This might be the "Year of the Pitcher," but it's starting to look more like the "Offseason of Managerial Upheaval."
Free agents Carl Crawford, Cliff Lee, Jayson Werth and Adam Dunn aren't the only men in uniform who'll be making news this winter. Scan the 30 major league rosters, and you'll find an astonishing 14 jobs filled by managers with expiring contracts or 2011 club options that have yet to be exercised. We're talking about some huge, industry standard-bearer, household-type names here.
Right off the top, we'll dispense with one media-fueled drama and assume that Yankees manager Joe Girardi isn't going anywhere unless: (A) the Cubs give him so much money that he can build his own alumni wing at Northwestern University or (B) the Yankees force the issue by cutting corners. We scanned the baseball landscape this week, and one executive after another wondered why Girardi would ever make the move.
"I think the only way he leaves is if the Yankees don't give him what he's worth and wants,'' a National League assistant GM said. "If they decide they're not going to be held hostage and he stiffens his back and looks at Chicago, maybe they put out the call to [Don Mattingly].''
Barring some unforeseen sanity lapse on the part of one of the two parties, the chances of that happening are remote. Girardi is 45 years old and assured of managing a contender every year in the Bronx. At best, he would be taking a major leap of faith and a flyer on sentiment to go home to Chicago. At worst, he'd be committing career suicide.
So if we exclude the Yankees, which teams have the most intriguing managerial storylines? We take a look in this week's installment of Starting 9.
The Cubs' search for Lou Piniella's replacement
What do you get when you combine new ownership with 102 years of championship futility, a tortured fan base and a half-dozen candidates with résumés of all shapes and sizes? The most compelling manager search of the offseason. That's true regardless of whether or not Girardi is in the mix.
Cubs general manager Jim Hendry is refraining from blow-by-blow updates. But he might be the most well-connected GM in the game, and he has a lot of names in his personal file from two decades in pro ball. He's determined not to short-change the process.
"There are no leading candidates,'' Hendry told ESPN.com. "I have a lot of work to do. One of the benefits to Lou retiring is that we can take our time and do an exhaustive search. There's no time frame. And we're completely open-minded.''
Ryne Sandberg, the beloved former Cubs second baseman and Hall of Famer, is the presumptive favorite. He wins points for serving a four-year apprenticeship in the minors, and it can't hurt that new chairman Tom Ricketts is a Cubs diehard with an appreciation for the franchise's history. Hendry will make the call based on his best baseball judgments. But Sandberg's icon status in Chicago is going to present some PR issues for the Cubs if he's bypassed for another candidate.
"If Sandberg doesn't get it, is he going to stay in the organization?'' an AL general manager said. "Probably not. And if he does end up going someplace else and he's good, people will freak out.''
Hendry has already interviewed former Indians manager Eric Wedge and will talk to Nationals coach Pat Listach. Cubs broadcaster Bob Brenly will probably be in the mix, and Hendry is a big admirer of deposed Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez. They have mutual Florida roots and go back a long way.
It would be a mistake to discount Mike Quade, who spent 17 years as a manager in the minors and will guide the Cubs through the rest of the regular season. Quade has 37 games to inject some life in the clubhouse and fashion his own managerial "Rocky" story.
"I scouted him in college,'' said a scout who watched Quade at the University of New Orleans. "He was always the first guy on the field and the last guy off, and he'd go through a brick wall. He's lived his whole life for baseball. I'd love to see him get a job there or somewhere else. I don't know what kind of ability he has as a manager, but I'd hire him as a coach in a second.''
The post-Jerry Manuel Mets
The Mets need to decide if Omar Minaya stays as general manager, if assistant GM John Ricco ascends to the position or if they want to make a run at Kevin Towers or another outside candidate. No matter who the GM is, chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon will make the call on the manager. And the prognosis for Manuel is bleak.
Joe Torre would be an obvious cure-all to what ails the Mets, and his name is rampant in the scouting grapevine. But he might not have the energy for another run in New York, and the Wilpons might not have enough in the budget to spend $4 million-plus on a manager right now. "He would restore some credibility there,'' an NL front-office man said. "But how much does he have left?'' At this point, the Mets might be better served investing their money in some better players.
The Wilpons have an infatuation with the 1986 Mets, and there's some momentum building in the New York media for Wally Backman, manager of the team's Class A Brooklyn farm club, to come to Flushing and kick some tail. It's an idea that sounds better in theory than in practice. Given the flap over Francisco Rodriguez's family-room blowup, how could the Mets justify hiring Backman, who was arrested in 2001 after a fight with his wife and one of her friends and ordered to undergo anger management counseling? Once the initial euphoria from a Backman hiring dies down, think the New York Post might not milk that angle -- or direct readers to Backman's minor league meltdowns making the rounds on YouTube? So much for positive PR.
Other potential in-house candidates: Former Arizona manager-turned-Mets scout Bob Melvin, third base coach Chip Hale and minor league field coordinator Terry Collins. Bobby Valentine would be an interesting choice, but that ship might have already sailed.
