With top-tier guys such as Tony La Russa and Terry Francona out of the picture this year, our annual managerial rankings present a challenge.
As always, we will put the first-time managers - Mike Matheny, Dale Sveum, and Robin Ventura - at the bottom.
One caveat: To make it this far, a manager must be good, and there can be a fine line between No. 1 and No. 30. The rankings aren’t intended to embarrass anyone, and in fact I respect all of them and the often-impossible job they have to do.
1. Joe Maddon, Rays - He has become the most innovative manager in the game, one who gets the most out of a tiny payroll. He is the best at bringing along young players and having them grow as people, too.
2. Jim Leyland, Tigers - Probably the most respected manager in the game right now. His track record is impeccable in terms of handling superstars and finding the right fit for his role players. He also handles his pitching staff and bullpen as well as anyone in the game.
3. Mike Scioscia, Angels - Just so consistent. He believes in being aggressive on the basepaths, and he knows pitching, which is a huge advantage for a manager.
4. Charlie Manuel, Phillies - His folksy style works. He uses stats, but he also uses his common sense and has tremendous feel for the game. He and Leyland are probably the last of the real old-school managers.
5. Joe Girardi, Yankees - He does a nice job managing the game’s highest payroll. Easy? Not really. There are egos that he constantly has to massage. He does a good job mixing his instincts as a former player with his role as team leader.
6. Buck Showalter, Orioles - Tremendously prepared and pays attention to the smallest details. Runs a good program. Makes teams better. When he gets more talent, you’ll appreciate how good he is.
7. Ron Washington, Rangers - Can’t argue with his success in leading Texas to back-to-back World Series appearances. He is very good at player management in terms of knowing when to rest them to maximize performance.
8. Bruce Bochy, Giants - Like Scioscia, very consistent in his approach. Players know what to expect, day in and day out. He’s a very good in-game manager who has a great feel for the moment.
9. Ozzie Guillen, Marlins - Great motivator, he will give you a hug just as easily as a kick in the pants. There’s no doubt who runs his team, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
10. Kirk Gibson, Diamondbacks - One of the rising stars. He has taken the intensity he had as a player and transferred it in a very productive way to the dugout. His toughness is admired in an era when players often have to be coddled.
11. Manny Acta, Indians - Great communicator and teacher. Players under his watch usually get better, which means they’re listening. Acta has never had a great team to work with, but he has made the young players respond.
12. Davey Johnson, Nationals - He won a championship with the Mets in 1986, and he has a very solid track record. He is now managing high-profile younger players who could be the game’s next superstars.
13. Dusty Baker, Reds - Don’t think you can name a manager who understands a player’s psyche more than Baker. For years he handled Barry Bonds and all the hoopla surrounding him. Loyal to his players.
14. Ron Gardenhire, Twins - His teams have fallen upon tough times, but Gardenhire remains a true professional and one of the most fundamentally sound managers in the game.
15. Bobby Valentine, Red Sox - Hasn’t managed in the majors since 2002, but he has a body of work, so we’ll start him out in the middle of the pack and see where it goes. You have to be impressed with his attention to detail and fundamentals. He is not as concerned with player comfort as much as player performance.
16. Ron Roenicke, Brewers - His first season as a manager was a smashing success. You can tell he has the Scioscia pedigree. It will be a more challenging year without Prince Fielder and with the constant controversy around Ryan Braun.
17. Eric Wedge, Mariners - A former American League Manager of the Year, he is firm in his approach, leaving no doubt who is in charge. Lately, he has had some challenging teams to manage, but now he seems to have one on the upswing. We’re curious to see where those young players go under his watch.
18. Bob Melvin, Athletics - A former National League Manager of the Year, he is very smart and very understanding of players and what they go through on a daily basis. Oakland is a challenge from many viewpoints, with a constantly changing roster and injuries to deal with.
19. Clint Hurdle, Pirates - Good hire by general manager Neal Huntington in that his younger players needed direction and a strong leader. We saw Hurdle excel with the Rockies when he had talent; they made that incredible run in 2007.
20. Don Mattingly, Dodgers - The growing pains appear to be over, as Mattingly has become his own man. He learned under Joe Torre, and has taken some of Torre’s qualities and added his own wrinkles. Those around him feel he has really gotten it together.
