The Cincinnati Reds, mired in a 3-15 start to the year, decided to cut ties with their manager Bryan Price and pitching coach Mack Jenkins on Thursday. Price owned a career .419 winning percentage in Cincinnati and was coming off three consecutive ninety loss seasons, finishing in the cellar of the NL East on each occasion. With such an abysmal track record, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he would be the first manager to be ousted this season.
Jim Riggleman, who resigned mid-2011 as manager of the up-and-coming Washington Nationals when his contract option wasn’t exercised, will take over on an interim basis. When I saw the news, I couldn’t help but think that I’d seen this story so many times before—“team hoping to be close to finishing rebuild parts with manager that shepherded piecemeal club through worst years”—and in looking back, I found that I was right. Teams getting closer to their competitive windows have often parted with those managers that weren’t given the personnel that some of their more successful successors were. I have gone back through more recent baseball history and identified some instances of this happening in two types of situations, and will highlight those rare birds that were able to see a rebuild all the way through to fruition.
To quote Led Zeppelin’s Stairway To Heaven: ‘Yes, there are two paths you can go by,’ and our managers’ two paths are first, falling short in the playoffs, or second, that management just determined that they are not the person to lead the reinforced club on the other side of a rebuild.
PATH 1: The team is well constructed, within their competitive window, but hasn’t achieved what management has deemed to be an appropriate amount of postseason success…
Buck Showalter accepted the Yankees managerial job in 1992, taking over a proud franchise that hadn’t been to the playoffs since they dropped the 1981 World Series to the Dodgers in six games. He led a turnaround in his second season in the Bronx, finishing seven games back of the Toronto Blue Jays, who would go on to repeat as World Series Champions. 1994’s strike shortened season saw the Yankees finish 70-43, good enough for tops in the American League, and Showalter was named AL Manager of the year by the BWAA. 1995 saw the team make the playoffs under baseball’s expanded playoff format, but the club would waste a 2-0 series, losing three straight games to the Mariners in Seattle. Following the season, Showalter declined a 2-year/$1M extension from the club, and was thought to be holding out for a third year and to keep his coaching staff as is. Instead, George Steinbrenner decided to move on from Buck, hiring Joe Torre instead. Of course, the Yankees went on to win the division, AL Pennant, and World Series as a certain rookie shortstop led the club with 183 hits in 1996, Torre’s first season as the skipper in the Bronx.
Following his removal as the manager of the Yankees, the only franchise he’d ever been a part of, Showalter was hired as the manager for the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, who were scheduled to begin play in 1998. Showalter’s first year in Arizona was a struggle, as the team limped to a 90-loss season. After an offseason that included acquiring the fearsome Randy Johnson, the 1999 Diamondbacks won 100 games and appeared in the playoffs for the first time in their brief history, losing to the Mets in 4 games on Todd Pratt’s walk off home run. The 2000 Diamondbacks took a step back, winning 85 games on their way to a third place finish in the NL West, and Showalter was shown the door again. Ironically, the 2001 Diamondbacks would defeat the Yankees in one of the most iconic World Series moments ever, as Luis Gonzalez fought off an inside cutter from Mariano Rivera that sailed just over Derek Jeter’s head to win Game
Example 2: Donnie Baseball and the Dodgers
Don Mattingly, who like Buck, had spent his entire major league career with the Yankees, was hired as the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers following Joe Torre’s retirement after the 2010 season. Mattingly led the Dodgers to a winning record in each of his five seasons at the helm of the club, including three straight 90+ win seasons that ended without capturing the NL Pennant, while the rival Giants won two more World Series’. Following the 2015 season, Mattingly and the Dodgers agreed to mutually part ways, despite there being one more year on his contract and achieving the second highest winning percentage by a Dodgers manager in history. Mattingly was replaced by Dave Roberts, who led the Dodgers to Game 7 of the World Series in 2017.
The Tweener Case: Dusty Baker in San Francisco
Dusty Baker’s run in Washington is a case that would clearly fit within this category given their regular season success under him that did not translate to a NL Pennant. This portion is not about that, but rather the interesting case of Baker in San Francisco on his way to his first pennant. In his first season by the Bay, Baker led the Giants to a 103 win season, but the juggernaut Braves won 104 games, and given that this was before MLB’s expanded playoff format and expansion that allowed for six divisions, the Giants were left out of the playoffs. Baker would remain the manager for nine more seasons after this, winning just one playoff game during that time before the Giants would capture the NL Pennant in 2002, then losing to the Anaheim Angels in a World Series decided in seven games. After the 2002 season, the relationship between Baker and management, particularly managing partner Peter Magowan, was simply too frayed. The Giants did not renew Baker’s contract, and hired Felipe Alou instead. The Giants would win 100 games under Alou in 2003, failing to reach the championship series, while Baker and the Cubs would come within 1 game of winning the Northsiders’ first NL Pennant since 1945 before missing the postseason in 2004, 2005, and 2006. Baker’s baseball odyssey would lead him to Cincinnati, where he’d face his old club in the 2012 NLDS. Up 2 games to none on the Giants and heading home to Ohio, the Reds would lose three games in a row at Great American Ballpark. I include this story for no other reason than time is a flat circle, and baseball has so many beautiful narratives interwoven to its fabric.