Another name to consider: Former Toronto manager and current Royals coach John Gibbons. He led the Blue Jays to three 80-plus win seasons in the stacked AL East before excessively high expectations and run-ins with Shea Hillenbrand and Ted Lilly led to his undoing. Gibbons also played eight games as a backup catcher for the '86 Mets. He's a long shot -- and not a sexy name -- but the Mets could do worse.
"He runs a bullpen incredibly well,'' one AL front-office man said. "He's one of the best in-game managers out there.''
The hunt for Bobby Cox's replacement in Atlanta
Since his arrival in the Braves' dugout in 1990, Cox has done a lot more than make out lineup cards, scratch his head in consternation, get ejected while defending his players and lead the Braves to more than 2,100 victories. He's set the tone for the entire organization. General manager Frank Wren has enough respect for what Cox means to the franchise that he's virtually tabled the succession process until the offseason while the Braves chase a playoff spot.
So who's next in line in Atlanta? Former Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez is at the top of the list. He built a stellar reputation as a minor league manager and big league coach in Atlanta. He would come with Cox's blessing. And the general consensus is that he got the shaft in Florida and deserves another shot.
Terry Pendleton is the other leading candidate. He's a personable guy with good communications skills and gets along well with the Atlanta players and front office. Pendleton's results as a hitting coach have been spotty, and there's some sentiment that he might be better-suited for the manager's role.
The Braves also expect to talk to bullpen coach Eddie Perez and senior adviser Jim Fregosi, who's had a major voice in all the team's big personnel moves for the past decade. Fregosi has an underrated ability to put together and handle a pitching staff, and that's always a plus in a pitching-rich organization like Atlanta's.
Where do the Dodgers go from here?
The Dodgers have been in the news a lot lately, what with Manny Ramirez's departure, daily McCourt divorce updates and agent Dave Stewart springing to the defense of outfielder Matt Kemp. In the meantime, they're fading in the NL West, Torre just turned 70, and best of luck finding anyone who thinks he'll be back in 2011.
For two years, Don Mattingly has been perceived as the Dodgers' manager-in-waiting. But Torre's departure means his principal benefactor is out the door. And people are suddenly taking note that Mattingly, while a terrific person and great baseball man, has no managerial experience.
That's why more attention is starting to focus on Tim Wallach, manager of the Dodgers' Triple-A club in Albuquerque. He played for the Dodgers from 1993 through 1995, won the Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year award last season and is starting to get that future-managerial-star glow about him.
"Without a doubt, he's a top-of-the-line guy,'' a National League scout said. "He's turned out to be a pretty darned good manager, and he's going to get better. I know an awful lot of people there think he should get that job.''
Will Dusty re-up in Cincinnati?
Baker, whose contract is up at the end of the season, recently squashed rumors that he has his eye on the Dodgers' job. Could that change? Sure. But the people who know him take him at his word. He likes it in Cincinnati, and in his three years with the Reds, the team's win total has increased from 74 to 78 to the verge of postseason contention. The minor league system is deep in talent, and the Reds are only going to get better as Jay Bruce, Mike Leake, Aroldis Chapman, et al, continue to mature.
Baker is capable of some head-scratching tactical moves, but his players respond to him and play hard for him. "If you're going to be critical of him for the mistakes that you perceive he makes, you also have to give him credit for where this team is right now,'' long-time Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman said.
The size of Baker's contract is a significant issue. He's in the final year of a three-year, $10.5 million deal, and $3.5 million annually is a lot of coin for a small-market team with the 19th highest attendance and 20th biggest Opening Day payroll in baseball. Owner Bob Castellini made a good call when he hired Baker in 2008. But he also overpaid, and now the Reds are in a box financially.
Sources say that Castellini is more enthused than some of his baseball operations people about bringing back Baker. But there's too much positive karma going on for this union to end. The odds are good that Baker and the Reds reach a compromise on the years and the dollars, and he's back in the dugout in 2011.
Another La Russa watch in St. Louis
One day Tony La Russa is weighing in on the Arizona immigration law. A few months later, he's causing a flap by attending Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally in Washington, D.C., and bringing Albert Pujols along for the ride.
Political distractions aside, there's a weird vibe emanating from St. Louis this season. The Cardinals have faded since the All-Star break because of too many letdowns against inferior competition, and their postseason prospects are getting slimmer by the day. And now La Russa and center fielder Colby Rasmus are slogging their way through a highly publicized failure to communicate.
Author Buzz Bissinger, who collaborated with La Russa on the best-seller "Three Nights in August'' in 2005, has been provided an entertaining play-by-play via Twitter. "Tony has lost interest in baseball. And his team reflects it. No one lasts forever,'' Bissinger recently tweeted, while duly noting that he doesn't speak to La Russa and was merely expressing an opinion.
La Russa, who goes year-to-year on his contract, traditionally sits down with his players and coaches after the season and tries to gauge the clubhouse sentiment. Do the players want him back? Is his message still resonating? It will be interesting to see how La Russa responds if the Cardinals fade this September. Will he take it as a sign that his time has come in St. Louis, or use it as motivational fuel to come back stronger in 2011? La Russa has been down this road before, so everyone in St. Louis knows the drill.
