When Terry Collins is introduced as the Mets' new manager on Tuesday, it will be celebrated as a fresh start for the floundering franchise, but the reality is that Collins has one of baseball's toughest jobs ahead of him.
Expectations are always high in New York, but the fans have grown increasingly restless after two sub-.500 seasons that followed two catastrophic late-season collapses. The club's payroll is bogged down by bad contracts and last year suffered a pair of high-profile off-field problems for its ace and closer.
But Collins' doesn't quite have the worst situation in baseball. There are essentially 10 new managers for the 2011 season -- defined as guys who will manage their first game for a team or who shed the interim label in the offseason. (Buck Showalter and Ned Yost don't count, as they were midseason hires by the Orioles and Royals, respectively, and finished last season without the "interim" tag.)
In looking at the context -- team talent, ownership whimsy, strength of division -- here are the managers with the best chance to succeed in their new roles.
1. Fredi Gonzalez, Braves
Few situations could be better for a new manager. Gonzalez, who managed the Marlins for three and a half seasons until being fired last June, inherits a playoff team on the rise whose core remains intact. Atlanta has franchise cornerstone talent in catcher Brian McCann, right fielder Jason Heyward and starter Tommy Hanson, who are complemented by veteran All-Stars (Chipper Jones, Martin Prado, Tim Hudson, Derek Lowe) and young up-and-comers (Freddie Freeman, Johnny Venters, Craig Kimbrel).
Gonzalez knows the ins and outs of the franchise, having served as third-base coach for retired legend Bobby Cox for four years before taking the Florida job, and the Braves even traded for one of his old employer's two best hitters in second baseman Dan Uggla. Gonzalez had a 276-279 (.497) record in Florida where he was annually constrained by a small payroll; the Braves aren't huge spenders, but even their middle-of-the-pack spending will seem like a luxury to the new manager. The Phillies are likely to be very strong for a couple more years, but after winning 91 games in 2010, the Braves ought to be good enough to jostle with them in the NL East or at least continue contending for the wild card that they won last year.
2. John Farrell, Blue Jays
With a general manager in his first year (Alex Anthopoulos) and a manager in his last year (Cito Gaston), the 2010 Blue Jays won a surprising 85 games and even went 39-33 against its AL East foes, the second-best such record in that notoriously difficult division. The good news for Farrell -- pitching coach for the division rival Red Sox the last four seasons -- is that Toronto's success looks sustainable.
Farrell's hallmark is grooming young pitchers, having worked in player development for the Indians earlier in the decade and then fostering the talent of Boston's young arms like Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Jonathan Papelbon. The Blue Jays have their own set, including 25-and-under starters Rickey Romero, Brett Cecil and Brandon Morrow, all of whom enjoyed success last season and will soon be joined in the rotation fulltime by top pitching prospect Kyle Drabek. Few managers are, like Farrell, former major league pitchers, but Padres skipper Bud Black -- the newly-crowned NL Manager of the Year -- has shown that the model works.
Toronto had its successful 2010 despite very disappointing seasons from Aaron Hill and Adam Lind. If the Jays can get those two back on track, lock up slugger Jose Bautista and add one more big piece (they are rumored to be kicking the tires on a Justin Upton trade), then the Blue Jays could compete in the AL East, especially by 2012, when baseball looks likely to add a second wild card for each league.
3. Eric Wedge, Mariners
Yes, the Mariners may have been the game's biggest underachievers last year, losing 101 games, but the silver lining for Wedge is that he's taking over a group that has the capacity to do more. As wretched as the offense was -- 513 runs, 100 fewer than any other AL team -- there is hope on the horizon. Justin Smoak, the key prospect received in the Cliff Lee trade, has another year to develop, as does young left fielder Michael Saunders. After his Arizona Fall League MVP campaign, top hitting prospect Dustin Ackley's bat is already almost major-league ready. And presumably players like Chone Figgins won't suffer a second straight season as dreadful as last year's.
Seattle has Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez at the top of its rotation and a fine rotation behind him, as contact-heavy starters Jason Vargas and Doug Fister are a good fit for spacious Safeco Field, especially with the Mariners' excellent defense playing behind them.
Wedge managed seven years in Cleveland, taking lumps in his first year (winning just 68 games in 2003) but led the Indians to 93 wins in his third season and a 96-win 2007 in which his club was one game shy of the World Series. He has a track record for turning around a downtrodden team and will get to work in a division that, until and unless the Angels make a big free-agent signing this winter, will have only one team (the Rangers) that looks to be a title threat in 2011.
4. Ron Roenicke, Brewers
The Brewers are at a crossroads, with franchise first baseman Prince Fielder and All-Star right fielder Corey Hart seemingly on the trade market, suggesting that the window of contention for the Brewers' core of in-their-prime position players (which also includes Ryan Braun and Rickie Weeks) may be closing. Not an enviable position for a first-time manager of a team that lost 85 games last season.
Roenicke, formerly a journeyman major league outfielder and most recently the Angels' bench coach, takes over in Milwaukee, where management likely hopes lightning can strike twice for Mike Scioscia's right-hand men -- the previous Angels bench coach to get a managerial job is the Rays' Joe Maddon, who has led the small-market Rays to two division titles in the past three years. But the Brewers will need to get better starting pitching in support of Yovani Gallardo to make a leap into the playoffs, and perhaps they can receive a slew of prospects by trading Fielder.
A No. 4 ranking may seem high -- until one considers the worse situations inherited by the managers listed below.
