Challenges facing new managers Ausmus, Williams, Price, Renteria and McClendon
With Thursday’s announcement that the Cubs had officially hired Rick Renteria as their manager, I examined the recent trend of teams turning toward less experienced skippers. Of the five openings since the end of the regular season, four of them were filled by first-time managers. Of the 17 jobs that have come open since the end of the 2011 season, 13 have gone to managers less experienced than their predecessors, 10 to first-timers. That’s part of a trend that reflects the evolution of the job on both the tactical and interpersonal sides, something Tom Verducci examined in further detail elsewhere this week at SI.com.
What follows is a closer look at each of the five new hires and the situation they’ve inherited. I’ve ranked them roughly in order of my own estimation of their chances to meet expectations.
New manager: Brad Ausmus
Replaces: Jim Leyland (retired)
A catcher in the majors for 18 years (1993-2010) including three in Detroit (1996, 1999-2000), the 44-year-old Ausmus is the youngest of the new managers, though he’s still older than three of his new colleagues: the Cardinals’ Mike Matheny, the Marlins’ Mike Redmond and the Astros’ Bo Porter. Ausmus has long been considered managerial material but has yet to manage at any level beyond piloting the Israeli team in the qualifying rounds for this year’s World Baseball Classic. He spent the last three seasons as a special assistant in San Diego’s front office and interviewed for openings in Boston and Houston last year, and with the Nationals, Cubs and Mariners this offseason.
Despite his popularity as a candidate, his hiring rates as something of a surprise given that Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski had stated his preference for an experienced manager. Among the other candidates, hitting coach Lloyd McClendon had big league experience piloting the Pirates from 2001-2005 while third base coach Tom Brookens, Dodgers third base coach Tim Wallach and Padres bench coach Renteria all have minor league managerial experience.
Ausmus is a Dartmouth graduate who was lauded for his intelligence, leadership and communication abilities upon his hiring. He inherits a team that won 93 games this year and is riding a three-year streak of AL Central titles and trips to the ALCS, with a 2012 pennant thrown in. While there’s talk that the Tigers could trade probable AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer this winter, at this moment they once again figure to be the team to beat in the division and need only a few patches. Top prospect Nick Castellanos fills a major need in leftfield, leaving Dombrowski to focus on a much-needed bullpen upgrade and a solution at second base.
While the expectations are high in Detroit, the strength of the current roster gives Ausmus a reasonable shot at meeting them. Given how close the Tigers came to a World Series berth this year, it isn’t difficult to imagine them getting back there next year.
New manager: Matt Williams
Replaces: Davey Johnson (retired)
Williams was a five-time All-Star during his 17-year major league career (1987-2003) but has no managerial experience at any level, though he’s spent the past three years on the Diamondbacks’ staff as their first- and third-base coach. Williams, 47, has close ties to Washington general manager Mike Rizzo dating back to the latter’s days as Arizona’s scouting director. To get the job, he beat out three coaches — two of them Nationals — who had managed in the minors but not the majors: Washington bench coach Randy Knorr and third base coach Trent Jewett and Blue Jays bench coach DeMarlo Hale.
Williams takes over a team that won 86 games in 2013 but nonetheless fell far short of expectations after winning 98 games and the NL East title in 2012. The Nationals’ nucleus is still intact, and Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg and the disappointing Adam LaRoche will all presumably be healthier after minor offseason surgeries. Even so, the roster needs significant work in the form of a fourth starter upgrade on Dan Haren, a lefthanded reliever and a much better bench. If that litany of surgeries didn’t already underscore the point, the team will also need significantly better luck in the health department as well as better injury management.
Williams’ reputation for toughness might be a concern given how so many Nationals tried to come back too early from injuries only to suffer setbacks, but then some of that might justifiably be laid at the feet of the since-retired Davey Johnson. Particularly regarding the condition of Harper, there often appeared to be a communication gap between the manager, player, training staff and front office, and Williams should be able to bridge that. His relationship with Rizzo and his reputation as progressive on other fronts like statistical analysis is reason for optimism. Washington won’t have an easy time leapfrogging the Braves to reclaim the division title, but the club does appear to be in good hands.
New manager: Bryan Price
Replaces: Dusty Baker (fired)
Baker’s dismissal was something of a surprise, given that the Reds have been to the playoffs in three of the past four seasons and won 90 games this year. Still, the team’s failure to win a postseason series on his watch suggested that perhaps the time for change had come. General manager Walt Jocketty didn’t exactly wear out his Rolodex searching for a replacement, instead promoting Price, a 51-year-old pitching coach who never played in the majors and hasn’t managed at any level, and giving him a three-year deal. Former major league manager Jim Riggleman was the only other candidate named publicly, and he didn’t even officially interview.
Despite Price’s lack of managerial experience, he has carved out a reputation as one of the game’s top pitching coaches in Seattle, Arizona and Cincinnati. Over the past two years, the Reds have boasted one of the strongest rotations in the league, no small achievement given their hitter-friendly park.
