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April 11, 2005

Prospectus Q&A

Manny Acta

by Carlos J. Lugo

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Manny Acta didn't have a recognizable name, even to the most hard-core baseball fans. Acta was the third base and infield coach for the nomadic Montreal Expos for the last three years, and he probably received as much attention from the casual fan as his former team did. In the off-season Acta suddenly came into the spotlight when he was interviewed to fill the managerial vacancy of the Arizona Diamondbacks. More surprisingly, Acta's first interview went so well that he was one of the three finalists for the job that was first given to Wally Backman, and then Bob Melvin after a well-publicized and embarrassing episode regarding Backman's past.

Acta managed for three years in the Dominican Winter League: in his first year he made the playoffs managing the Estrellas, and he spent the last two seasons at the helm of the nation's most popular and successful team, the Licey Tigers. Acta won the League's championship and Caribbean World Series in his first year with the Tigers, and lost a seven game Final Series against the Cibao Eagles this past January.

We had the opportunity to sit with Manny, and asked him about the interview process for a managerial position, his background as a coach, the Montreal experience, his profile as a manager and his new team, the New York Mets.

Baseball Prospectus: Tell us a little bit about your background in baseball, such as where you played, what organization signed you, and the highest level you reached.

Manny Acta: I played little league and amateur baseball in the Dominican Republic for several years, and in 1986 I was signed by the Houston Astros organization by scouts Julio Linares, Ricardo Aponte and Domingo Mercedes. I started my pro career that year and played for around six years in the minor leagues. In 1991 the organization approached me and made me an offer to be a player-coach for one of the A-level teams, where most of the Hispanic players were assigned. I spoke English very well already by that time and they told me they needed a bilingual coach to work with those young players. That season I worked as a player-coach. The following year the Astros sent me to the MLB Scouting Bureau School to learn how to evaluate players. The first thing I did was to evaluate myself as a ballplayer, and quickly realized I didn't have the skills to play in the major leagues. Then I decided to focus my efforts on my new career as a coach. In '92 I coached at Asheville, NC, and in 1993 the Astros gave me the New York- Penn League team in Auburn to manage. That was my first managerial experience.

BP: After all those years with the Astros, how did you end up coaching third base with the Montreal Expos?

MA: I was a member of the Astros organization for seventeen years, and the opportunity in Montreal came up when MLB assumed operation of the Expos. They were interested in hiring an infield coach that was bilingual, because at the time they had three Hispanic infielders playing regularly: Jose Vidro, Orlando Cabrera and Fernando Tatis, not to mention other Latin players in the club like Vladimir Guerrero. I was recommended by one of Frank Robinson's best friends, current Washington Nationals hitting coach Tom McCraw. Tommy knew me from his days in Houston, so they asked a few people inside the Astros organization, they received a positive recommendation from somebody, and that's how I got the Expos position.

BP: You were with the Expos during a turbulent, confusing and sometimes strange period with the trips to San Juan, among other things. How was the Montreal experience for you?

MA: For me it was a dream come true. They gave me an opportunity there, and I appreciate the treatment I received from front office people like Omar Minaya, Tony Tavares, Tony Siegel and especially Frank Robinson who gave me my first opportunity in the major leagues. The final season was the most difficult, with all the traveling and uncertainty accumulated from three years that definitely drained our club. The schedule was unfair compared to the other team's schedules, and that hurt us on the field. But again, for me everything there was happiness. It was an unforgettable and beautiful experience, my first chance in the majors and I'll always be grateful for it.

BP: Under the right circumstances, do you think Montreal is still a Major League city?

MA: Well, in the past they demonstrated they were, that's for sure. But then came the 1994 strike and the subsequent break-up of the great team they had that year, and I think the fans felt cheated. After that they voted against the construction of a new stadium downtown, and to me it was almost impossible for baseball to survive in Montreal without a new stadium. The opportunities were there to do it, and were lost. It's a shame because the first two years I was there we put a competitive ballclub on the field; we even fought for the wild card until late in the season in 2003. It's sad because Montreal is a wonderful city, a city that I love, but I think it was time for baseball to move on.

BP: Let's talk now about the Diamondbacks. Their interest in you surprised many people when they were looking for a new manager. How and when was the first contact and what happened after that?

MA: I coached for three years in the Expos organization, and apparently my name was circulating around the industry. But I was actually recommended first by Omar Minaya and then Junior Noboa, Arizona's main executive for Latin America. He was called by the Diamondbacks' front office and he backed and supported Omar's original recommendation, and gave a good report about my work. They have a lot of faith and confidence in Junior's opinions and that's how I ended up on the candidates list.

BP: How is the interview process? We know there's a first interview followed by a second if the team considers you a qualified candidate, but what kind of questions do they ask in both cases?

