Saturday, June 21, 2008

I Am John McLaren of Clan McLaren, And I Am Immortal

Then again, maybe not.

It’s the silly season for managers, the time when GMs of fading teams recall the adage “you don’t have to outrun the wolf if you can throw someone out of the sleigh”. Managerial firings several purposes. If a GM’s feeling the heat, he can throw the manager overboard to distract attention from his performance. If the team is a no-hoper, then the shift in managers might distract fan attention away from the dismal, Willie Bloomquist-flavored product on the field. And if the team is underperforming, swapping out managers might actually jump-start the team by adding a little motivation, or replacing the last guy’s lousy player usage patterns with better ones.

(For all you anti-sabermetrics folks out there “player usage pattern” is a fancy way of saying “who plays and where”. It’s all very mathy, you know.)
There were three casualties this week, a rather high body count for in-season. Willie Randolph went first, and one can’t help but feel that Omar Minaya did it as a panic move to save his own job. Ordinarily, this would be a classic “shake up the underperformers” firing, except for two things: One, Jerry Manuel’s managing style is a lot like Willie’s, and two, there’s not a lot of shaking up that can be done on this team. There was no depth before injuries hit, and now, well, the bench talent is beyond risible. You can’t threaten to sit guys down unless their proposed replacements would be replacement level for the New Orleans Zephyrs. The Mets can’t afford to shake things up by, say, sitting Jose Reyes, not when the alternative is running Damion Easley out there day after day. No, the only reason this move was made was to buy Omar Minaya a little time for his expensive, aging bats and thin rotation to find themselves before the hammer comes down again.

John McLaren, on the other hand, was a no-hoper filing. In theory the Mariners were supposed to be contenders this year, but that’s a non-starter. By now, this team wouldn’t voom if you put four million volts through it, and changing the guy who writes the lineup card isn’t going to do much to change that. A new manager can’t catch the ball for Raul Ibanez, can’t move Jarrod Washburn’s fastballs off Broadway, can’t magically inject 300 points of OPS into Kenji Jojima’s line. Mind you, McLaren didn’t exactly cover himself with glory. The game I attended at Safeco featured Willie the Wonder Bloomquist batting second, and Miguel Cairo at first base – think about that for a minute. Miguel Cairo, light-hitting second baseman, at first base –which is like taking six outs, wrapping them up with a nice frilly bow, and mailing it to the other team with a card asking if they’ll be Howard Lincoln’s valentine. McLaren’s ouster, like that of his boss, was designed to tell the fan base “we’re making changes. Really, we are. Pay no attention to the washed-up catcher behind the curtain.” They’re not going to be good the rest of the way, but hey, at least they’ll be different.

And then there’s John Gibbons. This is a combo platter. I won’t go out there and say that J.P. Ricciardi’s bizarre anti-Adam Dunn rant inspired the firing, but stranger and less suspicious things have happened in Diebold voting machines. Ricciardi certainly needed a story to take the public’s eye off his refusal to consider adding exactly the sort of power bat the Jays desperately need, and replacing Gibbons with franchise hero Gaston certainly did the trick. For another, he can’t trade the players. They’re not that good. There’s nobody on that team who’s got obvious upside, and they’re all playing…all right. A little above average. If Ricciardi were a fantasy baseball manager, he’d be the sort who comes in seventh out of ten every year because he stocks his roster with guys who do a little bit of everything and nothing really well. The fact that they don’t have a particular outstanding skill means that there’s no room for obvious and huge immediate improvement. It also means that none of their players, excuse the Roy Halladay, are particularly appealing on the trade market. They’ve got little to offer, which means they’ll get little back, which means there’s little point to making a trade. So the only thing that can be shaken up is the manager’s seat, which is why John Gibbons is now scrounging cardboard boxes from around the Jays’ clubhouse to put his bobblehead collection in.

The problem with firings like that, however, is that they’re widely recognized as the last act of a desperate GM. There are no more excuses and no more sacrificial lambs. They built these teams, they put their guy in the dugout, and they made the midseason move that some would say matters. If they can’t put together a winning team after doing that, the logic then suggests that they may have been the real problem.

And that’s when John Gibbons calls up J.P. Ricciardi and asks if he needs to borrow any cardboard boxes.
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