5. Edwin Rodriguez, Marlins
Team talent could place Rodriguez as high as third on this list, but he is essentially the longest-serving interim manager around. After taking over for Gonzalez in late June, the Marlins named Rodriguez, previously the franchise's Triple-A manager, their new major league skipper. Florida retains its two best players (shortstop Hanley Ramirez and ace Josh Johnson) and has a host of young talent led by Mike Stanton, Gaby Sanchez and Logan Morrison but just traded its biggest power threat (Uggla). Plus, handling the temperamental Ramirez is no small task -- Gonzalez's discipline of him for not hustling may have contributed to his dismissal.
But Rodriguez only received a one-year contract extension in the offseason, suggesting he remains dangerously in limbo and at the whim of owner Jeffrey Loria, who appears to pine for a big-name replacement, even after his courtship of Bobby Valentine last summer blew up. The Marlins open their new ballpark in 2012, and Loria wants to ensure a big draw. Rodriguez's job security is thus flimsy at best.
6. Mike Quade, Cubs
The good news is Quade went 24-13 while finishing the season after Lou Piniella resigned, so he clearly commanded the respect of his players -- even combustible starter Carlos Zambrano looked like his old ace self down the stretch. The Cubs gave Quade a two-year contract (with a club option) in the offseason and provide the support of a big market team infused with cash from new ownership.
The bad news, however, is that the team is full of overpaid underachievers like Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Kosuke Fukudome and (most of the time) Zambrano. Quade lost long-tenured pitching coach Larry Rothschild to the Yankees. Chicago finished fifth in the division last year and, though they could catch the Brewers and Astros, they probably won't match the Reds or Cardinals anytime soon.
And here's the biggest challenge facing Quade: He's not Ryne Sandberg. If the Cubs struggle under Quade, their passionate fan base won't be shy about reminding him that he's the reason that Sandberg, their Hall of Fame second baseman, is no longer working for the organization. After being passed over for the manager's job, Sandberg fled to become the Phillies' Triple-A manager. That's not a move that has a reset button, either, as Sandberg is likely gone for good.
7. Don Mattingly, Dodgers
Here's what Mattingly faces as manager of the Dodgers, who are coming off an 82-loss season: the pressure of replacing a legend in Joe Torre; core players who all took a step back last season (led by moody center fielder Matt Kemp); unsettled ownership mired in a shocking divorce trial; and his own lack of managerial experience, epitomized by a gaffe last season in a game against the Giants when he took over after Torre was ejected and unintentionally visited the mound twice, leading to the premature removal of his pitcher.
On the bright side, the Dodgers don't face an insurmountable talent gap to ascend in the NL West. If Mattingly excels in getting the most out of his players, it wouldn't be a stretch for them to vault from fourth to first. He even managed in the Arizona Fall League for more practice, though the sparsely-attended, barely-reported circuit is a far cry from what Donnie Baseball will see in Los Angeles.
8. Terry Collins, Mets
Despite losing 83 games, there were some positives for the Mets in 2010. David Wright rebounded to have a very good season, hitting 29 home runs and driving in 103 runs after posting only 10 and 72 in 2009. Ike Davis and Josh Thole had quality rookie years. Angel Pagan had a breakout season, showing he should be an everyday starter. And in the rotation R.A. Dickey was a revelation and Mike Pelfrey showed flashes of brilliance.
But New York will begin the year with question marks involving some of its most highly-paid players. Johan Santana is still recovering from shoulder surgery, Francisco Rodriguez will be re-acclimating himself to the team after injuring his thumb in a regrettable fight with his girlfriend's father in the Citi Field family room, Jason Bay is not only recovering from a concussion but also trying to match his big free-agent contract and Carlos Beltran will likely being shifted to right field by his centerfield understudy, Pagan. Also, the farm system is low on blue-chip talents, meaning it could take a few years to truly reload.
9. Kirk Gibson, Diamondbacks
Gibson managed the second half of last season under the interim tag but was named fulltime manager the day after the season ended. Unfortunately, he didn't extract much more out of the Diamondbacks than his predecessor, A.J. Hinch had. Under Hinch the D-backs were 31-48; under Gibson they were 34-49.
The once-promising offense is in some disarray. They set a major-league record with 1,529 strikeouts. The club's 23-year-old franchise player, Upton, looks increasingly likely to be traded as a means of rebuilding the farm system. Shortstop Stephen Drew, center fielder Chris Young and third baseman Mark Reynolds have seemingly reached a plateau -- at least for now -- as good players a little shy of their full potential.
After trades of starters Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson, the Diamondbacks' rotation is rather depleted, which will make contending in the pitching-heavy NL West very difficult.
10. Clint Hurdle, Pirates
Few situations could be worse for a new manager. The Pirates, who haven't had a winning season since 1992, just had their worst campaign of the 18-year losing streak, going 57-105 while allowing the most runs in the majors (866) and scoring the second-fewest (587).
Though there are no Mike Stantons or Stephen Strasburgs on his roster, the Pirates do have a few promising young players -- third baseman Pedro Alvarez, second baseman Neil Walker, outfielder Jose Tabata and starter Brad Lincoln -- and Hurdle did well with his young players during his eight years with the Rockies. Among the players who came of age under Hurdle's watch were Matt Holliday and Troy Tulowitzki. But the Pirates, with only the exception of Alvarez, don't project as future stars, and role players don't turn around a moribund franchise.