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May 27, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

Bay Area Strife

by Joey Matschulat

Here's a little insight into the prime source of AL West managerial turnover over the last decade: From 2001-present, Los Angeles (Mike Scioscia), Oakland (Art Howe, Ken Macha, and Bob Geren), and Texas (Jerry Narron, Buck Showalter, and Ron Washington) have collectively used only seven managers. Seattle, on the other hand, has run through seven managers from 2003-present. Accordingly, most of the talk of clubhouse discontent, unfulfilled potential on the field and the like has centered on the Mariners over the last several years. That was due to change at some point, and change it has, with an ugly situation very rapidly materializing out in Oakland as player-borne allegations have inundated the current Bob Geren regime.

The public nastiness began late Monday night when closer Brian Fuentes, still incredulous at having been summoned into a tied game in the eighth inning, blasted his skipper following a late-inning 4-1 loss at Anaheim: "The games in San Francisco were unorthodox managing. I thought it was a National League thing. But tonight was pretty unbelievable. ... I get up in the seventh inning. I have no idea. I didn't stretch. If there was some sort of communication beforehand, I'd be ready, which I was. I was heated up. I was ready. ... But there's just a lack of communication. I don't think anybody knows what direction (Geren) is headed." The next day, Geren demoted Fuentes as an apparent disciplinary measure and installed Grant Balfour as his new closer. Fuentes apologized to Geren behind closed doors for the public outburst, and all was (purportedly) forgiven.

[Fuentes further alleged that Geren had handled him poorly and that he had "zero" communication with Geren, with some of these bad feelings apparently stemming from the fact that he (a) hadn't actually had a save opportunity since May 8 and (b) had his last three appearances all come in tied, extra-inning games, the most recent two of which had come on the road. This does give rise to at least one question: Was Geren supposed to have exhausted the rest of his bullpen options before turning to Fuentes for the purpose of keeping him happy, even if they were inferior options? This is a rather strange complaint when you really think about it, although it becomes more comprehensible if things really were as Fuentes alleged they were and there was absolutely no communication between the pair.]

However, things took an even nastier turn on Wednesday, as Athletic-turned-Rockie Huston Street also condemned Geren for being a bad communicator, and went so far as to call him his "least favorite person [he had ever] encountered in sports from age 6 to 27.” John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle further reported that all-around class act Mike Sweeney was driven to go after Geren in early September 2008 after he felt he wasn't allotted enough playing time during the Athletics' final stop of the season at Kansas City; Sweeney thought it might be his last chance to say goodbye to his long-time former team, and was so infuriated by the way Geren handled him during the series—he played only once in three games—that he blew up on the team flight, and was unceremoniously released days later. More rumblings of discontent (both past and present) seem to be filtering down through the media cracks.

Full disclosure: I'm not an Athletics fan, and though I strive to absorb and digest as much information on each of the AL West ballclubs as possible (and catch games via MLB.tv whenever possible), I don't pretend to have the most complete view of what Geren is and is not as a manager, both tactically and personally. I'm aware of some level of disgust in the Bay Area for Geren's actual in-game managing prowess (or lack thereof), but I can't point to any specifics. My thought, though, is that it is not reasonable to compare a big-league manager's tactical M.O. against that of the idealized "perfect" in-game manager (since none actually exist in the majors), but instead against those of the current best in-game manager. And guess what? The bar is lowered significantly when you shift the basis for comparison downward in such a way.

My point: If Geren truly is that underwhelming from a tactical standpoint, I'm doubtful that it's damaging Oakland much where the raw wins and losses are concerned; a sufficiently talented team can work around that (e.g. the 2010 Rangers)... but if the views of Fuentes or Street or Sweeney or anyone else are in any way prevalent in the Oakland clubhouse, you can forget about it. If Geren has lost the room, or if he is destined to lose the room, you can forget about it. And if the Athletics stumble in any way during the summer months, any existence of bad blood could place Geren on the hottest seat in baseball regardless of the strength of his friendship with Billy Beane.

---

Let me see if I've got this all perfectly straight: Scott Kazmir is mysteriously and perhaps irreparably damaged. Brandon McCarthy is broken. Josh Hamilton is out to kill himself. Water is wet. Fire is ho—erm, I'm getting sidetracked here. I don't want to run intradivisional injury talk into the ground despite its continual relevancy since there are other topics that merit tackling, but there's an evolving narrative associated with each of these players that I simply cannot pull my eyes away from:

  • Two days ago, Scott Kazmir issued these post-start remarks to an eagerly salivating media contingent: "I feel good. My arm feels strong and everything, I just have some things I'm trying to iron out." Sounds like your prototypical I-didn't-have-such-a-great-start-but-I'll-be-fine-okay? qualifier, doesn't it? Now, consider this: He yielded six runs on two hits, four walks, and a hit-by-pitch in 1 2/3 innings. In extended spring training. In his fifth try at extended spring training during a 15-day DL stint that began shortly after the Royals rocked him in his worst career start in his first and only big league start of the season. And the Angels still don't believe there are any physical issues. It might be about time for some cutting of losses.
     
  • This was it. This was finally going to be the year that McCarthy silenced the critics—most of whom are, unsurprisingly, still-bitter Rangers fans—who contended that his body simply could not withstand a full-season workload, posted 150-plus innings of league-average or better baseball, and established himself as a serious major-league asset for the first time in his career. The train remained on the tracks for seven weeks this time around, but heartbreakingly (and perhaps unavoidably) derailed yet again, as McCarthy is now out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his right scapula. It’s an unusual injury in its own right, and its rarity is compounded by the fact that it's a chronic injury for McCarthy; the same issue has occurred on three other occasions in his career. The needles will now remain stuck on 63 2/3 innings and a 5.23 K/9, 1.41 BB/9, 0.14 HR/9 (?!), and a 3.39 ERA for the duration of his convalescence, which could last anywhere from 1-3 months or more.

    Corey Dawkins and Ben Lindbergh noted in a recent Collateral Damage installment that "there is clearly a relationship between his mechanics and his anatomy that is simply not conducive to pitching." I have no choice but to sadly agree. However, this all goes down in spite of the fact that McCarthy reputedly morphed from a power pitcher into a craftier, more control- and movement-reliant hurler—though his average fastball velocity has actually risen more than two miles per hour this season—with a lower arm slot that, in McCarthy's own words, alleviated stress on his shoulder joint. The saddest question of all: If he implemented all of these changes, and yet still can't remain healthy for more than a couple months at a time, is there really any hope for him at all?
  • This one virtually defies commentary: In only his second game back after spending roughly six weeks on the shelf due to an arm fracture sustained from a head-first slide in Detroit, Josh Hamilton executed three head-first slides very early Wednesday morning... in one inning. He slid head-first to beat out a ground-ball single (which he insisted was absolutely necessary if he was going to reach safely), stole second base, and then took third base on a wild pitch... and didn't even end up scoring, as Adrian Beltre stranded him on third. I appreciate that Hamilton is always going to live and die by his aggressive, I'll-take-it-easy-when-I'm-dead playing style in all facets of the game, but his next employer—due to be determined after the 2012 season—shouldn't be remotely surprised when he accrues four weeks of DL time here and eight weeks there due to injuries that are a function of utter disregard for his relative fragility.
Related Content:  Brian Fuentes,  Bob Geren

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