21. Fredi Gonzalez, Braves - Some believe he will be the first manager fired if the Braves don’t turn around from that September collapse. He has taken some criticism for his use of the bullpen, but there is still a lot to like.
22. Bud Black, Padres - A pitching coach-turned-manager who is very comfortable in his own skin. His performance has been such that now you don’t think of him as a former pitching coach, but just a very good major league manager who has to deal with challenging financial situations regarding his roster.
23. Jim Tracy, Rockies - The Rockies are so up and down from year to year, it’s difficult to get a read. A solid manager who doesn’t seem to change his approach, Tracy is one of those guys you could select to manage any situation and he wouldn’t be out of place.
24. Ned Yost, Royals - As his roster improves, Yost’s stock will continue to rise. He is managing some pretty talented positional players. Once his pitching staff catches up, he can manage in a more traditional way rather than as a teacher and developer of talent.
25. Terry Collins, Mets - Like Tracy, another very solid manager who could work anywhere. He just so happens to be managing a team that is declining and has seen the sharpest reduction in payroll in major league history. He’s in a no-win situation and hopefully doesn’t take the fall.
26. John Farrell, Blue Jays - Bright guy who keeps growing on the job. Like any former pitching coach, he is catching up to managing the rest of the team, and all reports are that he is doing well in that area. He has been able to delegate responsibility (to his coaches), as any strong leader does.
27. Brad Mills, Astros - We all know Mills from Boston and know how organized he was as Francona’s right-hand man for so long. This is much too low a rating for him, but it’s hard to put him higher after a 106-loss season.
28. Mike Matheny, Cardinals - All he has to do in his first major league managing job is replace a legend in La Russa. He does not appear overwhelmed.
29. Dale Sveum, Cubs - We all know he lives and breathes baseball, and that dedication should get him far as he helps rebuild this organization.
30. Robin Ventura, White Sox - High marks so far for the first-time manager. Like everyone who has ever been in his position, he will experience some tough times before things smooth out.
Apropos of nothing
1. Courtesy of Stats Inc.: When leading off an inning in 2011, Colorado’s Todd Helton reached base in 49 of 101 plate appearances. His .485 on-base percentage was the highest among the 248 players who led off innings at least 75 times. Helton was 34 for 86 (.395) with 15 walks. Next in OBP were Houston’s Brett Wallace (.460), Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera (.444), and Boston’s Adrian Gonzalez (.436).
2. Pawtucket should be fun to watch, with an infield of Will Middlebrooks at third base, Jose Iglesias at shortstop, Pedro Ciriaco at second, and Lars Anderson at first, plus Ryan Lavarnway behind the dish. Looks like Mauro Gomez will be the DH. This is provided none of them makes the parent team as the 25th player.
3. Boston crooner Brian Evans’s new song “At Fenway’’ can be seen on YouTube.
4. The Red Sox sent their flashy rookie shortstop down to the minors, while the Braves are trying to decide which of their two outstanding rookie shortstops makes the team as the starter. It’s Andrelton Simmons vs. Tyler Pastornicky. The original plan was to give the job to Pastornicky, who is the better offensive player and more experienced. But Braves coaches love Simmons’s defense. Sound familiar? The Indians decided to go for defense at third base, choosing Jack Hannahan over Lonnie Chisenhall.
5. Wouldn’t the Indians be better off signing Johnny Damon than trading for Bobby Abreu?
6. It’s interesting to see the evolution of Billy Beane’s Moneyball ideas. Where speed was never a big issue, the A’s now have Coco Crisp, Jemile Weeks, and Yoenis Cespedes at the top of the order. Beane told the San Francisco Chronicle, “You’re seeing a more well-rounded view of players because the metrics have gotten more comprehensive through technology. People used to equate speed with the stolen base. But, really, you’ve seen an increase in wanting speed players because of the ability to measure speed’s impact on defense and baserunning and quantifying that impact. Guys who can run and guys who can play defense are being valued higher because we can measure their performance. It’s the whole evolution of statistics. When I first started, it was really weighted toward offense. Now it’s much more spread out. That being said, I’d like nine Babe Ruths. Because he could pitch, too, by the way.’’
7. After spending $2 billion for the team, the new Dodgers ownership group will likely start competing for major free agents next winter. There are already suggestions that the Dodgers will become the Yankees of the National League and try to get the best free agents money can buy. But consider that new president/CEO Stan Kasten came up through the Braves model, which emphasized player development. We’ll see if there’s a confluence of philosophies.
