This is the time of year when baseball owners get very restless, and then angry about their team’s fortunes. Empty seats make for hot seats, and with the finish line nearing, those GMs whose teams are already out of it or in jeopardy of not living up to the owner’s expectations are going to have some ‘splainin’ to do.
On Friday, the Seattle Mariners, many pundits’ preseason favorites to win the AL West, fired GM Jack Zduriencik with the team in fifth place at 10 games under .500 despite the highest payroll ($123 million) in their history. Already we have seen Detroit’s Mike Ilitch sever ties with his longtime, highly respected team president Dave Dombrowski, which in turn led to the Red Sox jettisoning their four-year GM Ben Cherington. And while Walt Jocketty is not in any danger of being fired in Cincinnati, Reds owner Bob Castellini, after watching his team fall into last place in the NL Central with 12 losses in their last 13 games going into the weekend, only heightened the speculation that Reds Hall-of-Fame icon Barry Larkin will be brought in as manager when he vented to reporters about his team’s play. “I can’t think of any worse time in the 10 years we’ve owned the team,” Castellini said. He went on to say he was “absolutely” frustrated, and when asked about manager Bryan Price, his response was: “You look at everything after the season. That’s not something we’re going to get into now.”
Before we get to the Phillies’ Ruben Amaro Jr., Washington’s Mike Rizzo and San Diego’s A.J. Preller, there are a couple of “what if?” scenarios that also need to be examined.
What if the Yankees don’t win the AL East or — gulp! — even the wild card? Should that happen, presumably because the Yankee veterans continue to wilt down the stretch, you can’t blame Brian Cashman for not making any trades at the deadline. At the time, the only real upgrade anyone thought the Yankees could use was another top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, the best of whom were rentals, David Price, Johnny Cueto and Scott Kazmir, or Cole Hamels (with $76 million left on this contract) that would’ve all required Cashman surrendering his own top pitching prospect, Luis Severino. (In Price’s case, Cashman never even got to make an offer to Detroit.) Conversely, were it not for Cashman’s trades last winter — Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius, Martin Prado for Nathan Eovaldi, Manny Banuelos for Chasen Shreve (all of which were highly questioned) — there’s no telling if the Yankees would even be where they are now. If there’s any ‘splainin’ Cashman might need to do, it’s likely to be a little further down the road — the decision to give Jacoby Ellsbury that break-the-market, seven-year, $153 million contract. The only answer he can give for that was the failure of the Yankee farm system under Mark Newman to develop any frontline All-Star caliber position players since Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada.
And what if the Dodgers, with their $300 million payroll, somehow miss the postseason — or if they somehow don’t make it out of the first round despite having Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke pitching Games 1 & 2? If either happens, Don Mattingly will most surely be fired as manager, but president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman will also have a lot of ‘splainin’ to do. Like why, with all his money and prospect resources, didn’t he adequately address the Dodgers’ biggest needs at the deadline — a frontline starting pitcher a la Price or Hamels, and bullpen help for closer Kenley Jansen, instead settling for mediocrities in Alex Wood, Mat Latos and Jim Johnson? And why didn’t he send struggling rookie Joc Pederson back to Triple-A to work on making hitting adjustments and regaining his confidence instead of continuing to force-feed him, hopelessly overmatched, in the majors? And lastly, what was he thinking giving oft-injured Brandon McCarthy four years and $48 million last winter, and why is $87.5 million of that $300M payroll being paid to guys who no longer play for the Dodgers?
In the case of the Nationals’ Rizzo, it’s no longer a “what if?” scenario regarding his team living up to expectations. That’s already been established, and barring a catastrophic collapse on the Mets’ part, Rizzo is going to have to ‘splain’ to his owner, Ted Lerner, his unwavering confidence in manager Matt Williams. When he hired Williams, despite no previous managerial experience outside the Arizona Fall League and entrusted him with a team that was ready to win, Rizzo admitted that one of the biggest factors was that Williams was a friend. Williams should have been on a short leash this year after blowing the division series (and losing the players’ confidence) by removing Jordan Zimmermann with one out to go in Game 2 last season. And when the Nationals, after getting most of their injured players back, began imploding in August (6-15 from July 31-Aug. 21), it cried out for new leadership, but Rizzo stubbornly expressed full confidence in Williams.
Similarly, Preller, in his rookie GM season, has a lot of ‘splainin’ to do to his boss, Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler, for his series of what now must be considered ill-conceived, reckless trades for, among others, Matt Kemp, Justin and Melvin Upton, Wil Myers, Derek Norris and Will Middlebrooks that gutted the farm system and raised the payroll some $37 million to a team record $126M — all for a team that has been under .500 most of the season.
While neither Preller nor Rizzo is in danger of losing his job, the same cannot be said for Amaro, whose contract is up and is not likely to be renewed by new team president Andy MacPhail, who’s probably going to want his own man as GM. That said, Amaro doesn’t deserve the entire blame for the Phillies’ descent from five straight NL East championships (2007-2011) to one of the worst teams in baseball these past two seasons. It was just as much former president Dave Montgomery who insisted the Phillies hold on to their fading veterans, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Cliff Lee et al, rather than jump-starting the rebuilding process. And Amaro deserves credit for remaining patient and steadfast in his season-long trade talks for Hamels — with the Yankees, for instance, he never came off Severino and either Aaron Judge or Greg Bird — before finally extracting what most scouts contend was a primo-prospect return package from Texas in righthanders Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, Jerad Eickoff and outfielder Nick Williams. Assuming Amaro does go, the question is whether MacPhail makes it a clean sweep by replacing interim manager Pete Mackanin as well. This is the third time Mackanin, 63, has been asked to step in as an interim manager, and like his previous stint, with the Reds, who went 41-39 with five series sweeps under his direction in 2007, the Phillies have played with much more grit and enthusiasm than they did under Ryne Sandberg. Mackanin deserved to keep the Reds job in 2007 but lost out because the owner, Castellini, wanted a bigger name in Dusty Baker. At least for Mackanin’s sake, after the Sandberg experience, that shouldn’t be the case with the Phillies.