August 9, 2008
Toronto in the Interim
The Blue Jays continued their descent into madness this week, committing themselves to interim manager Cito Gaston for the 2009 season. This marks the third time in six-plus seasons under general manager J.P. Ricciardi that the Blue Jays have made a mid-season managerial change, then subsequently made the interim manager the permanent one without going through a search to identify the best candidate. While Gaston is different in type from Carlos Tosca and John Gibbons-he wasn't a member of the fired manager's staff, and he has a track record of success-the process by which he was deemed worthy is the same diseased one that has helped make the Blue Jays one of the game's most disappointing franchises.
Consider that since the shortened 1995 season, just three franchises have replaced their manager during the season on three occasions: the Reds, the Royals, and now the Blue Jays. Those teams have combined for one post-season appearance in that time, none since '95, and none under a manager hired in that time. Repeatedly having to replace the manager in the middle of the season is a sign that your organization has a significant problem choosing its field leader, and may reflect problems in other areas of management.
It goes beyond just replacing the manager. The organizations in question have all repeatedly made the same mistake: falling in love with the new guy, forgoing a full search, and electing to retain the interim into the next season. The Reds did it with Jerry Narron and Dave Miley, with disastrous results. The Royals, one of the worst-run franchises in sports during this time frame, made this choice three times. Now the Jays, without a post-season appearance since Joe Carter danced in '93, without relevance for most of that time, have again made the same mistake that they made in 2002 and 2004.
We can debate the importance of a field manager-the relative merits of tactical savvy and interpersonal skill may never be calibrated perfectly-but what we should be able to agree on is that the position deserves to be filled with care. Managers are put in charge of $50 million or more worth of talent. They serve as the most visible management member in a business that generates $100 million or more in gross revenues. Depending on how you view it, they are the second- or third-highest ranking member of management in an organization.
So is it really enough to want to get rid of the guy you have, look around for a convenient replacement, and then stick with that replacement? Shouldn't the process for hiring the person shouldering all that responsibility be more involved than that? The issue isn't whether Dave Miley or Buddy Bell or Cito Gaston is the best person for a particular job. The issue is that the organizations that hired them didn't even ask that question, largely because they were on the payroll when the job opened up. They came, they saw, they shrugged.
This isn't a situation like the 2004 Astros or 2003 Marlins, where the team
had so much success in the wake of an in-season change that the manager earned
the right to keep the job. The Jays were 35-40 under Gibbons, in last place in
the AL East, 10
The process is a mess, and on top of all the other processes that appear to be awry in Toronto, it's fair-no, it's essential-to ask whether those processes will ever be straightened out under Ricciardi. The three managerial changes reflect a problem. Releasing Frank Thomas without a viable plan for life without him-the Jays have used 10 other players, including David Eckstein, Kevin Mench, Robinzon Diaz, and Marco Scutaro at DH this year-reflects a problem. The handling of Lind through June of this season reflects a problem. Blocking John McDonald with David Eckstein reflects a problem.
At some point, all you really have is an organization living off the last few drafts of the previous regime, in a competitive environment that requires much, much more.