June 2, 2000
AL Central Notebook
The Muser Extension
The Muser Extension
The Kansas City Royals gave manager Tony Muser a two-year contract extension last week. Judging from the reaction of the many passionate Royals fans I've heard from, the team's chances of reaching the postseason any time this decade officially expired with the move.
That may be overstating the situation, but when a certain daily columnist for ESPN.com said recently that "Muser is the wrong manager for the Royals at this particular time," he was not speaking for the minority.
Muser's performance as the Royals' manager is a striking example of why labeling managers as "good" or "bad" is hopelessly simplistic. Muser was the right manager for the Royals when he was hired. He was brought in for the purpose of throwing out the dead weight and letting the Royals hit rock bottom as they rebuilt with youth. And unlike his predecessor Bob Boone, Muser proved he had both an understanding of his role and the patience to fill it, the tools necessary to see the youth movement through. That the 2000 Royals can compete on the field and draw fans to Kauffman Stadium is a reflection of how successful Muser has been in the role he was hired to perform.
But the greatest challenge that any manager faces in keeping his job for the long term is the recognizing and adapting to changing circumstances--circumstances that the manager himself creates. The Royals are now well past the stage of accumulating young talent and are putting a higher priority on the development of that talent than on winning ballgames.
The Royals have entered that narrow window of opportunity for the small-market team, when the salaries of their best players still lag behind their performance, and enough of the team's players are earning less than market value that a below-average payroll may be spent efficiently enough to pay for a playoff-caliber team. The Royals have to win while Jermaine Dye, Mike Sweeney, Johnny Damon, Carlos Febles and Carlos Beltran are still restricted from being paid a market salary. Beyond 2001, all the Wal-Mart stock in the world will only slow the emigration of the greatest collection of young hitting talent the Royals have ever had.
Tony Muser is not as suited to managing a contending team as he was to piloting a rebuilder. He is too fixated on defense--and not just the first-base variety--and his my-way-or-the-highway bluster has already cost the Royals Jeremy Giambi and Sal Fasano for essentially nothing in return. While the Royals have developed the aforementioned five hitters during his tenure, and seen Joe Randa blossom into an excellent all-around player, Muser has been unable to convert even one young pitcher into an above-average starter, Jeff Suppan and his 5.25 ERA notwithstanding.
Is Muser the best man for the job now? Of course not. The Royals need a manager who can turn five of their best young arms into a top rotation by next April. Unfortunately, the best manager for that job is already employed in Atlanta. The Royals need a manager who isn't afraid to start Jeff Reboulet at shortstop over Rey Sanchez and who has the cojones to tell Johnny Damon to start hitting or we're going to find out if Dermal Brown can play. The only manager brave enough to do that is wearing Dodger blue.
Are there prospective managers out there who can do a better job with the current Royals than Tony Muser? Sure there are, but it's not entirely clear who those managers might be and it's even less clear that the Royals would hire one of them to succeed Muser. The previous three Royals managers--Boone, Muser, John Wathan and Hal McRae--all had productive playing careers with the Royals. Continuing that trend, the most likely man to replace Muser if he were fired would be bench coach Jamie Quirk.
Quirk is a long-time fan favorite in Kansas City and would be an immensely popular choice to succeed Muser, but popularity doesn't translate into great managing. When I was a freshman in college, I was blindsided one fall morning by the site of my RA jumping up and down on the news that the favorite player of his youth had just been hired to manage the Red Sox.
Funny, but no one seems to care much what Butch Hobson is doing these days.
Quirk actually managed the Royals on an interim basis when Tony Muser was suspended eight games for the Felix Martinez incident (the fight with the Angels, not the decision to call him up). While eight games is hardly a defining sample, it was pretty clear that Quirk graduated from the Jack McKeon School of Pitcher Handling--the McKeon who blew out Steve Busby's arm 25 years ago, not the McKeon of today.
