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September 23, 2007

Every Given Sunday

Changing of the Guards

by John Perrotto

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Four managers and three general managers have failed to make it through the season.

Baltimore's Sam Perlozzo was the first manger to be fired, followed by Cincinnati's Jerry Narron and Houston's Phil Garner, while Mike Hargrove surprisingly stepped away in Seattle in the midst of the Mariners being in contention in the American League West. The Orioles promoted bullpen coach Dave Trembley to interim manager, then removed the interim tag by giving him a contract for 2008 with a club option for 2009.

Kansas City will also be looking for a manger at season's end, as Buddy Bell is stepping down to become a special assistant to GM Dayton Moore.

Meanwhile, the Astros and Pittsburgh both fired their GMs during the season, axing Tim Purpura and Dave Littlefield, while Terry Ryan will step down as Minnesota's GM at the end of the season to become a senior advisor with the Twins.

Once the regular season ends one week from today, plenty of other clubs will likely be making changes. Here is a look at which GMs or managers appear to be on the hot seat or ready to move on as what they call the "silly season" in NASCAR gets set to begin:

New York Yankees manager Joe Torre--While the Yankees have come from 14 games behind in the American League East to draw within 2 of Boston and are a lock to at least win the wild card, owner George Steinbrenner has a had a hankering to fire Torre for more than a year. Many believe Steinbrenner spared Torre after last season's loss to Detroit in the ALDS because he didn't want to pay him $7 million not to manage this season. However, Torre's three-year, $19.2-million contract expires at the end of the season, and Yankees insiders believe even a World Series appearance may not be enough to head off a managerial change.

New York Mets manager Willie Randolph--The Mets' seemingly insurmountable 7 1/2-lead over Philadelphia in the National League East was quickly cut to 1 games last week, and the Phillies continue to hang tough. Missing the playoffs could cost Randolph his job, and Mets ownership would like to see him lighten up, especially with the fans and media.

St. Louis GM Walt Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa--Jocketty's salary finally got over $1 million this year in his 13th season, and he has hinted that he doesn't feel particularly appreciated by Cardinals' ownership. La Russa has sent mixed signals in recent weeks about his desire to stay, but he has full control over personnel moves with the Cardinals, which should outweigh his rather irrational belief that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is out to get him. Look for both to stay one more year, and many feel La Russa will then retire.

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Grady Little--GM Ned Colletti recently told the Los Angeles Times that Little, who has one year and an option for 2009 left on his contract, will be back next season. However, the Dodgers' late-season collapse and dissension between the veterans and youngsters in the clubhouse could cause owner Frank McCourt and Colletti to rethink that stance.

Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel--While he has done a very credible job keeping the Phillies in contention with a patchwork pitching staff, he is not a popular figure among the tough Philadelphia crowd, as the Philly fans take glee in dissecting his every move and roll their eyes at the way he can butcher the English language. Anything less than the playoffs could mean the end for Manuel.

Seattle GM Bill Bavasi and manager John McLaren--The Mariners crashed and burned down the stretch. Bavasi has a contract through next year but may not be safe. McLaren took over for Hargrove and his contract expires at the end of the year. Once considered a lock to return, his chances of being the manager in 2008 are now iffy at best.

Los Angeles Angels GM Bill Stoneman--It's not that Angels owner Arte Moreno wants to get rid of Stoneman, but that the GM has the option of stepping into a consultant role when his contact expires at the end of the season. This is a hard one to read, as Stoneman is one of the most low-profile GMs in the game.

Pittsburgh manager Jim Tracy--He has gone 133-184 in two seasons with the Pirates. After coming to Pittsburgh vowing to teach the team how to win, Tracy has only contributed to the Pirates' streak of losing seasons reaching 15, and the fans have never warmed to his Pollyanna-like optimism and lack of accountability. Tracy has one year left on his contract, but Pittsburgh's current eight-game losing streak likely doomed what little chance he had left of coming back in 2008.

Cincinnati interim manager Pete Mackanin--The Reds have gone 40-33 since making the unusual move of promoting their advance scout to manager, and owner Bob Castellini has become a Mackanin fan. While Mackanin has full support in the clubhouse, there is a suspicion Castellini may go for a manager with a bigger name, especially if La Russa leaves the Cardinals. However, Mackanin also has a strong supporter in GM Wayne Krivsky.