8. The Red Sox owners don’t believe that $2 billion for the Dodgers will have a big trickle effect on the value of the elite franchises like Boston and New York. The feeling is that it was a unique circumstance, the Dodgers in the Los Angeles market.
9. Wouldn’t you love to be Frank McCourt? After paying off debt and divorce settlements, he probably pocketed more than $1 billion.
10. With the Dodgers sale done, the question now is how much the Padres will be sold for when John Moores solicits offers. They aren’t far from Los Angeles, but one American League owner said, “They’re probably a half-billion to $700 million purchase. And I don’t believe that many, or any, of the finalists for the Dodgers would be interested.’’
11. Daisuke Matsuzaka or Andy Pettitte: Which pitcher helps his team more this season? I say Daisuke.
Updates on nine
1. Dayan Viciedo, OF, White Sox - He is their hope for power and production as the heir apparent to Carlos Quentin, but he gave no signs of it in a poor spring training. As of late in the week, he was hitting .167 with one extra-base hit (a double) in 48 at-bats. There was some hope when Viciedo hit three homers in a minor league game March 22. Since then, he has been awful.
2. Matt Thornton, LHP, White Sox - He pitched very well in spring training and will likely be the closer over Jesse Crain, rookie Addison Reed, and lefty Hector Santiago. Thornton is a guy who other teams always have their eye on and wish he didn’t make so much money (he has two years and $12 million left on his contract). With Santiago and Will Ohman on the team, he could again be trade bait.
3. Xavier Nady, OF, Nationals - One of the best moves GM Mike Rizzo made was taking Nady off the free agent scrap heap in February. Nady, always a talented hitter, has been beset with injuries the past two years but is looking more and more like the Nady of old.
4. Matt LaPorta, 1B, Indians - Can we finally declare that the CC Sabathia trade with the Brewers didn’t work out for the Indians? LaPorta, one of four prospects obtained by Cleveland in the 2008 deal, was optioned to Columbus after hitting .167 with 11 strikeouts in 30 spring at-bats. The only one of the four currently on the major league roster is outfielder Michael Brantley, who is replacing the injured Grady Sizemore and is considered more of a fourth outfielder.
5. Mike Pelfrey, RHP, Mets - While it has been reported that the Mets were considering releasing Pelfrey, they likely won’t do that because there should be a trade market for the veteran. He makes $5.6 million on a nonguaranteed deal, and the Mets may be able to get something for him from a team that needs a back-end starter.
6. Kevin Gregg, RHP, Orioles - The veteran reliever is available in trade, as Baltimore tries to rid itself of extraneous players and save a few dollars to boot. Gregg is scheduled to earn $5.6 million this year, and the Orioles don’t want his 2013 contract to kick in at $6 million if he should finish 50 games in 2012 or 100 between 2011 and 2012. Gregg finished 48 games last season.
7. Marlon Byrd, OF, Cubs - Righthanded hitters who can play center field are hard to find. The Cubs may eat some money (Byrd is scheduled to earn $6.5 million this season) to move him, and they may have suitors in the Braves, Phillies, and a few other teams. A National League scout indicated that Byrd’s name is being mentioned more and more as we reach the end of spring training.
8. Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies - You have a team that likes to make quick deals (example: Jonathan Papelbon) and an agent, John Boggs, who is methodical. Therefore, expect negotiations on a long-term extension to be slow going. If things don’t work out, Hamels will have no shortage of suitors, including the Red Sox.
9. Theo Epstein, president, Cubs - It’s amazing how little the Red Sox got for him: a pitcher (Chris Carpenter) who just had elbow surgery and another (Aaron Kurcz) who has put up good numbers in Single A but is hardly considered a top prospect. The Red Sox don’t seem to have any grounds to ask for a player to replace Carpenter, since they had access to all of his medical records.
From the Bill Chuck files: “Last season, all the cleanup batters stole 226 bases and were caught 99 times, and all the batters hitting eighth stole 227 bases and were caught 100 times.’’ And, “Over the last five seasons, the batter with at least 2,000 plate appearances with the lowest cumulative batting average is Detroit’s Brandon Inge at .227. Carlos Pena is next at .236.’’ . . . Happy 43d birthday, Frank Castillo.Nick Cafardo can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.