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October 29, 2003

Prospectus Today

Cut Loose

by Joe Sheehan

Monday, the Red Sox announced that they would cut ties with manager Grady Little. The decision wasn't a big surprise; Little wasn't fired as much as he wasn't re-hired, given that his contract was just about to expire. Little was never the choice of the revamped Red Sox front office. He'd gotten the job as something of a little-known compromise candidate in early 2002 and guided the team to a 93-69 record in his first season. He was inherited by the new, performance-analysis-driven front office a year ago, and kept the job as much to provide some continuity as because of any particular skills to brought to the position.

I think too much is being made of the influence on this outcome of the last major decision Little made. Little isn't unemployed this morning because he left Pedro Martinez in too long in Game Seven of the ALCS. Certainly, that decision will stick in memory for years to come, but I doubt there are a half-dozen cases in history where a manager lost his job for making one wrong move. I expect more from Theo Epstein and Larry Lucchino, and to say that Little isn't the Sox manager today because of that decision is to give them far too little credit.

What that decision, and the Sox' subsequent failure to reach the World Series, did was make it easier for the team to let go of Little. He was never on the same page as Epstein and Lucchino. His resistance to the team's much-hyped decision to move away from the save-centric bullpen model, and his inability to adapt to the personnel he was given to do so, made the first two months of the Sox' season more painful than they needed to be.

In the wake of the ALCS, Little-bashing has become a popular pastime, which ignores the good work Little did in his two seasons. Managing the Red Sox is a rough job, as the team's media and fan base turn two-game losing streaks into plagues of Biblical proportions. The Sox have a number of high-maintenance players, and for all the attention paid to the idea that this was a blue-collar team, it still had a nine-figure payroll and a three of the brightest talents ever to wear red and white in Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra and Manny Ramirez.

Little handled the press relations and leader-of-men aspects of his job with aplomb, which made up in part for his strategic and tactical shortcomings. I can see situations in which he'd be a successful manager, particularly if paired with a bench coach who he trusts and who complements his skills with tactical savoir faire. As I wrote in a chat session last week, this type of division of responsibility, not unlike the way some college football programs are run, may be the natural evolution of the position of baseball manager.

Without Little, the Sox can now bring in a manager who is on the same page as the front office. This isn't exactly the situation the A's have in Oakland or the Blue Jays have in Toronto, where the managers are, to a certain extent, low-profile guys in place to implement the ideas of the front office. Because of the players on the roster and the demands of the local media, you need a stronger personality than those possessed by Ken Macha and Carlos Tosca. At the same time, you need someone who is willing to accept the principles by which Theo Epstein is building his baseball team. The person with the right mix of skills isn't going to be easy to find, and while any number of names have been kicked around, none seem to fit the Sox' situation.

Personally, I like the idea of Larry Dierker, who had a lot of success in Houston and is known for respecting performance analysis. He's one of the smartest guys in the game, someone who would work well with Epstein and not be afraid of doing things a bit differently. The downside of Dierker is that over a period of years he lost the clubhouse in Houston, and this was in spite of winning four division titles in five years. If you can't handle Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, it creates a question as to whether you can handle Pedro Martinez and Manny Ramirez.

Honestly, though, I think the next Sox manager is going to be someone who is off the radar screen right now. It wouldn't surprise me to see someone who has never managed in the major leagues before get the job, and moreover, be the guy who brings this team back to the World Series.

Notes

  • The Reds hired long-time player-development guy Dan O'Brien to fill their GM spot. It's a bit of a nondescript choice, as a O'Brien has never held a GM position before and hasn't often been a candidate for one.

    The lead on the Associated Press story on O'Brien's hiring read:

    "Dan O'Brien was hired as the Cincinnati Reds' general manager Monday and immediately set baseball's first professional franchise on a new course.

    "Pursuing superstars is out. Developing minor leaguers is in."

    With all due respect to Mr. Press, two questions immediately leapt to mind: 1) isn't that what every single new GM says in every single new job; and 2) other than the Ken Griffey Jr. trade three years ago, when the hell have the Reds been about "pursuing superstars"?

    If anything, the Reds have gone out of their way to not add high-priced players. It's entirely possible that they would have reached the postseason in 2002 had owner and really, really rich guy with a new taxpayer-funded stadium on the way Carl Lindner authorized a small midseason bump in the payroll. Then-GM Jim Bowden had a number of trades blocked by Lindner, who refused to spend the $1 million or so it would have taken to add a desperately-needed pitcher, no doubt because it would have forced him to take out a third mortgage or perhaps switch from Top Ramen to generic ramen noodles.

    Despite the new ballpark, Lindner has said that he's going to slash payroll for next season. Given that Barry Larkin alone will make about $8 million less next year, it will be interesting to see where the other cuts come. Perhaps the California Penal League has some more relievers available.

  • By the way, the Reds are just one of more than 20 teams that have indicated they'll be lowering their payroll for the 2004 season. Remember, though: revenue sharing and the luxury tax weren't about lowering labor costs, and all of these teams are acting independent of one another.

    It's going to be an interesting winter.

  • I'm going to be hard to find for the next few weeks, as I shift my focus to the already-very-late work I need to do for Baseball Prospectus 2004, take a trip to the Arizona Fall League, and offer sacrifices so that I might avoid jury duty. Look for just one or two pieces a week in this space through the end of November. I'll bump that up to two-three columns a week after Thanksgiving, including daily reports from the winter meetings in New Orleans in the middle of December.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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