Baseball insiders are all but certain that well-respected executive Andy MacPhail will leave his post as president and general manager of the Orioles. MacPhail's expected departure is the latest in a string of blows covering more than a decade for the storied franchise gone south. But the real question now is the interesting one: Will anyone of stature take such a job?
"Who'd want it?'' wonders one high-ranking baseball person.
No one since Hall of Famer Pat Gillick quit in 1998 has been able to get the Orioles to the playoffs, and lately no one has even gotten them close to .500. MacPhail, a true pro, is a loss. But he really never had a chance from the start. (MacPhail, who won two World Series championships with the Twins, hasn't talked publicly about his plans and declined to do so when asked a couple weeks back.)
The word was out long ago that owner Peter Angelos is involved in all the big decisions, and the latest is that he loves manager Buck Showalter, last year's savior who has been sucked into the Orioles abyss with everyone else this year. Showalter guided the Orioles to a miraculous 34-23 finish after taking over a 32-73 team last season, but has led them to an AL-worst 57-85 record this year.
Whoever takes the big front office job by now understands that Angelos sometimes makes the biggest calls, even if his calls over the past decade-plus have resulted in one losing year after another. Plus, whoever takes the big job also knows that Showalter is entrenched, at least for the time being. So the new GM would presumably be caught in the same spot as MacPhail, between the overbearing owner and his current favored son (not to mention Angelos' real two sons, who are sometimes involved, as well).
So it's no surprise that the latest buzz going around Baltimore is that perhaps Angelos, understanding his options may be limited and knowing he trusts Buck, may simply expand Showalter's powers to include the GM duties. That would be highly unusual and is probably still a major long shot -- although Showalter is said by sources to have once expressed a desire to be a GM in a discussion with then-Rangers owner Tom Hicks at his previous stop. Showalter, who undoubtedly is a brilliant baseball man, has himself carried a rep for being a bit overbearing on occasion. Showalter took on a lot of added responsibility beyond his managerial duties when he went to Arizona, but he characterized those duties in a phone interview as something he "had to do,'' with that franchise in its infancy. Showalter declined by phone to talk about any possibilities regarding the Orioles' GM job, citing his respect for MacPhail.
Adding the GM title for Showalter would be highly unusual in this day and age. But Angelos' respect for his manager is immense, and it has been said by multiple insiders that Showalter was actually the managerial choice of Angelos when MacPhail was said to be leaning toward Eric Wedge, who was also sought by the Pirates and eventually hired by the Mariners. The Angelos-Showalter connection has gained steam since they began having private chats this year without MacPhail included.
Showalter said of MacPhail, "He's been great,'' and he professed not to have an inkling about whether he's leaving. ("Andy's very close to the vest and very professional. He hasn't said anything to me.'') The manager laughed about the implication that his tete-a-tetes with Angelos suggest that he's the current fair-haired boy. "That was Andy's idea,'' Showalter protested about the meetings. "We've met three, maybe four times, for a half an hour.''
That may be so. But among the most qualified GM candidates, it's questionable whether anyone would take the O's job. According to one talent evaluator, "They are fifth in talent in their division in the majors, and fifth in the minors, too.'' The bigger issue, though, may be Angelos, whose reputation for over-involvement seems to be discouraging the most obvious name candidates.
MacPhail actually seemed like a natural fit from the start, a highly successful longtime GM with steep ties to the team and area. But the question must be asked now: Is anyone a natural fit for this job?
Three of the more interesting possibilities -- Cal Ripken Jr., John Hart and Brian Cashman -- look like supreme long shots today. Ripken confidants don't see him accepting a job to become a GM for Angelos after witnessing first-hand the annual disappointment in his hometown under Angelos' stewardship. Ripken, they say, has seen ultra-qualified GMs swallowed up as club decisonmakers and would want assurance that the big calls would be his. Ripken would be more qualified for a role similar to the one filled by Texas icon Nolan Ryan with the Rangers, anyway, as he is said to have no interest in becoming immersed in the mountain of information a GM needs these days. Ripken also is said by some to want to stay out of day-to-day operations while his son is still in high school (Ryan Ripken, a budding prospect, is a senior). So Ripken appears to be out.
