In the first real action of the off-season, baseball has three new managers. The Diamondbacks brought in Wally Backman, the Phillies have Charlie Manuel at the helm, and the Mets hired the oft-interviewed Willie Randolph. With the hirings of Mike Hargrove and the extensions in Toronto and Houston, all managerial slots are now filled.
Managers are one of the most visible things and yet our tools for evaluating them remain almost completely subjective. Managers seldom gameplan like their counterparts in football, nor do they "X and O" like in basketball. What managers do is ... well, that's a mystery to most baseball fans and analysts alike.
Managers make the lineups, work with GM's to set the roster, and hold their various coaches and instructors responsible for their areas. They control and motivate the team to some extent, each manager finding his own techniques and tenor. Often, managers are seen for one skill that seems to stand out, such as Dusty Baker's work in the clubhouse or Tony La Russa's pitching changes. They're also seen for their faults.
Still, the managerial job track seems circular. The same names, again and again, circulating from failure to failure, almost all sure to be fired at some point. What they do seems as much mystery as anything left in baseball besides Derek Jeter's Gold Glove.
What managerial hirings does do is tell us about the psychology of the front office. Hiring an "aw shucks" friend of the player like Charlie Manuel is normal after a hard-nosed SOB like Larry Bowa hits the road. The opposite is seen as Wally Backman brings a Larry Bowa Lite mood to the laissez-faire clubhouse that Bob Brenly left behind.
Willie Randolph, on the other hand, offers our first insight into the new Mets front office. Last year's team seemed of five or six minds. Now with Omar Minaya in control - we think - he was able to bring in someone who has experience with winning. Randolph was thought to be the front-runner when Joe Torre left the Yankees bench, so perhaps Joe's locked in for longer than Willie wanted to wait ... or maybe Willie didn't like what he saw a couple years down the line. In Queens, he'll have the task of taking an underachieving team up. He has good prospects to move up quickly; teams normally play near their true talent level and the Mets certainly did not.
The hole in the Mets is pitching, something Randolph isn't on the hook for. Rick Peterson is still the man there, letting Randolph focus on ... whatever it is managers do. Perhaps he can be a good influence on a young Jose Reyes or rebuild the psyche of Kazuo Matsui. Perhaps Mike Piazza won't undercut his influence and perhaps Willie will let Mike just be the best-hitting catcher in baseball history.
Two clubs are looking for changes while one is looking to be changed. It's subtle, but important.