added 2/27/2005 by Scott Barzilla
Most baseball fans and writers overstate the importance of a manager. Usually, teams are good or bad depending on the talent that is put on the field. When the Brewers, Bucs, and Reds have made managerial changes in recent years it is comical to hear the new skippers ushering in “a new era of intensity” for their teams. Listen, this isn’t football. You don’t “coach people up” or manipulate chemistry to turn the Bengals into a competitor. In baseball, you don’t turn Spam into filet mignon.
That being said, the manager (and GM) have a profound impact on who is going to be on the team. So, it could be argued that Spring Training and picking a 25 man roster is the most important job a manager has. After all, if the manager picks the wrong guys he can play all the mental chess he wants, but he’ll be playing with a board full of pawns while the other side has kings and queens. This brings to mind the first question we should make coming into the season.
Who’s calling the shots?
This is not as easy a question as it seems. In years past, Gerry Hunsicker was clearly in control of the ship. Around baseball, you can see numerous examples of decision making models ranging from strong-minded managers like Tony La Russa, Dusty Baker, and even Joe Torre. On the other side of the spectrum you have managers like Ken Macha. I think most fans wonder why Billy Beane doesn’t just end this charade and name himself manager.
Since Phil Garner and Tim Purpura are new it remains to be seen where the decision-making will fall, but the guess is that it will be collaborative effort. This is where we need to get inside the head of each man. We can only do that by looking at their individual situations and history.
Purpura was known as a young players supporter when he was the assistant to Gerry Hunsicker. Considering that he has done very little this off-season, he has a lot at stake this Spring. He’s hoping that some key young guys step up and contribute. If Purpura has his way I’d expect Willy Taveras and Ezekial Astacio to get every opportunity to come through. Then again, maybe Garner will be in charge.
Garner’s position is understandable for two reasons. First, he came from two situations in Detroit and Milwaukee where young players were always thrust into the fore. He decided to manage again because he had a chance to compete. Garner is logically going to prefer veterans because they give him the best immediate hope. Garner is not in this for the long haul. General managers traditionally last longer than managers and both men are at different points in their career. Garner sees Bagwell, Biggio, and Clemens near retirement and wants to take advantage.
So, which man’s view will win? This is one of the burning questions of the Spring, but it probably won’t be a primary question. That being said, that thought process will permeate every decision these two men make this Spring. Spring Training games begin in less than a week, so let’s look at some other burning questions.
How important are Spring Training games?
This one is the real kicker. Every spring there are players on every team that jump out and hit a ridiculous number of home runs or strike out hitters hand over fist. These performances are important and deserve attention, but it brings to mind a couple of burning questions. Who did these players face when they dominated? How many big leaguers were in the lineup? It’s fun to watch a hot prospect dominate a B game, but is striking out ten A ball hitters or hitting two home runs against the journeyman minor league pitcher that impressive?
However, some teams consider the pressure level even more than the level of opponent. Players are naturally more nervous in their September call ups and during the other five months than they are in March. So, is a March hot streak going to translate when the chips are down and everything counts?
For the Astros, this is important with the open fifth starter slot, the open bullpen spots, and in centerfield. Willy Taveras hasn’t done anything at the big level, so should Jason Lane have a natural advantage? Of course, factors like talent and future projections play into this decision, but they always do with any decision. If Taveras hits over .300 will he have the job based on that or will the club consider lack of experience?
This gets even more convoluted when we look at the pitching openings. Pete Munro has the best numbers out of any of the starter candidates (from 2004), but he has the least amount of physical talent. Munro has been a steady performer during the season, but the talent of a Redding or even Duckworth is so alluring. Then, you have the promise of Carlos Hernandez and Astacio. Those guys haven’t had any recent success at the big league level, but they have even more upside than Redding and Duckworth (Hernandez if he lets it loose). I don’t want to exaggerate the point, but this decision could be the key to the 2005 season. Of course, this decision has one other important factor to consider.
What about Options?
This is when Spring decisions get really interesting. Tim Redding, Pete Munro, and Brandon Duckworth are out of options. That means that if they don’t make the team they must be traded or put on waivers. Meanwhile, Hernandez and Astacio can still be sent back down to Round Rock for more seasoning. Therefore, do you give these three guys an extra push when push comes to shove?
There are two different compelling thoughts on this issue. The first is that pitching is a finite resource and a team should not give up any good arms freely. If you keep them at the big level it is very likely that the other two will get the call at some point. Most teams use eight, nine, and ten starters at some point in the season. Even if it’s a spot start or two you really hamstring yourself in a close race if you let those three go and have to dip into the next tier of minor leaguers.
The other school of thought is that you should put your best team on the field. Redding and Duckworth have had two decent seasons between them in their entire career. Redding doesn’t want to go to the bullpen and Duckworth hasn’t done well in the bullpen. Munro could easily fit either place, but what happens if Astacio outpitches the other two? Is it fair to him to send him down when he is clearly better? While having a good depth of starters is good to have in a close race, having a good starting five initially is as well.
If the Astros have a favorite they aren’t saying it. I think we can bet money on Munro making the staff in some capacity, but the other four starting candidates are even money. It could come down to options. In that case, it will be very interesting to see how the club proceeds.
Last Bench Spots
This falls pretty low on the importance chart. However, it is always interesting to see where managers and GMs fall on this issue. Do you carry a third catcher? Do you carry a pinch runner? Do you carry that extra utility guy that can play everywhere? Do you include a seventh reliever? All of these views have their advantages and disadvantages.
For the Astros, I think we can eliminate the first two for this particular season, but the question of carrying seven relievers has to be raised. John Franco is nothing but a one or two out pitcher and the starting staff could be shaky. On the other hand, having a guy that can play in the infield and outfield is something nice to have with Lance Berkman recovering from surgery.
In the end, all of these questions are interesting and more important than many fans think. When someone asks during the season why the manager didn’t bring a certain pinch hitter, runner, or defensive replacement they can look to the Spring to see if the club chose to carry that extra guy. The same is true for pitching changes. Sometimes you can’t bring John Franco into the game in the fifth to face Bonds. This is especially true if you only have one lefty. Those decisions are important, but they stem from what happens in March.
Scott Barzilla is the author of “Checks and Imbalances” and The “State of Baseball Management.”