Houston interim manger Cecil Cooper--Cooper is a sharp guy and owner Drayton McLane is said to favor bringing him back for 2008, even though the Astros haven't played any better since he was promoted from bench coach to replace Garner on an interim basis. McLane usually gets what he wants and will likely order new GM Ed Wade to keep Cooper.

Baltimore Vice President Jim Duquette and Executive Vice President Mike Flanagan--Duquette and Flanagan are de facto co-GMs, and each has one year left on his contract. Flanagan is close with owner Peter Angelos, meaning he will stay, but there is a feeling the highly respected Duquette could take the fall for the Orioles having a 10th straight losing season.

---

The Astros had a bit of a blast from the past when they hired Wade to succeed Purpura as general manager this past week.

Wade has kept an extremely low profiles since Philadelphia fired him as general manager at the end of the 2005 season, primarily scouting Class AA Eastern League games for San Diego the past two years. In fact, the only time Wade's name has been in the news was when he accidentally got his a parachute caught in a tree in suburban Philadelphia last month while skydiving.

However, McLane believes Wade can turn around a franchise that went from making its first World Series appearance two years ago to a 68-87 record this season, a mark which has put them in a death match with Pittsburgh to avoid last place in the NL Central.

"You look at the Philly team, they're in a tough division, competing with the Mets and the Braves," McLane told the Houston Chronicle. "He's taken a market like ours in Houston and made them successful. He's done a terrific job in player development. He's put together very, very competitive teams. He had some exciting young players. You look at the players on the Philly team. The first baseman (Ryan Howard) is one of the most successful power hitters in a long, long time. He's been a general manager. He understands the job of a general manager."

Wade did indeed have a big hand in building the Phillies team that continues to put heat on the New York Mets in the NL East with eight days left in the season. The Phillies are just 1 games back, and trail San Diego by just a half-game in the NL wild card race.

Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, and left-hander Cole Hamels are four starters who were drafted and developed during Wade's tenure as Phillies GM from 1998-2005.

"I take a measure of pride, even though I've been away from the Phillies' organization for two years, that the core nucleus of that club right now, by and large, are players that we were able to bring through the system while I was there," Wade said. "I'm excited about having the same opportunity to do the same thing and a little bit more in Houston."

Wade began his baseball career as a media relations assistant with the Astros in the late 1970s when Tal Smith, now the club's president of business operations, was the GM.

"First of all, I was here back in what I think were the original heydays of the Astros franchise back in the late '70s when things started to head in the right direction, and obviously the playoffs in 1980, when we had the disappointing loss to Philadelphia," Wade said. "I know the excitement level of the city that existed way back then, and it was rekindled in 2005 with the Astros' World Series appearance. And I just know that there's that level of interest and excitement in the club that makes it attractive."

---

For the first time in a long time, the Twins front office will have a new dynamic now that Bill Smith is taking over as GM for Ryan.

However, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire doesn't expect a dramatic change. After all, Smith is a 22-year Twins employee and has been Ryan's assistant GM for 13 years.

"I've known Billy forever," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "I knew him in the minors when I managed. We've played golf together. Now it's going to be about coming together as a manager and a general manager."

Gardenhire then laughed while adding: "Bill and I have butted heads a few times on different things, what kinds of baseballs we use for (batting practice). It's going to be a little different right now. That's what makes it fun."

Smith said that he and Mike Radcliff, promoted from scouting director to vice president of player personnel, will work with Gardenhire as part of a "three-headed monster." In the past, Gardenhire and Ryan were a two-man team.

"I don't really see it as a problem," Smith said. "We've known each other for 20 years, when he was a young manager in (Class A) Kenosha in 1988 and I was in my third year here. It's going to be a little bit different because there's a third wheel involved, and that's Mike Radcliff."

---

Arizona Diamondbacks left fielder Eric Byrnes may not be a mathematics whiz, but he has used the laws of probability this season to become one of the top percentage base stealers in the major leagues. Byrnes has stolen a career-high 47 bases in 54 attempts this season for a .870 success rate.

