Talking Baseball

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Posted by Jon on Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Youth at the Helm: Ozzie the Magic Skipper?

What’s more unique than the division housing possibly the worst team in modern day baseball history? How about a division in which all five teams’ skippers don’t even have a combined six years of Major League managerial experience?

As you may have noticed, Ozzie Guillen is back on the White Sox, but thankfully for South Side fans, he won’t be trying to best his .287 career OBP. He will be the driving force for what White Sox management hopes will be a successfully energetic approach to the game – the same kind of approach that supposedly made the Royals a contender last season. Guillen will be forty this season, certainly spry in terms of baseball managers. But he’s not even the youngest manager in the AL Central.

If Eric Wedge, Cleveland’s manager, was looking for clout in the Indians’ clubhouse, he must have been unhappy with Omar Vizquel for failing the physical that prevented him from being traded to the Mariners this winter. With the departure of last season’s elders, Terry Mulholland and Ellis Burks, Vizquel (37 years old on April 24th) is the only player older than Wedge (36) left in Cleveland. Yes, Vizquel is older than the manager!

Since the beginning of the 2002 season (just two years ago!), each team in the AL Central has handed their managerial reigns to an ex-player with no major league managerial experience. Following, each AL Central manager’s experience is listed in order of seniority, as of 2004:

Manager, Games of Managerial Experience
Ron Gardenhire, 323
Tony Pena, 288
Alan Trammell, 162
Eric Wedge, 162
Ozzie Guillen, 0
What is this, the 1996 smAll-Star team? It’s not so much that these guys have no managerial experience, but that I remember them as players from the not-so-distant past. Trammell played last in 1996. Wedge and Pena retired after the 1997 season. And Guillen is only three seasons removed from his playing days; he retired only after the 2000 season. (Next we'll see Andy Van Slyke hired to manage the Pirates!) So what’s going on here? Managing only five, five, four, and three years after giving up the day job? It strikes me as a bit premature.

In many cases, inexperienced managers are installed in situations in which a team has little chance of competing (see Trammell in Detroit, Wedge in Cleveland). Youth is brought in to better relate to a young, hapless team. But Guillen was hired after the 2003 season, in which a man born in 1930 led his young team to a World Series Championship. Kansas City’s success helped spur this youth revolution forward, but much of the recognition for the Royals’ success in 2003 has been misplaced, with most people crediting Tony Pena instead of crediting luck. The Royals were one of the luckiest teams in baseball, finishing ten games better than their run differential indicates they played. Kansas City’s key last season was not Tony Pena, but instead their offense’s penchant for hitting with runners on base. Maybe Pena was the catalyst, but it’s more likely that his hitters had luck on their side.

But the White Sox have been contenders, and almost made the playoffs in 2003. What is Guillen's role in this situation? Usually, players become managers when a team is rebuilding, but Chicago is not rebuilding. If White Sox GM Ken Williams hired Guillen to supply the energy that supposedly won games for Kansas City, he may soon be making another managerial decision.

It's not that Guillen cannot replicate Pena's success, but such a scenario is difficult to fathom. The White Sox and the Royals will have similar teams in 2004, but neither manager should be counted on to produce ‘clutch’ hitting. In 2004, KC’s luck will likely run out. But the AL Central is up for grabs, and one of the young skippers may very well carry home the division title.

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