PATH 2: The club has slogged through a rebuild, and the first wave of top prospects has arrived, with the organization now spending more resources on the Major League club.
Example 1: Rick Renteria’s brief stint in Wrigleyville
Rick Renteria was hired to manage the Cubs in 2014, and the club finished with 73 wins, highlighted by the breakouts of 24 year old Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta, the latter of whom was in his first full season with the club. However, just one week after Joe Maddon opted out of his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, Renteria was fired. Maddon led the Cubs to the NLCS in 2015 before winning one of the greatest World Series’ of all time to clinch the Cubs’ first title in 108 years. Renteria moved on to the Chicago White Sox, taking over as manager in 2017, placing him in an interesting situation going forward, as the White Sox rebuild continues in earnest for the next couple of seasons. It remains to be seen if Renteria will be cut loose as the Southsiders approach their own competitive window.
Example 2: Bo Porter in Houston
After serving on the coaching staffs in Arizona and Washington, Bo Porter was on an upward trajectory. He was a finalist for managerial positions with the Marlins and Pirates in 2010. In September 2012, he was named the new manager of the Houston Astros. The Astros were coming off of two consecutive 100-loss seasons and were actively “tanking,” having dealt the majority of their valuable veterans in an effort to restock their farm system and get younger. This effort continued under Jeff Luhnow, who was hired in December 2011. Porter’s first season in Houston featured some familiar faces like Jose Altuve, Marwin Gonzalez, and Dallas Keuchel, as well as J.D. Martinez. The Astros would release Martinez in March 2014. These Astros might have fared better given how that group of players developed, but in 2013, they finished 51-111. Porter’s 2014 Astros would do better (59-79 under Porter), but he would be let go in September of that year. In 2015, the Astros would hire A.J. Hinch (whom Porter coached under in Arizona) as their manager. With a more complete complement of players that would appear on the 2017 World Champions, including Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Lance McCullers, Jr., the Astros would finish 86-76, losing in the ALDS to the World Champion Royals. After a slight dip in 2016, the Astros would prevail in seven games over the Los Angeles Dodgers to capture the franchise’s first World Series.
Honorable Mention: Terry Collins with the Mets
In 2015, Terry Collins was in the last year of his contract, and the Mets were hovering around the .500 mark nearing the trade deadline. As of late June, club officials were staving off rumors that Collins would be replaced. The team was scuffling offensively and even called up former first round pick Michael Conforto directly from AA, and was eventually able to acquire Cuban phenom Yoenis Cespedes from Detroit at the non-waiver deadline after a trade to acquire Carlos Gomez fell through over medical reports. Cespedes and the stellar pitching rotation led the Mets to the postseason, where Daniel Murphy, a solid offensive second baseman with limited pop (having never hit more than 14 HR in a season) did his best impression of Babe Ruth, hitting 7 home runs in 14 games as the Mets took the pennant before falling to the defending AL Champion Royals in 5 games. Ultimately, the run earned Collins an extension, and he would manage in Queens for two more seasons. I include Collins here to give an example of what could have been…the Mets were talented, surely, but they overachieved and likely bought Collins two more seasons that he would not have had if they had bombed out before the run.
It is within this category that Bryan Price most likely fits, as his team is still outside their contention window, but will be approaching contention sooner than later. Unfortunately, Price will simply be one of a number of competent managers that will never see the other side of the dark tunnel that is rebuilding.
Rare Air and the Changing Atmosphere:
Of course, there are those few that were able to make it all the way through a rebuilding process to see true success on the other side, and these men are current or future Hall of Famers. Men like Tony La Russa in St. Louis, Bruce Bochy in San Francisco, and Jim Leyland in Detroit have been able to go through extensive rebuilds, but they had already had already won World Series or Pennants in prior stops.
The greater point is this: there is a ton of turnover for managers at the Major League level, particularly when things are going poorly, as they often do during rebuilds. Bryan Price was simply another casualty on the way through to the other side of a long rebuild. The Reds clearly felt that they needed to make a change in the clubhouse atmosphere, but until they spend more resources on the Major League club and bring up their top prospects, it is unlikely that the results on the field will change, regardless of who fills out the lineup card.