Randolph. After winning over ownership with his sell-off plan last summer and then fielding a team that paid off instantly, Cashman’s clout within the organization and—with his own contract expiring—his leverage to return has never been higher (while his new contract hasn't been completed, it's believed he'll become the highest-paid executive in the game, ahead of Theo Epstein.)
So to these eyes, the ousting of Girardi represents an opportunity for Cashman to move the Yankees away from the high-profile field boss model and find his own version of the Astros' A.J. Hinch or the Dodgers' Dave Roberts, a younger manager—perhaps even a first-time hire—who's more progressive and more willing to take direction from an analytically inclined front office, but at the same time has the right touch to connect with players on a human level. Cubs bench coach Dave Martinez, Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens (an ex-Yankee), Dodgers special advisor Raul Ibanez (also an ex-Yankee) and Dodgers player development director Gabe Kapler might fit that bill, as could current Yankees VP of baseball operations Tim Naehring, who as a scout sold Cashman on Gregorius and then was promoted when assistant GM Billy Eppler left to become the Angels' GM. By this logic, you can expect other names to come out of leftfield as well.
Regardless of whom Cashman tabs as Girardi’s replacement, history is working against the guy. Via the Providence Journal's Tim Britton, prior to this winter, teams changed managers after reaching the postseason 27 times since World War II; those teams declined by an average of 6.5 games. Seventeen of those 27 changes were firings, as opposed to retirements, resignations, or departures to become GMs elsewhere, from Stengel being made to step down due to his age, through Showalter and Torre—it’s the Yankee Way, apparently—to Mattingly and the Dodgers mutually agreeing to part ways after the 2015 season.
It's too late for Cashman and Girardi's legion of critics to be careful for what they've wished. Managers as good as Girardi simply don’t grow on trees, and at any given time, very few of them are out of work, but Cashman and the Yankees have earned the right to reach for greatness with their next hire. They had better find it.