Hart, who began his ultra-successful executive career as a coach in Baltimore, had a couple chances at GM jobs after his Rangers tenure, and it's pretty hard to imagine him agreeing to take on one of baseball's most difficult GM jobs unless he were given significant say-so, and perhaps even carte blanche, which is unlikely under Angelos. Hart is said by intimates to be happy working as a consultant for the Rangers and an on-air personality for MLB Network, which doesn't consume nearly the hours of a GM job. His is a name that will come up, though, because of his Baltimore ties and connection to Showalter, whom he hired in Texas.
Cashman has been speculated publicly as a candidate, but people who know Angelos say his distaste for the Yankees runs so deep that he won't even make trades with them and is just as unlikely to name a Yankee to engineer his team's turnaround. It's also hard to imagine Cashman leaving a perennial playoff team for the sad-sack Orioles (or probably any other team, for the matter).
A more likely possibility could be a younger alternative with the personality and patience to defer to the strong-willed duo of Angelos and Showalter. One option could be well-regarded young Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine, a Baltimore product. Showalter is expected to have big input in the GM hire, at the very least, and it isn't known how he would react to the appointment of someone from the regime that ousted Showalter in Texas (one person said that Showalter isn't known to have any issues with Levine, though).
Whoever does take the job will have a mountain of a task on their hands. Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay said on the air that Showalter has told "people'' that a team needs 25 pieces contributing to a championship, and that he may have only eight. Showalter said in the phone interview, "There aren't exact numbers ... We have some people here who can be part of a championship team.''
Showalter cited Matt Wieters ("if he doesn't win the Gold Glove, something's wrong''); power-hitting shortstop J.J. Hardy, whom the team re-signed; reliever Jim Johnson; and infielder Robert Andino as among the players who have contributed this year. Showalter said Mark Reynolds' body of work "has been pretty good,'' and expressed hope regarding some off the team's midseason pickups, including Tommy Hunter and Pedro Strop. Showalter also mentioned that powerful Chris Davis (who whiffed five times in a game this week) just needs to show that he can make the step from Triple-A to the majors, and one outside talent evaluator said, "At worst, he's Russell Branyan, but better defensively (than Branyan).''
Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts have long been seen as the team's stars, but Roberts' second concussion in two years makes his future uncertain. There are some wondering whether he'll make it back even next season, but Showalter asserted that he expects to see Roberts back playing next spring.
Beyond the front office, the big issue is the starting pitching, which was questionable to start the year and is now even more questionable. Injuries have decimated the rotation, with hard-throwing Jake Arrieta recently taking care of a long-term arm injury with surgery and previous golden boy Brian Matusz having what amounts to a wasted year (he was just pulled from the rotation by Showalter).
"You've got to get the starting pitching. That sets the team up for so many things,'' Showalter said. "Trying to match up with Tampa, Boston, the Yankees and Toronto isn't easy.'' Promising 23-year-old left-hander Zach Britton "got a little bloodied,'' in Showalter's words, in some mid-year trouncings, but he remains the biggest hope for the future.
As one competing exec puts it, "They have a ton of work to do on the rotation.''
They have a lot of work to do everywhere, and it remains uncertain who will be doing it.
• Ryne Sandberg, who just got his Triple-A Lehigh Valley (Pa.) team into the playoffs, continues to impress folks and looks like a big-league managerial candidate. Nobody expects Mike Quade to survive with the Cubs, so of course that is the natural spot for Sandberg. Larry Bowa, Sandberg's former teammate with the Cubs and a longtime Phillies watcher, says that Sandberg is ready for a big-league job. It would make sense to allow the new Cubs GM to select the manager, but after owner Tom Ricketts locked up farm director Oneri Fleita with a four-year deal, it wouldn't be shocking to see that become an ownership call, too.
• Ricketts is receiving some criticism from competitors for not waiting to hire a new GM before settling other front-office issues. Although Fleita and scouting director Tim Wilken, another one whom Ricketts has said he'll keep, are well-respected and credited with a resurgence in the Cubs' prospect pool, the front office is usually the responsibility of the GM. Ricketts has begun calling around in earnest on the GM front. Regardless, unlike in the case of the Orioles, the Cubs' job is coveted by many, especially younger, less-experienced candidates.
• Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune (@PWSullivan) is the first one to include Fleita and Wilken as GM possibilities, interestingly enough. Here's Sullivan's list, which begins with the usual suspect, Rays GM Andrew Friedman. Very good list by Sullivan, which is a nice mix of young and experienced names. One that hasn't made any lists is Walt Jocketty, GM of the Reds, who has had largely successful tenures with two teams in the Cubs' division. Ricketts' actual list isn't known, but Jocketty probably deserves a spot on it. Another name who has been mentioned is John Coppolella, the Braves' assistant GM who would fit Ricketts' desire for someone who's both analytical and from a highly-successful franchise with an emphasis on player development.
• The White Sox continue to have an interesting dynamic among their hierarchy. The Sun-Times' Chris DeLuca reported that GM Ken Williams and hitting coach Greg Walker recently got into it after Williams publicly expressed some disappointment in the struggling Gordon Beckham's hitting approach. Club owner Jerry Reinsdorf is said to love both Williams and his ever talkative manager Ozzie Guillen, who have battled each other for years on a number of fronts. One person with ties to the White Sox says that Reinsdorf still "wants to keep'' Guillen. But one high-ranking MLB person said that's something Reinsdorf "will have to sort out.''
• Bill Burke's flak, Steve Sugarman, emailed to disagree with my characterization of Burke as Frank McCourt's "buddy.'' As I emailed back, Sugarman didn't challenge the part of the note where a baseball executive called Burke's alleged $1.2 billion bid for the Dodgers as "laughable.'' Once again, MLB people don't see Burke's reputed bid as credible, and view it as a publicity stunt to help either Burke, McCourt or both, whether the two are regular dinner companions or not.
• Baseball insiders are concerned about whether Mets owner Fred Wilson can find 10 new partners to invest $20 million apiece. But Wilpon is expressing "great confidence'' in talks with MLB honchos that he can do it.
• Jim Crane seems likely now to be approved as new Astros owner. He does not want to move to the American League, but as a new owner, he may not have a choice in the matter. MLB folks are trying to sell him on the AL, where he would have a rivalry with Texas and would benefit from the big gates of the Yankees and Red Sox. Assuming the Astros are coaxed into the AL, an extra wild-card team will be added next year.
• The Yankees will surely pick up Nick Swisher's $10.25 million option for 2012. Swisher has had a terrific year after a slow start, though it's hard to understand how he can be second on any zone rating for outfielders, as he is.
• The Red Sox haven't given up hope that Clay Buchholz can return from back issues, but it still seems like a long shot. Josh Beckett (ankle) should make it back, however.
• Lucas Duda's nice late-season performance has put him into the 2012 mix for the Mets, who will try to find a way to fit into the lineup Duda, Daniel Murphy and Ike Davis (who is avoiding ankle surgery but missing the rest of this year). After a hot start but slower finish, Justin Turner is seen as a utilityman by team higher-ups, so the Mets still haven't ruled out second base for Murphy, who has now suffered two season-ending injuries because he's unfamiliar with the best way to cover second base while avoiding injury.
• Don Mattingly and Ned Colletti should be commended for the Dodgers' strong finish despite being out of the race, as Rick Sutcliffe (@Sut_ESPN) pointed out.
• The Diamondbacks continue to write one of the best stories in years. GM Kevin Towers is an Executive of the Year candidate as his D-backs continue to amaze, with 13 straight wins at Chase Field now and a stranglehold on the NL West. Ian Kennedy, who was 1-4 in his Yankees career, is now 19-4 and a viable Cy Young candidate. While Towers has done a terrific job, previous GM Josh Byrnes acquired Kennedy in that great three-team trade with the Yankees and Tigers, and Byrnes' temporary replacement, Jerry DiPoto, acquired Daniel Hudson for Edwin Jackson, who was acquired by Byrnes in that same three-team trade.
• Most Angels backers strongly disagreed with my pick of Jordan Walden for Rookie of the Year and instead favored Mark Trumbo. They may have a decent point, as Trumbo continues to help an offense in need.
• Justin Verlander has been aided by his Tigers offense, winning the last three times he allowed four earned runs, and by his bullpen (closer Jose Valverde is 42 for 42 in saves). But his impact on the pennant race is undeniable, and he has put himself right into the middle of the MVP picture. At the least, he merits strong consideration.