The old expression, "Hope springs eternal," should be changed for baseball to, "Spring hopes eternal." It's a new season, a new chapter, a chance for some teams to redeem themselves, a chance for some teams to try to repeat past success and for some teams, a hope that this could be the year that turns the franchise around. For some teams, hopes revolved around players acquired in the off season. For others, there is hope that a rookie will be the real deal and help turn things around. But for six teams and their fans, hope also involves rookie managers. The list includes some that got their feet wet on an interim basis last year: Mike Quade (Cubs), Kirk Gibson (Diamondbacks) and Edwin Rodriguez (Marlins). The other three teams have managers with no MLB experiences: Don Mattingly (Dodgers), Ron Roenicke (Brewers) and John Farrell (Blue Jays).
Sparky Anderson once said that players make the manager and not the other way around. While that is a modest approach and typical of Anderson, he's not entirely correct. The wrong manager in the wrong place doing the wrong things can hurt a team. And the right manager in the right place at the right time can help lift a team a couple of games higher than expected. The Pirates of the last few years would have been a bad team no matter who the manager was, but John Russell was just the wrong guy at the wrong time. The same can be said for the Royals the last few years. Conversely, this writer really believes that the Rays were two or three wins better because Maddon was in the dugout and the Angels overcame funky run differentials because Mike Scioscia wast in their dugout. Can the Fan prove that statistically? Probably not. But just the same.
It's a real mind exercise to project managers that have never managed before. But we can look at some team projections and other situations in those six opportunities to get some sort of feel for what lies ahead for these managers. For some, the pressure will be intense, but for others, expectations are lower. So let's look at the six rookies and see what they may face, starting with the interim-turned-managers. They are listed in no particular order.
Kirk Gibson - Arizona Diamondbacks: The Diamondbacks finished last season with 97 losses. It was a pitiful year which saw the team set a record for strikeouts...but not by the pitchers. They also had one of the worst bullpens in recent memory. Kevin Towers has taken over now and has made strides to improve the team. Strikeout guys like Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche are gone and bullpen help has been added. Kibson took over for A. J. Hinch after the first 79 games and sadly, Gibson's winning percentage was not much higher in his 83 games as the team went 34-49 the rest of the way. The team is projected to lose 87 games in 2011. That's a ten game improvement, but according to projections, the record will still keep the Diamondbacks in last place. The upside for Gibson is that the expectations won't be so high. If the team can improve ten or more games on 2010's season, it will be somewhat of a success. Upton and Drew still have further upside potential and could break out to be superstars this season. The bullpen may not be as much of a craps shoot. The potential downside is that Gibson isn't really Towers' guy as Gibson was already on staff before Towers got there. If the team loses 90 or more games again, Gibson probably won't survive. The pitching staff, while potentially better, has to have a lot go right to succeed. The Fan's Projection: This will be Gibson's only full season in the saddle.
Edwin Rodriguez - Florida Marlins: Edwin Rodriguez took over for Fredi Gonzalez after 70 games. Gonzalez was fired because the team was staying around the .500 level and that wasn't acceptable. Well, Rodriguez finished at 46-46...yup, .500. But that was enough to take the "interim" tag off his name plate and give him the job full up. The Marlins have a lot of upside but a lot of question marks too. They have young talent, an enigmatic shortstop and they lost Dan Uggla's big bat in the middle of the line up. The team is projected to win 84 games this year, which is better than last year and enough to be a pest in the NL East, but not enough to compete for the division or the wildcard. The upside for Rodriguez is that if this team gels and puts together 90 wins, he would look like a genius. And with their young talent, that very well could happen. Logan Morrison, Chris Coglan, and Mike Stanton could all blossom together. Hanley Ramirez is saying all the right things and if he can back it up, he's one of the best players in the league. This team could really take off if the pitching holds up. The dangers for Rodriguez is in being too much of a players' manager. Ramirez certainly needs a firm hand at times as will others. The other danger for Rodriguez is that he could just be a one year stopgap for the Marlins' last year in their old ball park. The Fan's Projection: This will be Rodriguez's only full year with the Marlins. They will hire a bigger name going into their new park in 2012 unless the Marlins break out spectacularly to a 90+ win team.