While Price takes the reins of a playoff team, Cincy did place third in the NL Central behind the Cardinals and Pirates, both of whom have considerably stronger minor league systems and fewer holes to fill this offseason. The Reds will need to replace the offense of departing free agent centerfielder Shin-Soo Choo, who was one of just three regulars on the club with an OPS+ above 100 in 2013 (Joey Votto and Jay Bruce were the others). Meanwhile, Todd Frazier, Ryan Hanigan and Brandon Phillips tailed off considerably from 2012, and Jocketty is exploring the possibility of trading the latter. The pitching staff has Tony Cingrani ready to step in for the departing Bronson Arroyo, but Cincinnati will need more than 11 starts from Johnny Cueto, and the question of whether or not to move closer Aroldis Chapman to the rotation will again loom this winter; if so, the team will need to reconfigure its bullpen.
In all, it’s not a bad situation for a first-time manager to walk into, but neither is it hard to see the Reds backsliding a bit if the offense can’t take some of the pressure off the pitching staff.
New manager: Rick Renteria
Replaces: Dale Sveum (fired)
A veteran of 14 seasons in the majors and minors as an infielder, the 51-year old Renteria spent eight years managing at the minor league level (1998-2001 in the Marlins’ chain, 2004-2007 in the Padres’) before joining San Diego’s staff in 2008. He managed Mexico during the 2013 World Baseball Classic, but the team didn’t break out of its pool. Despite his lack of major league experience, the general consensus around the industry was that he was the top choice to succeed Dale Sveum once Joe Girardi decided to remain with the Yankees. Chicago did interview Ausmus and another candidate with no major league experience, Rays bench coach Dave Martinez; also in the hunt were A.J. Hinch, who had previously managed the Diamondbacks, Manny Acta, who had managed the Nationals and Indians, and Eric Wedge, who had managed the Indians and Mariners.
Amid a rebuilding effort that began with club president Theo Epstein’s arrival in October 2011, Sveum managed the team to a 127-197 (.392) record in two seasons, and while they improved from 61 wins in 2012 to 66 in 2013, it wasn’t enough to save his job, and he was axed with a year remaining on his deal. The Cubs’ struggles may have had something to do with the fact that the team’s two young cornerstones, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo — each of whom is signed through 2019 — both took significant steps back from their 2012 performances.
Renteria is poised to reap the benefit of (and credit for) their rebound, but the roster is still a long way from contending. Catcher Welington Castillo and outfielder Junior Lake have arrived, but top prospects Albert Almora, Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Jorge Soler are all likely to open the year in Double A, with Baez the only one who already has experience at that level; it could take a couple years for that quartet to reach the Windy City. Incidentally, the fact that so many Hispanic prospects and youngsters are the key to Chicago’s future led Epstein to emphasize hiring a bilingual manager.
Recognizing that this turnaround isn’t anywhere near complete, the Cubs gave Renteria a three-year deal with a pair of additional club options. There’s little expectation that he’s going to turn in a .500 record in 2014, and doing so in 2015 may be a stretch as well unless the pitching is substantially upgraded. Even so, the club will need to show progress by getting into the 70-something win territory, or Renteria could face an early exit just as Sveum did.
New manager: Lloyd McClendon
Replaces: Eric Wedge (fired)
At 54, McClendon is not only the oldest incoming manager, he’s also the only one with previous major league experience in that capacity. He was a utilityman as a player in the majors from 1987-1994 and managed the Pirates from 2001-05. His time in Pittsburgh came when the organization was adrift, and while the likes of Jason Kendall, Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez dotted his rosters, all were traded as they became too expensive, and the team never had enough pitching to threaten .500. For his stay, the Pirates put up a .430 winning percentage and never won more than 75 games or finished higher than fourth in the NL Central.
McClendon spent the ensuing seven years as a coach on Jim Leyland’s staff in Detroit, first as bullpen coach and later as hitting coach, de facto bench coach and post-ejection manager. He has long been considered deserving of another chance at running his own team. To get the Seattle job, he beat out a deep field, among whom Ausmus, Wallach, Renteria, Giants bench coach Ron Wotus, A’s bench coach Chip Hale and former Mariners players Joey Cora and Dave Valle had no major league managerial experience. For all of his attempts to get a fresh face in the dugout, it’s worth noting that Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik also tried to lure 70-year-old Lou Piniella back to the team he piloted from 1993-2002.
McClendon takes over a Mariners team that won just 71 games in 2013 and has finished below .500 in each of the past three seasons and eight of the past 10, with the majors’ third-worst winning percentage (.443) across that decade. Managers Bob Melvin, Mike Hargrove, John McLaren, Don Wakamatsu, Wedge and interims Riggleman and Daren Brown all failed to keep the franchise on a winning course for very long, though the front office’s bad luck with free agents and its failure to develop position players are big reasons why.
There are some reasons for optimism, namely the team’s emerging young core. This past season, catcher Mike Zunino, second baseman Nick Franklin and shortstop Brad Miller were promoted to join a nucleus that includes third baseman Kyle Seager and somewhat improved first baseman Justin Smoak, but the offense is still a long ways from competing and will need help from outside. The pitching, with Felix Hernandez, 2013 breakout Hisashi Iwakuma and top prospect Taijuan Walker on the way, is in better shape, but this team isn’t going to contend anytime soon. While Zduriencik is said to be working toward an extension himself on a contract that expires next year, the high count of ex-Mariner managers suggests McClendon won’t be on a long leash.