One year ago, I staunchly defended Joe Torre, proclaiming the seemingly impending decision to fire him and replace him with Lou Piniella as borderline ridiculous. Given that position, some readers might find it strange that I’m now calling for a change at the Yankees’ managerial helm.
So what has happened in the last 365 days to make me alter my opinion? Principally, a third straight defeat in the opening round of the postseason, with the Yankees once again losing to a beatable American League opponent. It’s not that any one or two strategic maneuvers by Torre resulted in them losing, but rather, it was the generally poor tenor of the team’s play. The Yankees didn’t play aggressively, failing to take chances against Victor Martinez, who has had a checkered career when it comes to throwing out baserunners. They once again lacked any killer instinct, failing to hit in the clutch against C.C. Sabathia in Game One and failing to tack on a second run against Fausto Carmona in Game Two. Again, these aren’t necessarily errors on the part of the manager, but they have become part of a trend of ineffectual play for the Yankees in the postseason, dating back to those final four games against the Red Sox in 2004. The Yankees just don’t seem to come to the postseason prepared the way they used to be. After awhile, the manager has to be accountable, at least in part, for a dreadful record of 4-13 in the team’s last 17 postseason games.
There were tactical mistakes, too, that may not have lost the series on their own, but certainly didn’t help matters. Torre should have called upon Phil Hughes as his first reliever in Game One, once it became apparent that Chien-Ming Wang couldn’t direct his sinker downward. Instead, Torre turned to the less experienced Ross Ohlendorf, essentially putting up a white flag on a game that was still in question. In Game Three, Torre didn’t need to put Joba Chamberlain in for a two-inning stint, not with a five-run lead. (Torre and the coaches also looked disjointed as they frantically waved their arms toward Robinson Cano, whom they apparently wanted to relay a message to the bullpen.) That misjudgment ultimately didn’t cost the Yankees, since Chamberlain wasn’t needed in Game Four, but imagine if the Yankees had held a one-run lead going into the seventh with a tiring starter on the mound? How would Chamberlain have responded to pitching back-to-back days after throwing 38 pitches? Torre also blundered in Game Four, when he failed to pinch-hit for Doug Mientkiewicz after Wang had been knocked out. Minky was playing only because of Wang’s groundball tendencies; once Wang went to the showers, the Yankees needed to immediately switch to a better bat, like that of Jason Giambi’s, to attempt a comeback against Cleveland. Instead, Torre stayed with Minky until the sixth inning, when he called on Shelley Duncan. Giambi remained on the bench until the eighth inning, by which time the Yankees’ season had nearly reached the stage of desperation.
Beyond the postseason failing, the Yankees’ poor first half of the season also stands as a black mark against Torre. Yes, there was a bevy of injuries to the starting rotation, but there was also listless play in the field, a lack of intensity during too many at-bats, a ridiculous reliance on Miguel Cairo as the everyday first baseman, a refusal to take an injured Johnny Damon out of the lineup, and continued mismanagement of the bullpen. Torre has to be accountable for some of those problems, all of which put the Yankees in such a hole that they would have to end up settling for a wild card instead of a division title.
Torre’s legacy will remain overwhelmingly positive and it’s only a matter of time before he takes his place in Cooperstown. But no one manages in one place forever. Not Joe McCarthy, who resigned under fire in the middle of his 16th season in New York. Not even Casey Stengel, who managed the Yankees for 12 years, just like Torre, but was eventually fired. In my mind, 12 years has been enough for Torre, too. There should be no shame in making a managerial change one time in over a decade. Let’s just hope the Yankees move decisively and don’t let Torre unnecessarily twist in the wind. He doesn’t deserve that, and the team needs to get on to the business of player personnel as quickly as possible.
In addition, there are certainly some qualified candidates to choose from, making this the right time to make a change. Some are in-house, some are out-of-house, but all have their merits. Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities.
A smart, overachieving ballplayer during his Yankee career, Mattingly has paid at least some of his managerial dues as a batting instructor and bench coach. Players raved about his work as a batting coach, citing his work ethic and breadth of hitting knowledge. On the down side, Mattingly has never managed in the minor leagues, has never been a third base coach, and has only a couple of games of experience as a fill-in skipper replacing Torre during suspensions. Mattingly also lacks charisma and flair in his dealings with the media, which could make him a target once things start to go wrong on the field. I’d feel a lot better about Mattingly if he managed a season at Double-A or Triple-A, but he’s never expressed an interesting in doing so—and neither have the Yankees.
He’s probably the longest of long shots, but figures to be at least one of the minority candidates interviewed by Brian Cashman. He’s a onetime American League Manager of the Year who has done good work in improving Jorge Posada’s defensive game. He also figures to communicate well with young Latino players like Wilson Betemit, Robinson Cano, Melky Cabrera, and Edwar Ramirez, who represent a good chunk of the Yankee future. Unfortunately, Pena’s first managerial tenure in Kansas City ended quickly and badly, brought down by some serious personal problems.
He might be an even longer shot than Pena, but Steinbrenner has always been intrigued by Valentine’s personality and IQ, and would love nothing better than to take a shot at the Mets along the way. Valentine certainly has no fear of New York, has World Series experience, and knows the game as well as any manager or coach. Valentine’s problem has always been his ego—he thinks he knows the game better than anyone, always a dangerous thought—which could clash quickly with Cashman, any of his coaches, and the owner.
At first, the mention of LaRussa’s name seemed like a long shot, but George Steinbrenner likes big-name managers who have won elsewhere. (Dallas Green and Billy Martin are prime examples of that.) LaRussa brings several positives to the table, including a high intelligence, a willingness to buck convention, and a terrific pitching coach in Dave Duncan (who happens to be the father of the Yankees’ Shelly). Unfortunately, there are problems. LaRussa struggles in relationships with players (see Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols) and overmanages the bullpen, forgetting that he doesn’t have that great five-man bullpen in Oakland anymore. Yes, it’s been a long time since the days of Gene Nelson and Rick Honeycutt setting up Dennis Eckersley.
This should be the man. He’s been terrific as a part-time analyst on the Yankees’ YES Network, but his primary passion remains managing. Who can blame him, considering the marvelous job he did with Florida on his way to winning the National League Manager of the Year? (I don’t buy this criticism that Girardi somehow "abused" his starters in Florida, when only Dontrelle Willis pitched over 180 innings and had no subsequent arm trouble in ‘07.) Girardi is exceedingly intelligent, well-organized, and highly driven, all favorable characteristics for a field manager. I’ve read some claims that Girardi would be a bad fit for the veteran-laden Yankees because of his hands-on, attention-to-detail approach that, in the minds of some scouts, makes him another Buck Showalter. Well, that assessment is bulldinky, to borrow some terminology from In Living Color. Girardi, already knowing many of the players in New York from his days as a coach and broadcaster, is smart enough to make the adjustment from leading a team of youngsters in Florida to managing more of a mixed bag in New York. Combining old school values of toughness and discipline with a new school understanding of statistics and computer technology, Girardi would be the ideal choice to succeed Torre in pinstripes.
Bruce Markusen is the author of eight books on baseball. He also writes "Cooperstown Confidential" for MLB.com and contributes articles to the MLB Alumni Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.