Mike Quade - Chicago Cubs: None of the other interim-turned-full-scale managers are under the pressure that Mike Quade is under. The Cubs have a large payroll, a long history of not winning the World Series and are a highly supported team in one of the best baseball markets in the world. Faithful Cubs fans want to win so bad, they ache. Quade seemed to make a statement last year that sometimes, a manager can make a difference. The team was moribund under Lou Piniella and were sitting at 51-74 when Quade took over. The team went 24-13 the rest of the way. The projections are for the team to win 80 games in 2011 and come in fourth place in the division. Obviously, the projectionists aren't convinced. Matt Garza joins the rotation, which could help. The obvious pitfalls are the fact that the Cubs are just as poorly constructed personnel-wise as they were last year. They are still stuck with some clunky contracts for guys that haven't been earning their keep of late. And Jim Hendry is not high on the faithful fans' holiday card list. So the GM will be under a lot of pressure as well. Another potential pitfall is that Quade set the bar really high in his 37 games last year. However, if the older players can have good years and if Garza pitches big and Zambrano pitches like he did at the end of 2010, this team could excel and win 90 games. The division is wide open. Perhaps the Cubs will be the Reds of 2011. The Fan's Projection: Quade will survive the year. The team should have no trouble meeting or exceeding the projections and if they can do that, he should be fine. Everyone seems to like the guy.
And now for the rookie rookies:
Don Mattingly - Los Angeles Dodgers: In some ways, Mattingly is in the best situation of all the rookie managers. The ownership of the team has become a circus, everyone knows they don't really have that much money to throw around and the team finished just below .500 last year. So any kind of improvement will be seen as a positive for Mattingly. Of course, his lack of any kind of managing experience will be scrutinized with every move he makes and he is following a legend in Joe Torre. Projections for the team have been optimistic with 87 wins being seen as the expected outcome. That would put the Dodgers three games behind the Giants' projection and in position to compete for the wildcard too. So the upside for Mattingly is all rosy in that if those projections work out, Mattingly's season will be a success. Kemp could bounce back and Ethier could stay healthy all year. The pitching looks fine. The potential pitfall is that Mattingly could make a couple of glaring rookie mistakes that would put his lack of experience under a microscope. The Fan's Projection: Mattingly has a honeymoon year, the team is better than last year and he will be deemed a success.
John Farrell - Toronto Blue Jays: Farrell is also in a no lose situation. The team seems to be focused on the future with the way it is hoarding prospects. And thus, the expectations for this year are not as high. He will also get a lot of benefit from his reputation and the reputation of the organization he came from (Red Sox). The projections are really low for the team too considering they won 85 games last year. They are projected to win only 76 in 2011. This is a little mind-blowing considering the young pitching and the firepower in the line up they have. If Adam Lind and Aaron Hill come closer to their 2009 seasons than their awful 2010 seasons and J. P. Arencibia can take over as the catcher and if Yunel Escobar can live up to his talent, the upsides for Farrell are all over the place. Anything over 81 wins will be seen as a success and a building block to 2012 and 2013. The only pitfall for Farrell is if the team really crumbles and finishes with 90 losses or something. The Fan's Projection: Farrell will be just fine for a fan base that was ready to see Cito Gaston go.
Rick Roenicke - Milwaukee Brewers: Roenicke is the rookie manager on the hot seat. His team went out and got Marcum and Greinke to anchor the rotation and the offense is potent. Projections for the team are for 85 wins and a shot at winning the NL Central crown (tied with the Cardinals). That's a lot to live up to for a rookie manager. The Brewers fully expect to compete in 2011 and it's critical to maintaining the momentum in fan base they have experienced in the last five years. No pressure though. The upside for Roenicke is that Fielder will be playing for a contract no matter what happens in the future. And the Brewers general manager has given Roenicke the tools he needs to compete. The pitfall, of course, would be the very high expectations of the team for 2011. If the team is slow out of the gate and ends up a non-factor, Roenicke's romance with Milwaukee will end quickly. The Fan's projection: The Brewers will compete in 2011 and Roenicke survives his first year as a manager in the bigs.