It's wide open in Florida
The good news: The Marlins are hanging around .500. The bad news: It's been a long, minefield-filled summer in Miami -- from the Hanley Ramirez incident and the botched Fredi Gonzalez firing to Bobby Valentine's strange job interview and recent revelations about the Marlins' finances.
Now the Marlins need to pick a manager to lead them through 2011 and into their new ballpark in 2012. It should be an interesting search: The Marlins have about a dozen names under consideration, ranging from older, experienced types (Jim Fregosi and Lee Mazzilli) to young guns (Tampa Bay bench coach Dave Martinez and Arizona bench coach Bo Porter). One NL scout calls Porter an "up-and-coming star.'' San Diego bench coach Ted Simmons, who's experiencing a popularity surge at age 61, is also in the mix.
Believe it or not, the Marlins haven't ruled out Valentine, who was supposedly history as a candidate in Florida after a rocky interview experience in late June. Valentine has always been a favorite of Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, and there are indications that his candidacy for the job can be resurrected.
Edwin Rodriguez, who took over as interim manager in June, is also a candidate. He hasn't hurt his cause by leading the Marlins to a 31-29 record since replacing Gonzalez.
"He runs a game well, he does a good job with the bullpen, and he's got a lot of presence,'' an NL scout said of Rodriguez.
Who follows Cito?
Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos wants to clarify a recent report that he has "200 names'' under consideration to replace outgoing manager Cito Gaston.
After an initial mass sweep of the landscape to get a handle on possible managers and coaches, the Blue Jays quickly culled their list to a much more manageable number. Anthopoulos is 33 years old and doesn't have the same long-term network as Jim Hendry, Ned Colletti and other veteran GMs, so he might have to do a little more upfront leg work.
"We did a scan through the 29 other organizations in the minor and major leagues,'' Anthopoulos said. "And then, in one hour, we were able to eliminate a lot of those names.''
What names remain? Internally, the team is likely to interview coaches Nick Leyva and Brian Butterfield. Gaston has put in a word for Juan Samuel and Don Baylor, and the Jays like what they've seen from Double-A manager Luis Rivera and minor league infield coach Mike Mordecai -- although both men could probably use more time.
If one team in the managerial market is going to act boldly and try to unearth the next Joe Maddon, Toronto looks like the best bet. Ron Roenicke, Randy Ready, Torey Lovullo and other bright, respected candidates in search of an opportunity might want to send in their résumés.
Decision time in the desert
Arizona Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall pulled off a stunner in early July when he fired manager A.J. Hinch and let general Josh Byrnes go with 4˝ years left on his contract. The Diamondbacks were 31-48 at the time, and they're 22-31 under the interim manager-GM tandem of Kirk Gibson and Jerry Dipoto.
Hall plans to interview former Padres GM Kevin Towers and is likely to revisit his old Dodger ties to Kim Ng and Logan White. But Dipoto impressed the upper-level brass by making a flurry of trades and drastically cutting the payroll in late July, and Hall gives the impression that he's fine with the status quo.
"If I have Jerry Dipoto and Kirk Gibson in place in permanent roles at the end of the process, I'm happy,'' Hall said. "Somebody else may blow us away, but I would be fine with both of them in these roles, because they've done a tremendous job and shown they can work well together and they care about this organization. They're both worthy.''
The Diamondbacks strike out too often, need to rebuild the bullpen and could benefit from the presence of a veteran leader or two. Gibson isn't the in-your-face enforcer that he's made out to be, but he has a built-in stature with the players that Hinch struggled to attain.
"He's changed the culture and the environment here,'' Hall said. "There's a lot of accountability and professionalism. He lets the players know what the expectations are and really demands it from them. I'm pulling for Gibby. I hope it works out for him.''
Other teams with potential vacancies
" Seattle: Joey Cora, Bobby Valentine and Ted Simmons are among the names on GM Jack Zduriencik's list, with Cora gaining traction. But he's never managed in the big leagues, and Zduriencik said he would prefer someone with managerial experience. "I'm not going to box myself in,'' Zduriencik said. "But I think [experience] is going to be an important criteria.''
" Oakland: The A's have a chance to finish the season over .500, and they'll exercise manager Bob Geren's 2011 option either in September or after the season. He's safe.
" Texas: The Rangers are on track to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999, and Ron Washington could win AL Manager of the Year. There are some mixed reviews of his performance within the organization, but it's hard to imagine the Rangers not retaining him.
" Milwaukee: The Reds and Padres are playoff-bound on middle-market payrolls. Brewers owner Mark Attanasio isn't happy about it, and manager Ken Macha is almost sure to pay. All the signs point to bench coach Willie Randolph getting the nod.
" Pittsburgh: John Russell doesn't wow anyone with his presence or communications skills. But he's under contract through 2011, and that might help him survive the winter. If the Pirates are going to win 70 games at best next season, do they need to be paying two managers' salaries?