MA : In the first interview the team owners were not involved. It was the people from the front office - the team President, the General Manager and also Sandy Johnson - now with the New York Mets. They basically ask you for your experience in baseball, about your background, and the kind of information that I'm pretty sure they know about but want to hear from you. They also ask about what kind of discipline you'd like to establish with the team and in the clubhouse. There weren't many questions about tactics and strategy because I think they know that somebody involved all these years in baseball, and at certain levels, must have some idea of what to do in certain circumstances. They ask those questions, but I think they're basically interested in what kind of communication you're going to have with the players. In these days that's one of the fundamental skills of a manager, because the manager's job is to rally the players around you and make them believe in the ideas and concepts you're trying to sell them.

For my second interview the team owners were present. This time around they want to know your future plans with the organization, if you are aware of the organization's current competitive position, what your plans with the current personnel are and what you would do if they make some personnel changes. Those were basically the kinds of questions in the second interview.

BP: Now speaking about the managerial profession itself, what kind of manager do you consider yourself: more of an optimistic one or a problem solver? And what's the difference between managing in the winter leagues and the minor leagues?

MA: I consider myself an optimist and a motivator, but in the end, I'll try to manage the right way, hoping for results in the right way, rather than managing the wrong way, hoping for a little luck just because I can motivate my guys the right way.

As for the winter leagues, you must manage in a different way as you do in the US. Here you have a bigger roster (30 players day in and day out and an unlimited number of roster changes) and that's why you have more alternatives from a tactical standpoint. There's also the fact that it is a very short schedule, fifty games, and so you don't have much time to let a player come out from a slump, because you need to win a certain number of games as soon as you can. In contrast, in the US you only have six pitchers in the bullpen, and sometimes just one that's left-handed. You have more limited options for matchups. That also means sometimes you need to let a starting pitcher who's not pitching well stay in the game, because it's a 162 game schedule and you need to keep your bullpen fresh.

BP: What aspect of the game do you value more: pitching, defense, offense, or a combination of good pitching and good defense?

MA: I'll say a good combination of pitching and defense. You win more consistently with those ingredients. Right now in the big leagues the average team would score four and a half runs, so you must find a way to limit your opponent to less than that, because eventually if you have an average offense you'll score around those four and a half runs. Here in the Dominican, for example, you need good pitching and defense to win ballgames because the stadiums are big, and not particularly well suited for offense. It's very simple: this is a 27 out game, and every extra out you give to your opponent will hurt you in some way. I put a lot of value in pitching and good defense, which is a big part of the success of your pitching staff.

BP: What about the things you value most in the offense. Do you prefer hitters who put the ball in play, speed, power, guys who get on base, or an offensive structure that lets you "manufacture" runs?

MA: I like the combination of patience--meaning guys who work the count well and get on base--and contact. Also, in every team you'll need at least a couple of guys who hit the ball with power. I like hitters with good knowledge of the strike zone and, as you can see, the last two years here in the Dominican we've structured our team (The Licey Tigers) that way. If you check the On Base Percentages, at least four or five of our guys have very high OBP's. I've been criticized in the press for being a manager that doesn't play aggressively or use a lot of base running plays. But the thing is that when we have our team complete, I don't need to be overly-aggressive. Sometimes the best play is the one you don't make. If I have guys like D'Angelo Jimenez, Jose Offerman or Luis Castillo, to mention a few, who can get on base the majority of the time, and can also handle the bat very well, and power guys like Jose Guillen or Eric Byrnes hitting behind them, you need to let the offense flow. Again, I prefer patient hitters with the ability to make contact.

BP: If you have a 25 man roster, as in the Major Leagues, how will you structure your bench?

MA: My bench will consist of a couple of outfielders, one of whom I could use as a pinch hitter almost daily, and another that plays good defense and runs well. A couple of infielders, one of them capable of playing shortstop and one player I can use as a third catcher, and also use him at least one other position--he should also be productive with the bat. Given the fact that catchers are typically not very good hitters, that ties your hands and limits your possibilities because if you need to pinch hit for your primary catcher, you're going to end with probably a worse hitter than him, and you already have used one of your pinch hitters. Having a guy with that kind of versatility on the bench is a great advantage.

BP: Now the bullpen. What do you believe is the best usage-pattern for the bullpen? Do you believe in specific roles, especially the role of the closer, or do you believe that your best pitcher in the bullpen should be used differently than the way they're used today?

MA: I like to have men for specific situations, so I'm not much different than anyone else in that respect. I think it is better to have specific roles assigned in the bullpen. People don't give much importance to the setup role, the guys that pitch those innings that are the bridge to the closer, and for me they're a fundamental piece of a good bullpen.

I do believe in closers. I don't believe in a closer by committee arrangement. You need a special kind of individual with special talent and attitude for closing ballgames. Not everybody is capable of getting those three final outs, knowing the game is on the line. That said, my closer will not necessarily just have to pitch in the ninth and get three outs. I think that'll depend on the circumstances. I'm perfectly willing to use my closer to get me four or five outs if needed. Especially if it's just four outs.

