Thursday, March 22, 2012

Buck Showalter meets his Waterloo

No one can exactly determine the benefit or harm a baseball manager brings to his team. The oft-trotted out discourses are the chemistry, organization, inspiration sides of what a manager does. But how to you measure that? You can't. Fairly or unfairly, a manager is judged by the bottom line of wins and losses. If his team wins, the manager gets to hang around. If it loses, he's soon replaced. Some managers are known for the long-term stability they bring to a team like Tommy Lasorda, Bobby Cox and others. Some are known for changing teams, changing the culture and bringing new-found success. Billy Martin comes to mind. Some did both such as Tony La Russa. Buck Showalter is in the Billy Martin category. That is until he met his Waterloo in Baltimore.

Showalter's hiring in Baltimore to lead the Orioles was seen as brilliant coup by the organization. And the honeymoon of 2010 when he took over a ragtag bunch and led them the rest of the way to a nearly .600 winning percentage was the stuff of legends. Showalter had done it again after previous experiences of helping build the Yankees to their first playoff berth in years back in 1995. He was considered one of the architects of the Yankee glory years that followed. He followed that up by piloting the Arizona Diamondbacks as a new franchise back in 1998 and had them in the playoffs with a 100-win season just a year later. His 91-game run as the Orioles' skipper in 2010 seemed to cement his reputation as a re-builder of lost dreams. And then 2011 happened.

Unlike Showalter's last miracles, 2010 ended up as a mirage. The full weight of a strangled organization came tumbling around his ankles like a pair of old trousers in 2011 and the team was abysmal. To be fair, Showalter would have needed a hundred fingers to plug the water of runs that poked holes in the 2011 dike that was the Baltimore Orioles. The team simply could not prevent runs if their lives depended on it. The team was dead last in runs allowed, home runs hit and hits in general. And that wasn't their only problem.

Poor old Vladimir Guerrero and his aching wheels were just a semblance of his former self and he walked only seventeen times in 590 plate appearances. Mark Reynolds struck out another 196 times and played some of the poorest third base seen in this generation. Injuries to Brian Roberts and Luke Scott didn't help nor did a revolving door of replacement players like Felix Pie, Jake Fox and Josh Bell. 

There were some bright spots. J.J. Hardy had been discarded by two different organizations and found himself near the top of a weak MLB cast of shortstops. Nick Markakis had a solid season, Matt Wieters started to show why he was such a highly touted prospect behind the plate and Jim Johnson was yeoman in the bullpen. But they weren't enough.

Many look at the front office of the Orioles past and present and can't see any kind of solid plan taking shape. The team has an owner with the reputation of sticking his hands in the pie and defeating the process. A once proud franchise has fallen on hard times and their new neighbors, the Nationals, have a chance of eating into the fan base.

Where does Showalter fit into all of this? He doesn't. He's just a tired, old guy who has taken to randomly taking verbal shots at the AL East competition. Perhaps that's harsh. In fact, it is harsh. He did rouse his bunch to knock off the Red Sox last September. You have to give him his share of credit for the improvement and belief in Hardy and Wieters. He simply doesn't have enough horses and there isn't much rising help underneath the major league level to come and lift them.

Will 2012 be any better for Showalter and his Orioles? Perhaps just a little. They have pitched well in Spring Training, but the projected rotation of two unproven Japanese imports, two former pitching prospects that have had trouble mastering the majors and Jason Hammel do not provide much hope that this year's rotation will be any better than the last. Brian Roberts is still in limbo. The bullpen, led by Johnson could be decent but is suspect at the back end with Alfredo Simon and Pedro Strop. All in all, the Baseball Prospectus prediction of 73 wins seems downright giddy.

Buck Showalter, former franchise savior, has met his match in this scenario. His reputation has met its Waterloo. You have to wonder if in the back of Showalter's mind, he wishes he had stayed at ESPN.

1 comment:

Michael Jawitz, AKA: Grubby Glove said...

Thanks for another great post, William. I find myself feeling badly for Buck Showalter after reading this. I think he's up to the challenge, but he has too few tools to work with as you mentioned. The current state of affairs is a shame for the city of Baltimore, especially when you consider that beautiful ball park and a motivated fan base.