How much difference does a baseball manager make anyway?
It's an age-old question, and it is impossible to accurately quantify. But with the Cubs kicking Dale Sveum to the curb and the White Sox sticking with Robin Ventura after a 99-loss disaster, it's a fair point to consider.
The answer is that the manager still matters an awful lot, even in this era of highly paid, hyper-involved front-office staffs, that are seldom shy about imposing their will.
Whether it's setting a tone to turn around a moribund franchise or making the right moves to get the most out of your roster, success and failure goes through the manager. That was true 50 years ago, and it's still true.
Consider the positive impact that Leo Durocher provided when Phil Wrigley brought him off the blacklist to manage the Cubs in 1966 and the negative impact he had in '69, when the Mets' Gil Hodges wrote the road map for Tony La Russa. But that's really ancient history, isn't it? So, too, is the favor that Jerry Reinsdorf did the A's when he fired La Russa as the White Sox manager, setting the stage for La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan to do great things in Oakland.
But consider the 2013 season.
Would the Pirates be getting ready to host their wild-card game against the Reds on Tuesday night if they hadn't hired Clint Hurdle as manager three years ago? Would the Indians have pulled off their 21-6 September to win a wild-card spot if they hadn't reached out to Terry Francona and his lieutenant, Brad Mills?
Would the Red Sox have rebounded so quickly from the chaos of 2011 and '12 if John Farrell had not returned from Toronto to manage the team he had come to know as the pitching coach? Would the Rays have stayed together for a sixth straight highly competitive season if Joe Maddon wasn't the most loyal manager in the game?
Maybe one or two of those things could have happened with different managers in those four spots. But not all four outcomes would have been the same with different guys in charge. No way. The Pirates and the Indians needed optimism and guys who know talent, and they got that with Hurdle and Francona. Farrell was a badly needed security blanket for players who felt abandoned, and Maddon's creativity and intolerance for excuse-making showed the Rays they were bigger than the big-ticket players who left because the market couldn't support their salaries.
In releasing Dale Sveum with one year left on his contract, Cubs President Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer gave themselves another chance to shop for a great manager.
It could be a quick search if Joe Girardi wants to return to Chicago. But the good news is that there is more than one good choice.
Girardi, who is at the end of his three-year deal, is taking a step back after an ultra-challenging season to decide if he wants to commit himself to guiding the Yankees through the post-Derek Jeter era (when Alex Rodriguez could complicate things with a long goodbye), move into another job elsewhere (the Cubs or possibly the Nationals) or take a year off to recharge his batteries.
Girardi told reporters Sunday that he'll meet with his wife, Kim, and their kids before talking to Yankees GM Brian Cashman, who will offer him an extension to replace the deal that is expiring.
"It's not so much the circumstances, but what's best for my crew," Girardi said.
Former Cubs GM Jim Hendry was wary of Girardi because of reports that he overstepped managerial boundaries in his one year with the Marlins, becoming over-involved in player development and scouting issues. He bypassed him to hire Lou Piniella in 2006, and the move backfired when the Cubs went 0-6 in playoff games against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
Girardi could have been the long-haul manager the Cubs have lacked since Durocher. This is a chance to right that wrong, but it's not imperative to hire someone with managerial experience.
Davey Martinez, Maddon's right-hand man in Tampa Bay, could be a good choice. Here's the assessment of one baseball executive: "Excellent leader, tough, outstanding communicator, bilingual, great work ethic … Cubs have a lot of Hispanic players down the line, especially position players, and need someone to (help turn around Starlin Castro). He could do that … Dave is ready and will be successful.''
Sandy Alomar Jr., who was invaluable as the hold-over bench coach for Francona in Cleveland, generates the same kind of ringing endorsements around baseball. He has spent the last four years as a coach with the Indians and has interviewed for managerial jobs. The White Sox might wish that Ken Williams had hired him instead of the less-experienced Ventura two years ago, but Reinsdorf and first-year GM Rick Hahn seem solidly behind Ventura.
Brad Ausmus, the Dartmouth grad who was something of a manager on the field when the Astros rolled to the World Series in 2005, is a name with a lot of traction in this search. He's as smart on the field as off it, is a strong communicator and was hired by Hoyer to serve as a special assistant with the Padres before Hoyer jumped to the Cubs.
Phil Garner once joked that he had to play Ausmus every day "because if he starts managing, he'll be better than me.'' He's completely unproven, but so was Mike Matheny before he joined the Cardinals two years ago. Maybe Epstein and Hoyer can talk Ausmus into serving as a bench coach for Girardi, Martinez, Alomar or whoever they wind up hiring.
Epstein is wise not to point to the win-loss record as the reason for letting Sveum go. The poor guy and his coaches didn't have a chance, not shuffling 87 players over two seasons. They were doing well if they knew the players' names, let alone their strengths and weaknesses. But there's never a bad time to upgrade, especially not when there's a chance to hire somebody who will do for you what Hurdle did for the Pirates, or maybe even what Maddon has done for the Rays.