Of course, much of that'll depend on the amount of rest the pitcher has had in the previous days, and what's following the next day. If we have a day off the next day, then I have no problems to ask for five outs, or even two innings.

BP: Let's imagine a scenario where you're managing a major league team, and you have two players battling for one position: a veteran, experienced but declining player, or a young, talented but unproven ballplayer. Which player would you be inclined to give the position?

MA: It all depends on the goals of the team you have. If it's a competitive team, with high expectations, then you use the veteran until he proves he definitely cannot do the job anymore. If it's a team in a rebuilding mode, where you know you're still a couple of years away from being competitive, I'll give the chance to the young player. Of course, sometimes if the young player is so talented, you just give him the position no matter the circumstances and see if he's capable of seizing the opportunity and establishing himself.

BP: How important is the pre-game preparation for a manager, to visualize tactical scenarios that could unfold into a ballgame and already know in their mind what to do if the situation arises? What I mean is, if in the last third of the game a particular matchup presents itself, is it better to already have in your mind the player you want in that situation?

MA: It is very important, and I do that every single day, especially with how I'm going to handle my pitching in the game. I study the rival team's lineup and roster, and think about the situations where I could use, for example, my lefthanded pitchers, against what players, and also the management of the bench. You'll always have to visualize if you're a manager. The best thing in the world is to be well prepared, because if you're not, you cannot take advantage of the opponent. He will take advantage of you. If you make the wrong choice, acting reactively for not being prepared, that's when managers make most of their errors.

BP: If you have a young talented starting pitcher, let's say 21 or 22 years old, and you have him on your major league roster, would you use him first from the bullpen in low leverage situations as a way to build his confidence and make the transition to the starting rotation, or would you insert him into the starting rotation immediately?

MA: If he's demonstrated in the minor leagues that he can start, and the reports of the minor league people and the scouts are all positive (especially my pitching coach's report), I'll put him in the rotation. Sometimes it's a little difficult to change the role of a pitcher who's been starting games all the time in the minor leagues. You're not given a lot of time to make adjustments in the major leagues, so to me a young starting pitcher must be in that role from the beginning in the major leagues. If he's not ready, then you send him to AAA and let him have success there, build back his confidence until you promote him again.

If there's not a consensus about the kid's readiness to start games in the big leagues, I wouldn't like to use him from the bullpen.

BP: Another question about pitching. What's your take on closely monitoring pitch-counts as a way to protect the pitcher's health, especially young ones? Do you support that, or think it's counterproductive since throwing fewer pitches could mean fewer opportunities to build a strong arm?

MA: Yes, I believe in pitch counts. I think the limit for a starting pitcher must be around 115 to 120 pitches, if he's doing his job. I wouldn't let him throw that number of pitches in four innings in the process of allowing ten runs, for example. Obviously, in these kinds of leagues (the winter leagues) you'll see guys with limits of 60, 75 or 80 pitches until they build the necessary arm strength to go further. Sometimes their respective organizations impose a limit of pitches per game, or innings, as an understandable way to protect their player. I believe in pitch counts, and I also believe that there are certain types of pitchers that tend to fatigue and lose effectiveness when they reach a certain number of pitches, and you must be able to identify when that moment is approaching and be ready.

BP: This has been an interview focused on you, and the general aspects of a manager's job, and we haven't talked about your new team, the Mets. You'll be assuming the same role you had with the Expos. What's your opinion about your new organization?

MA: I think we have a bright future as an organization. When I attended the organizational meetings, what I perceived there from the ownership, the front office led by Omar Minaya, Sandy Johnson, Tony Bernazard, just to mention a few names, is fantastic. There's a commitment from everybody, top to bottom, to put this organization back where it should be. For me it is a challenge, because I'm going to be in a completely different environment, where more people will watch and criticize how you do your job, but at the same time it is a great chance for my career.

BP: Finally, what about the team's chances? Omar Minaya had a very busy off-season landing two of the biggest names in the free agent market in Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltrán. It seems the feeling is that the team was just a few players away of being competitive and having a chance to win. Do you think that's the case?

MA: Yes, I believe the team was two or three impact players away from being a competitor in that division. You must remember that last season the team was in the hunt as late as early August, around three or four games out of first place. If you add players like Pedro or Carlos Beltrán, plus a healthy year of José Reyes and Kazuo Matsui, that's a big difference in the standings. We also now have lots of starting pitching depth, and if the bullpen can do the job--and I believe they will--we have a great chance to compete against the Braves, Phillies and Marlins. I don't think right now they're significantly better teams than us.

Carlos J. Lugo is a broadcaster for ESPN Deportes, covering the Dominican Winter League. He can be seen and heard on Winter League telecasts throughout the offseason. You can reach Lugo here

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