The Diamondbacks have researched every opposing pitcher to determine delivery times to the plate, both when the pitcher uses his regular motion and the quicker slide step.

"Basically, I'm only going when I have a 95 percent chance I'm going to make it, although there is still always that chance (of getting caught)," Byrnes told the East Valley Tribune. "I steal off the pitcher, not the catcher."

Byrnes says the Molina brothers, San Francisco's Bengie and St. Louis's Yadier, are the toughest catchers to run against. It was Bengie who threw out Byrnes this past Monday to end his streak of 30 straight successful steals, longest in the major leagues this season.

Though only two games separate the first-place Diamondbacks from the San Diego Padres in the NL West standings, they are worlds apart on the import of stolen bases. The Padres have thrown out only 19 of 196 runners attempting to steal for a meagerly 9.7 percent success rate.

Base stealers have been successful in all 39 attempts with Chris Young pitching and on 31 of 33 attempts with Greg Maddux on the mound.

"We're not blind to it," Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Our guys are aware of it. We can improve."

The Padres have compensated by leading the major leagues with a 3.59 ERA and 20 shutouts.

"I want our guys to be as good as they can be as far as holding runners," Balsley said. "But if they are sacrificing stuff and command, it's not worth it."

---

From the rumor mill:

Pittsburgh will make it official either Monday or Tuesday when the club introduces Cleveland special assistant to the general manager Neal Huntington as its next GM. New Pirates President Frank Coonelly is talking like he wants to clean house now that the Pirates have clinched a 15th consecutive losing season, one short of the major-league record set by the Philadelphia Phillies from 1933-48. That may put Huntington in a tough position, as he has worked with most of the Pirates' hierarchy in the past, including interim GM and player development director Brian Graham with the Indians, and manger Jim Tracy, assistant GM Doug Strange, and scouting director Ed Creech with the Montreal Expos. Graham, who has done a solid job overseeing the Pirates' farm system, seems most likely to stay as assistant GM or perhaps even as a replacement for Tracy as manager If the Chicago Cubs win the NL Central, look for rookie Geovany Soto to get at least some starts behind the plate in the postseason and possibly even supplant Jason Kendall as the No. 1 starter Knuckleballer Tim Wakefield is likely to be the odd man out when Boston sets its playoff rotation as he has struggled down the stretch and could prove valuable by working multiple innings in relief. The Red Sox want to use rookie Clay Buchholz in middle relief in October but are also wary of overextending him in the postseason Look for the Angels to set up their rotation so John Lackey would start Games 1 and 5 of an ALDS, especially with Kelvim Escobar stuggling in September Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin had coffee with Francisco Cordero this past week to open the lines of communication in possibly re-signing the closer as a free agent this winter. Cordero makes $5.4 million this year and will certainly look for a substantial raise and a contract of at least three years Detroit plans to pursue a trade for Pittsburgh shortstop Jack Wilson again this winter with the idea of moving Carlos Guillen to first base. The Tigers might also have interest in another Pirates shortstop, Cesar Izturis, who also can become a free agent if, as expected, the Pirates decline to pick up the club option on his contract for 2008. San Francisco's Omar Vizquel, another potential free agent, could also pique the Tigers' interest, as could a possible trade for Atlanta's Edgar Renteria, as the latter has become expendable with the play of Braves rookie shortstop Yunel Escobar Rookie Alexi Casilla was expected to be the long-term answer at second base for Minnesota after the Twins traded Luis Castillo to the Mets in July. However, the Twins are now considering moving light-hitting Nick Punto from third base to second next season and pursuing a big bat for the hot corner Scratch all that speculation of Washington making a winter splash by signing Atlanta center fielder Andruw Jones as a free agent. Nationals President Stan Kasten is telling people that the organization is committed to building through scouting and player development rather than opening the checkbook The Chicago White Sox will definitely try to trade a veteran starting pitcher to clear some payroll room, and it appears they have settled on trying to move right-hander Jon Garland Nomar Garciaparra, despite his injury-marred season, still figures to be the Dodgers' starting third baseman when they go to spring training in February.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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