The larger issue with hiring Quirk is that, like every Royal manager stretching back to Wathan, he has no previous managerial experience in the major leagues. On a certain level, the presence of a new, inexperienced manager every couple of years has forced the Royals to take a step back while the new guy goes through his learning curve.
Muser, while certainly not perfect, has learned from his experience to add to his credentials beyond his willingness to play the kids. This year's 1977-style adaptation of the bullpen, in which three-inning relief outings are the norm and three guys (Jerry Spradlin, Dan Reichert and Jose Santiago) are on pace to throw more than 100 innings, reflects Muser's increased comfort in his job and willingness to defy conventional wisdom when circumstances force his hand. If the Royals were to replace Muser with Quirk, they will have taken an unacceptable and unnecessary risk that their current progress will once again be stalled while a new manager figures out how to do his job.
Most of this is irrelevant anyway, because the Royals are not going to fire Tony Muser when the team is playing above .500 for the first time in six years. Barring another surreal second-half collapse, Muser would be at the helm when the Royals begin the 2001 season with their best chance to make the playoffs in a dozen years, contract extension or not. That the Royals have guaranteed Muser two more years at a meager $400,000 per hardly represents a whopping financial investment.
For all his weaknesses, Muser has the most important attribute for any manager--the respect of his players--in spades. If giving Muser a vote of confidence at a cost of less than a million dollars makes it easier for the Royals to sign Mike Sweeney to a long-term deal, it's a wise investment even Muser were fired the day after signing. And as Bob Boone can testify, Herk Robinson is perfectly willing to fire a manager whose contract he extended just six months before.
Just as not every great team has a great second baseman, not every great team has a great manager. The Royals don't need Tony Muser to be the second coming of Earl Weaver. All they need from him is to be the second coming of Cito Gaston, a manager who has the good sense to get out of the way and let his team's talent advantage manifest itself on the field.
That is not to say the Royals lead the league in talent; overall, they are still quite mediocre. But it's the distribution of the talent that gives the Royals hope for the near future; the top half of their roster is outstanding, but their holes are so glaring that even Herk Robinson is bound to come up with some solutions to plug them up. The Royals are 26-25 with a rotation of Suppan, Mac Suzuki, Chris Fussell, Miguel Batista and Jay Witasick. The team has the luxury of focusing their entire effort on upgrading their pitching staff between now and next April, because not a single member of the starting lineup will be a free agent between now and 2002.
The AL Central is in a state of flux for the first time since it was created, and the opportunity is there for the Royals to make off with the division in 2001 if they can maintain the illusion of greatness long enough to rack up 92 wins. Tony Muser may not be the best man to lead the Royals to the top, but Royals fans better root for him anyway, because he represents the team's best option.
No Longer A Dream Weaver for Lefties
The longest player comment in Baseball Prospectus 2000 was reserved for Jeff Weaver, who pitched like Jim Bunning from April to June, and like Jim Bullinger from July onwards.
Weaver's journey to greatness encountered two very large potholes in the road: his temper and his inability to get left-handed hitters out. The Tigers, to their credit, recognized that the latter problem wasn't going to go away on its own and armed Weaver with a new cut fastball this season. While Weaver's 4.66 ERA is not a sign that he has made much progress, consider his platoon splits from this year and last:
Year vs. LHP vs. RHP
While Weaver is as effective against right-handed hitters as he was last year, his OPS against left-handed hitters has dropped from 939 to 777, an enormous difference.
But while Weaver appears to have conquered his problems against left-handers, he still has a long way to go when it comes to maintaining his composure when he gets into a jam:
Year None on Runners on
Maybe the problem stems from a lack of concentration, and maybe the problem stems from his delivery in the stretch position. Whatever it is, if the Tigers tackle it as successfully as they did his troubles against left-handed hitters, Weaver could become the Tigers' best starting pitcher since Jack Morris was in his prime.
Which would leave them with only 24 roster spots to fill.
Rany Jazayerli, M.D., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.