Experience Or Youth?

added 10/25/2009 by Bob Hulsey

The remaining candidates for the Astros' managerial job have a wide range in one key sense - experience - that may reveal what the ownership and front office thinks is the proper direction for the ballclub. Experience, however, also has a counter-balance. With it, comes age and a nearness to retirement.

Example A is Phil Garner. He's the "been there, done that" person in this equation. He knows the Astros' organization about as well as anyone. He led them to their only postseason series victories not that long ago, although most of the players he led then are gone now.

He has had three big league managing jobs that covered all or part of 15 seasons. He's been in the playoffs. He's been to the World Series. He's aware of all the little tricks and quirks that happen on the baseball field and he knows what the conventional wisdom says to do in practically any situation and even when not to follow "the book".

But Phil Garner will be 61 years old early in the 2010 campaign and may not be willing to put up with the stress and the grind of managing but for a couple of years.

Brad Mills is on the other end of the spectrum. He had a brief four seasons in the big leagues, mostly as a reserve infielder. He has, however, stayed in the game ever since and has worked his way through the minors to now become a trusted coach under Terry Francona, who knew General Manager Ed Wade when both were in Philadelphia.

Mills has never managed at the major league level - the same as both Astros managers since Garner was fired in 2007. Cecil Cooper had never managed in the big leagues until he was given Garner's job and, at times, his inexperience showed.

Mills might suffer from the same problems as Cooper or he might be a far better replacement. Who's to say? But Mills will be 53 years old when the new season begins and, if he turns out to be a great manager, could potentially stay in Houston for a dozen years. It should be noted, however, that few big league managers taste their greatest success with the first team they skipper. It often takes getting fired a time or two before they reach the top.

Which is why the Astros might go with Manny Acta. Unlike the other two, Acta never reached the majors as a player. That gave him a head start when it came to coaching and it led to his first big league helm with the Washington Nationals in 2007 at the age of 38, an age when some recent Astros were still playing ball.

Acta earned plaudits when he led the Nats to a surprising 73-89 record and a fourth-place finish in his first year. His team backslid, however, in 2008 then he was fired midway through the 2009 season. The Nationals never had the resources to be a winning team but his club also showed no improvement under him after his first season. How much was Acta responsible for the slide or was he just a victim of circumstance?

The Dominican-born Acta can better communicate with Hispanic players and young players. He'll be only 41 when next season begins. He'll have better resources in Houston than he had in D.C. but he may have to show some patience as the team sheds veterans and acquires more youth in an effort to trim payroll.

That's why I believe the decision the Astros make will be a window on how they perceive their own future. If Wade and McLane continue in the "win now" mode that they've been on, Garner is the obvious choice. But Garner's tenure is almost sure to be a short one and, win or lose, the Astros will find themselves in the same boat a few years from now if they go in that direction. Garner, too, may lose patience with teams that aren't as talented as the ones he had in 2004-05.

If they go with Mills, they are simply taking a chance on the unknown. But if they hit a home run with that hiring, Mills will be around for possibly a long while.

If they choose Acta, I think it shows they understand that they have to think long term and be patient while a new generation of stars rise up through the minors. They'll be willing to let Acta suffer through a rough year or two while they rebuild.

If Acta weathers that storm and turns into an outstanding manager, he could become the sort of institution that men like Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Walter Alston were - folks who stay in one place for a decade or more of success.

That's a lot of "ifs" that are right now accompanied by "don't knows".

It was once said that "managers are hired to be fired" and they are often the scapegoat for a bad season caused by bad plays and bad players more than bad managing. It is harder today for managers to keep their jobs on a losing team and McLane has not shown much patience for losing during his tenure as the Astros' owner. One thing for certain about any of the candidates is that they'll probably get fired someday if they get the Astros' job.

George Bernard Shaw also famously said "Youth is wasted on the young." Just as talented kids are sometimes bested by crafty veterans out on the field, wise managers often get the better of younger skippers. However, the kids always have energy and upside in their favor. Their futures are still being written rather than kept in dusty scrapbooks or fading videos.

Will the Astros choose the crafty veteran with a wealth of experience, the young guy who is getting his second chance or take a flyer on the wild card who has no track record but the hope of potential?

McLane, at one time or another, has hired all three. So your guess is as good as mine. Whoever is chosen, I hope he quickly shows he is up to the challenge.