Potential bench clearings

Several managers could get a quick hook next season after the Marlins showed what an early shakeup can produce.

Originally Published: January 29, 2004
By Phil Rogers | Special to ESPN.com

Jack McKeon's success with a team inherited in May was great for sportswriters, South Florida's baseball future and, well, Jack McKeon. For managers of 29 other major-league teams, however, it might not have sent a great message.

By winning the World Series after McKeon took over for Jeff Torborg, the Florida Marlins reminded general managers of something they seemed to have forgotten -- that good things can happen after switching horses in midstream.

There was a time when it was a common strategy two decades ago.

If you include those goofy mini-playoffs in the strike season of 1981, then five of a possible 16 playoff spots were captured by teams that had made midseason managerial changes from '81 through '83. That includes a Yankees team that went to the World Series under Bob Lemon after canning Gene Michael and a pennant-winning team in Milwaukee that became Harvey's Wallbangers after a 23-24 start under Buck Rodgers.

But during the 1990s, with an expanded playoff format in place for much of the time, no team won a division after a midseason change. The Dodgers did get a wild-card spot after Bill Russell replaced Tommy Lasorda in 1996, but that was it.

Will McKeon's magic be the resurgence of an old trend? It's hard to say, but there is no shortage of experienced managers who are under pressure to deliver playoff teams in 2004. Among those who might not be around in September:

Jimy Williams, Astros
Jimy Williams For starters, he's lucky to still have his job, and he knows it. Now he has the good fortune of having Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens in a starting rotation that doesn't have room for Jeriome Robertson, who led the staff with 15 wins last year. With Phil Garner and Don Baylor available, it's hard to see Williams surviving if the Astros misfire in the first half. This is a bull-headed man who won't admit the modern manager's job is more than calling hit-and-runs and burning out your bullpen. His 2003 team ran out of steam in September, largely because his best relievers could no longer brush their teeth, and finished one game behind the Cubs. He doesn't see the season as a failure, as does owner Drayton McLane and most Houston fans. "It's how you guys use your adjectives,'' Williams said. "With seven games left, we had the lead. It's not like we were trying to catch the Cubs. We just didn't win and they won.'' He's managed second-place teams the last six years in a row -- four in Boston, two in Houston. The Red Sox went into the playoffs as wild cards in 1998 and '99 but he's unsuccessfully contended since then. Pythagorean standings, which measure a team's wins vs. what would be expected given the difference between runs scored and allowed, aren't kind to Williams. They show that his teams have underachieved in all but one of his 11 years as a manager in Toronto, Boston and Houston. That includes a shortage of seven wins in 2003. Ouch.
Jim Tracy, Dodgers
Jim Tracy Like Williams and Larry Bowa in Philadelphia, Tracy received a reprieve after a disappointing 2003 season. For the second year in a row, the Dodgers had the best pitching in baseball but wasted it with an appalling lack of run production. It's hard to fault Tracy for the lack of success this franchise has had since the end of Tommy Lasorda's run. He wasn't the one who acquired the likes of Todd Hundley, Fred McGriff, Daryle Ward, Jeromy Burnitz and Rickey Henderson a year ago. Tracy runs a nice game, as is reflected by the Pythagorean standings. His three Los Angeles teams have finished +4, +3 and +2. Joe Torre is the only other major-league manager who enters 2004 having produced more victories than projected over the last three years. But this is Tracy's fourth year on the job. That's a significant number for the Dodgers. Their last manager to last four seasons without having taken his team to the playoffs was Bill Dahlen, who got canned after finishing 34½ games behind John McGraw's Giants in 1913. Tracy, who is in the last year of his contract, should have fewer headaches with Kevin Brown in New York. But, with his hands tied, GM Dan Evans has yet to make a high-profile addition to the lineup. It's hard to say how the Fox sale will impact Tracy. But new ownership is almost never a good thing for holdovers who haven't experienced recent success.

Larry Bowa, Phillies
Larry Bowa Baseball's most combative manager has enjoyed professional immunity under GM Ed Wade. That could end if Bowa winds up having to stem another rebellion in spring training or during the first half of the season. There will be a great deal of focus on Bowa after Wade added Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell and Eric Milton to the pitching staff as the Phillies move into Citizens Bank Park. The National League East seems eminently winnable for some team other than Atlanta, as it did a year ago. But Bowa has not proven himself to be the right man for the job. The addition of Kevin Millwood, Jim Thome and David Bell only led to an increase of six victories from 2000, when the Phillies had a losing record. The 86 wins matched the most ever for a team managed by Bowa, whose lifetime record is 27 games under .500. In his defense, he inherited bad teams in Philadelphia and San Diego. But this team should be very good. If it is not, Bowa will pay the price.

Joe Torre, Yankees
Joe Torre This should be farfetched, but it's not. After all, owner George Steinbrenner is running the organization the way he used to back in the old days, when managers were considered almost as disposal as resin bags. Steinbrenner is already smarting from the World Series loss to Florida, which made it three years in a row that a Torre-led team finished short of its ultimate goal. Imagine how steamed Steinbrenner will be if the improved Boston Red Sox jump to a lead in the AL East while he's on the hook for $175 million on salaries and another $75 million or so in revenue sharing and luxury tax. Torre will have his hands full winning again without Pettitte, Clemens and David Wells, who won 53 of the 96 games they started last season. The rebuilt rotation could be all right, but Torre could be faced with plenty of holes after Mike Mussina, Javier Vazquez and Brown. Gary Sheffield and Kenny Lofton don't seem like the best matches for New York, either. If the Yankees fail to hang with Boston, they could miss the playoffs altogether. Wild-card competition figures to be intense with three strong teams out west.

Tony La Russa, Cardinals
Tony La Russa Like Torre, it doesn't seem right for La Russa to have to worry about his job. His knowledge and his passion are unmatched in the dugout. He's won four division titles in his eight years with the Cardinals, including one in 2002, but he hasn't fulfilled his mission of getting them into the World Series. That's the measuring stick in St. Louis. The current 16-season Series drought is the franchise's longest since the gap between 1948 and '64. Eight different teams have won National League pennants since Whitey Herzog brought the last one to St. Louis. While La Russa's last four teams have averaged 93 victories, they were 10-11 in the playoffs. The 2003 team had arguably the best lineup in the NL, but lacked the pitching depth to make the postseason. A repeat may be in store in '04. Both the Cubs and Astros have improved this winter, but commitments to Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols left GM Walt Jocketty without the resources to add other front-line players. He's betting that La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan can get good years from Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan and Chris Carpenter. If La Russa doesn't find a way to beat the odds, the restless natives could turn on him.

Buck Showalter, Rangers
Buck Showalter Sure, this is only his second season in Texas. But doesn't owner Tom Hicks have to catch on to the failings of GM John Hart at some point? Hart has managed to take a tough situation and make it significantly worse. His replacement is in place in scouting director Grady Fuson, who helped Billy Beane turn the Oakland Athletics into a force. And if Hart is forced out, will Fuson or another replacement want a high-maintenance manager like Showalter or a Grady Little, pure-baseball, type? Alex Rodriguez, anxious to rebuild his own image, will probably do all he can this spring to defuse his feud with Showalter, but under pressure the cracks in the relationship could turn into a chasm. Rodriguez has had Hicks' ear in the past. With Rafael Palmeiro gone and a steady diet of Anaheim, Oakland and Seattle, it's possible this will be the worst season yet for the Rangers, who have a .444 winning percentage in three seasons since signing Rodriguez. Showalter might have gotten himself into a no-win situation.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.