Last week Joe Girardi grabbed the top spot on the less-than-coveted list of managers most likely to be fired in ’09. He acknowledged that he’s heading the list while chatting with a group of reporters in the wake of Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez admitting that he failed a Major League Baseball survey test for steroids in 2003. He was asked if his job was on the line, and if he felt that his second season with the Yankees could be his last if they fail to make the playoffs. “I don’t necessarily think about those things, but as you state the question, you’re probably right,” said Girardi.
Expectations are high now that the Yankees’ run of 13 consecutive post-season appearances came to an end last season. The Yankees invested $423.5 million in left-hander CC Sabathia, right-hander A.J. Burnett, and first baseman Mark Teixeira on the free-agent market over the winter in a bid to make sure that they’ll still be playing into late October. Managing the Yankees always involves dealing with distractions, and Girardi already has a whopper in the Rodriguez revelations, an issue that will likely be hanging over the team deep into spring training and probably into the regular season. “I don’t think in one day it disappears,” Girardi said. “We will have to deal with it. We will be here for him. He brought it on himself, but we don’t want to see him hurting.”
Girardi knows how important a focused Rodriguez is to the Yankees’ success. Despite having what was considered a down year in 2008, Rodriguez still managed a .323 EqA and an American League-leading 62.9 VORP. His EqA was second in the AL to the Rangers’ Milton Bradley (.341). “It takes more than one guy to win-it takes more than 25 guys to win a championship,” said Girardi. “But it’s important he relaxes and puts up the numbers on the field he is capable of putting up.”
Girardi is one of six managers firmly on the hot seat this year. Here is a look at the other five, listed in alphabetical order:
Manny Acta, Nationals: He had his entire coaching staff (except for pitching coach Randy St. Claire) fired at the end of last season, which is never a vote of confidence. After signing left fielder Adam Dunn to a two-year, $20 million contract as a free agent this past week, the Nationals made it clear that a repeat anything like last year’s 59-102 finish won’t cut it. Washington fans are becoming increasingly impatient to see a winner in the franchise’s fifth season since moving from Montreal. “Fans need to see improvement, but no one needs to see it more than I do or our owners do,” Nationals president Stan Kasten said. “We got in this to win, and we want to win as soon as we possibly can, so you bet this season is important. And then the next-most important one is next season. There are no honeymoons.”
Cecil Cooper, Astros: It seems that even the fellow who guided this team short on talent to an 86-75 record last season might be in danger of losing his job. Astros owner Drayton McLane often says that the word “rebuilding” is not in his vocabulary, yet that is the mode that they seem to be in as they prepare for the upcoming season. It’s quite telling that McLane has made no move to extend Cooper’s contract beyond 2009, and that there does not appear to be any plan to offer him an extension in the future.
Clint Hurdle, Rockies: He’s been on the job since replacing Buddy Bell early in the 2002 campaign, and he’s produced just one winning season, though it was a memorable one as the Rockies made their first World Series appearance in 2007. After falling to 74-88 last year, the Rockies will almost certainly have to come out of the gate quickly in ’09, or Hurdle, who is now in the last year of his contract, will be gone. “For me, the length of the contract doesn’t define me,” Hurdle told Tracy Ringolsby of the Rocky Mountain News. “The contract is not my motivation. My desire to manage this ballclub is, because I am passionate about this organization and this fan base. I love every day that I am on the job. That’s not going to change.”
Jim Leyland, Tigers: He did not get the contract extension he had hoped for last year, and he has lame-duck status after the Tigers finished last in the AL Central with a 74-88 record in 2008 despite having the third-highest payroll in the major leagues at $137 million. Leyland no longer has the unwavering support of president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, and he needs to field a contending team in order to keep his job. “I’m not worried about it. I’m really not,” Leyland said of his predicament. “There’s no need to make it too complicated. If we do well, I’ll be managing the Tigers [in 2010]. If we don’t, I won’t. It’s pretty simple. It’s a distraction the players don’t need-it’s something that I don’t need.”
Ron Washington, Rangers: Club president Nolan Ryan was ready to fire Washington last season after the Rangers got off to a 7-16 start, but he did not want to pull the trigger while owner Tom Hicks was in Europe. The Rangers then won 15 of their next 21 games to take the heat off of Washington, but they went on to finish at 79-83. Washington came to Texas with a reputation for being a great teacher of defense, but they finished last in the major leagues in defensive efficiency in 2008 and were 22nd in his first year in ’07. If that doesn’t tighten up this season, the Rangers will have a new manager.
Cubs manager Lou Piniella was Alex Rodriguez’s first skipper while they were both with the Mariners from 1994-2000, and he was quite disappointed to hear that his former player had admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs. “I was saddened,” Piniella told Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times. “Alex, we brought up as a young pup in Seattle. Wonderful young man. It’s a shame it happened to him. I’ve been really, really close with him. I think the statement he made, getting the huge, huge contract with the Texas Rangers [10 years, $252 million] probably put pressure on him to be superhuman, and it turned out to be a big mistake. I hope he has learned from this. I’m sure he has.”
Rodriguez claims that he used steroids from 2001-03, and then stopped before the Yankees acquired him in a trade from the Rangers early in spring training of ’04. Major League Baseball also began mandatory drug testing in 2004, and Rodriguez has not been penalized.
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, however, admits that there is no way of knowing whether or not Rodriguez has been clean since coming to New York. “I can’t represent that I’m confident about anything about anybody,” Cashman told Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. “We’ve lived through a tough stretch that shattered that. If you asked me that question five years ago, I’d have given you a different answer, but I’ve been educated quite a bit, unfortunately, over this course of time, so I maybe won’t make the same mistakes I’ve made in the past. I’m not confident about anything from the past anymore.”
Cashman also said that the Yankees will not look to void the 10-year, $275 million contract Rodriguez signed with them following 2007 that includes significant bonuses for climbing up the all-time home-run list and eventually breaking Barry Bonds‘ record of 762. “You can’t take us back that way,” Cashman said. “We’re basically in a position where we’re moving forward, and we’re moving forward together. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things that happened in the past.”
Twins owner Carl Pohlad, who died last month, was considered to be a hands-off owner, something that at times made him a less-than-popular figure with fans of the Twin Cities. His three sons now have control of the franchise, led by Jim Pohlad, the chief executive officer of Twins Sports, Inc., and they have no intentions of do anything differently. “I am a fan, probably first and foremost,” Jim Pohlad said. “So I get excited about transactions. I get excited when the Vikings do a transaction, or the Timberwolves, or the Wild. So I certainly don’t discourage it. Nor am I going to say, since I like that as a fan, ‘go do it,’ unless you think it’s in the best interest of the team.”
GM Bill Smith will continue to have a free hand to run the baseball operations. Smith, then the assistant GM, replaced Terry Ryan when he stepped down late in the 2007 season. The Twins finished second in the AL Central in Smith’s first season in 2008, losing a one-game playoff for the division title to the White Sox in a year in which they were not expected to be a contender. “Bill was highly recommended by Terry, and his performance last year was, candidly, beyond our expectations,” Pohlad said. “So those two factors result in a continued high level of confidence. Everybody has their own style. All general managers-Andy [MacPhail], Billy, Terry-they all have different styles, and their styles develop over time. We’re really optimistic and confident that Bill will continue to develop his style, and he’ll become more successful.”
The Twins still have room in their payroll to add a player, and they’re contemplating signing free-agent third baseman Joe Crede, though they are balking at his reported asking price of a guaranteed $7 million for one year with incentives that could push the deal to $11 million. “We have payroll room, and we’re not done,” Pohlad said. “The season hasn’t started yet. Frequently, transactions occur during spring training, so it still could happen. I mean, there’s nothing from us saying, ‘Don’t. We’re done. Go into the season, and keep your fingers crossed.'”
While season-ticket sales are lagging for most clubs, no one will know the full extent of the effect that the poor economy will have on attendance until the season gets underway in April. Dodgers left-hander Randy Wolf believes that Major League Baseball should make a pre-emptive strike by lowering ticket prices to make sure that attendance levels stay high. “Baseball, to me, is America’s game,” Wolf said this past week after signing a one-year, $5 million contract as a free agent. “Americans are losing jobs. They are not spending money, obviously, because they don’t know what their next paycheck will be. People want an escape still. They still want to get out of their daily grind and have something to root for.”
Wolf will be receiving a lesser paycheck this year, albeit by professional sports standards rather than those of the common working man. The Astros originally offered Wolf three years and $28.5 million to stay with them, and then pulled the offer because of the economic uncertainties. The Dodgers, however, have no plans to take Wolf’s advice and lower prices on tickets at Dodger Stadium this season.
AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Mariners will try to sign free-agent outfielder Garret Anderson to an incentive-laden deal if free-agent outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. opts to sign with the Braves. … The Yankees plan on using Brett Gardner or Melky Cabrera as their center fielder rather than the more productive Nick Swisher despite their glut of outfielders, leaving Swisher and Xavier Nady to battle for a starting job in right, with the loser likely to be traded before the start of the regular season. … Winter statements to the contrary, the Indians haven’t shut the door on playing off-season acquisition Mark DeRosa at second base instead of third. They would then move shortstop Jhonny Peralta to third and second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera to shortstop. … Left-handers Nate Robertson and Dontrelle Willis and right-hander Zach Miner will compete for one open spot in the Tigers’ rotation this spring. … The Red Sox plan to use Josh Bard as Tim Wakefield‘s personal catcher, despite his difficulties in handling the knuckleballer in 2006. … The Red Sox also plan to use right-hander Justin Masterson as a starter in spring training as insurance in the event someone in the rotation is injured. … Right-handers Brian Bannister and Luke Hochevar will compete for the Royals‘ fifth-starter’s job this spring.
NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Diamondbacks are willing to trade outfielder Eric Byrnes, whose value is low after having two torn hamstrings last season. He appears to be the odd man out with the way that their lineup is currently configured. … The Phillies are trying to trade right-hander Adam Eaton, but they are resigned to the possibility that they’ll wind up releasing him sometime during spring training. … The Braves are close to re-signing left-hander Tom Glavine. … The Dodgers seem more likely to re-sign left-handed reliever Joe Beimel now that he has found no offers to his liking as a free agent. … The Cardinals‘ preference is for Skip Schumaker to successfully make the conversion from center field to second base this spring, enabling top prospect Colby Rasmus to take over in center. Joe Thurston is the backup plan at second base, and Brian Barden is likely to begin the season as the third baseman while Troy Glaus recovers from shoulder surgery. … Ian Ostlund, Charlie Manning, and Royce Ring will compete for the second lefty spot in the Cardinals’ bullpen behind Trever Miller. … The Nationals are committed to playing Dunn in left field and Lastings Milledge in center, leaving Elijah Dukes, Josh Willingham, and Austin Kearns to battle for the starting right-fielder’s job while setting up a possible spring-training trade.