They will tell one and all that Manuel was the perfect elixir for a team fed up with the overbearing ways of former manager, Larry Bowa. They will preach of his success in Cleveland and how the clubhouse became a more friendly place under his guidance and leadership. They might even try to insinuate that because he is a "players manager" that the team responds better to him than they might under someone else. They might tell you these things, but they would be wrong. The simple truth is that Charlie Manuel was not the best choice for the job then and is not the best choice now.
It is a conclusion I think that General Manager Pat Gillick is slowly coming to and will probably act on sooner rather than later. In fact, although Gillick has a reputation of staying with a manager through an entire season, he has set a precedence once before when things appeared to be unraveling before his very eyes. That occurred in 1989 when his Toronto Blue Jays opened the season at 12-24 under the leadership of manager Jimy Williams. Gillick responded by replacing Williams with former Blue Jay outfielder, Cito Gaston, and the results were dramatic if not immediate.
Under Gaston's seemingly unconventional but effective leadership, the Blue Jays won their two World Championships, in 1992 and 1993, the latter against our very same Philadelphia Phillies. Ironically enough, Williams had many of the same traits found inherent in Manuel, a player friendly guise, some questionable baseball decisions and a general feeling that a very nice and decent man is just placed in a position that he is unqualified to handle.
Make no mistake, Manuel has many baseball strengths, foremost of which is his outstanding ability to teach hitting skills to players with hitting flaws. In fact, had the Phils been a bit wiser back in the fall of 2004, they would have offered Jim Leyland, the current Detroit Tigers manager, the job and asked Manuel to stay on as the hitting coach. Yet, much like many of the ill-founded decisions made by now deposed GM Ed Wade, this was as much a comfort level choice as a baseball wise one. In truth, the straightforward and brutally honest Leyland never had a chance to win over Wade, as too many of his convictions were a direct reflection on the many mistakes that Wade had made in constructing this team.
Here is a simple exercise you can do quickly. First, make sure that you don't check the major league standings at the moment and then write down in order how you would rank all 30 major league teams in actual terms of big league talent. Oh, don't fret if you are not entirely accurate, it is after all an inexact science and probably won't detract from the actual message to be conveyed.
Certainly, you will have both New York teams, the Yankees and Mets at the top of the list, and no doubt the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals will be there near the top somewhere. Add to that list the Toronto Blue Jays, the Atlanta Braves, surely the defending champion Chicago White Sox and possibly the San Diego Padres and our very own Phillies.
In the end, the list won't matter because I am quite sure that nowhere to be found in the first 15-18 teams will you have included Leyland's Detroit Tigers. Just last season they finished 71-91 and did little to improve their club personnel wise over the off season. True enough, they did sign talented but irascible lefty pitcher, Kenny Rogers, but there are more than a few baseball people who will insist that adding Rogers to a club is precisely like subtraction by addition, he is that much of an off the field headache. No, the addition of Rogers shouldn't have been any earth shaking catalyst to the top.
What they did add was Jim Leyland, a manager who not only has been quite successful in his managerial career, but deeply wished to manage the Phillies. Yes, this was basically the extent of their changes, albeit except for some superficial ones and yet today the Detroit Tigers are tied with the defending champion White Sox for the best record in baseball at 29-14. Yes, those woebegone Tigers of yesteryear are no more due to the efforts of Leyland.
Ironically enough, Leyland's 2006 Tigers are quite similar to this years Phillie squad. Both are built more for power than speed and both are relying more and more on young pitching to carry the day. Both have veteran free agent closers and both play before demanding but appreciative and intelligent phans. The Tigers lineup consists of such players as veterans Placido Polanco, Magglio Ordonez, Dmitri Young and Carlos Guillen as well as youngsters like Chris Shelton and Craig Monroe.
The pitching is led by youngsters Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth, Nate Roberson and rookie Justin Verlander while the veteran Todd Jones closes effectively as he has for oh so many seasons with oh so many teams. Leyland has somehow convinced this team that they can win, that they can be this year's White Sox and at this stage of the campaign, who can argue with the results. If, as expected, the Tigers eventually fall back to earth, it will detract not one iota from the marvelous job that Leyland has done with the franchise.
Sadly for Phillie phanatics, that same story could have been told in PhillieLand had Wade not already have made up his mind that Manuel was going to be the man chosen, regardless of how well Leyland interviewed. The interview itself was a sham, constructed more to appease an angry Phillie phan base than it was to find out Leyland's true interest in the job. It certainly did not help that what Leyland told the Phils was precisely what they did not want to hear...that the current personnel was not built to contend but rather to pretend.
Although no one knows for sure just what took place in that interview, it can safely be assumed that Leyland mentioned the fact that a lineup with Thome, Pat Burrell and Mike Lieberthal, as well as David Bell, was just too slow and one dimensional. He probably mentioned that he felt Jimmy Rollins was not a true leadoff hitter, that Bobby Abreu might benefit from hitting at the top of the order and that if the team was truly committed to winning, changes would have to be made in the personnel.
Although Leyland was merely being honest, Wade took it as a direct slap at his decisions and quickly chose Manuel as manager, another decision that ultimately cost him his job. This is probably the most ironic twist to the whole Manuel-Leyand story. Had Wade selected Leyland, and had Leyland been allowed to build the team as he say fit, Wade might still have a job. Of course, we will never know for sure, and the organization is certainly better off with Pat Gillick running the show, but in life's little twists and turns, this whole episode was a strange one indeed.
To be fair to Manuel, the team is happier and more united than it was under Bowa, though almost anyone after the fiery ex-Phillie shortstop would have seemed like a welcome respite from the temper tantrums that dominated his term of office. And, Manuel has certainly been an elixir for players like Pat Burrell and Brett Myers, players who chafed under Bowa's constant needling and verbal criticism.
Still, Manuel has from day one shown a seeming inability to manage in the National League. After over a year on the job he still struggles with the concept of a double switch and seems unable to come to grips with a Phillie lineup that clearly needs some adjustment, if not wholesale change. For another thing, he is a very poor handler of the bullpen and seems so enamored with his "roles" placement in the pen that he seems unable or unwilling to ever change it.
Even more damaging is his seeming lack of understanding of how to build confidence in young hurlers, something that could prove disastrous for a franchise that has several top notch young pitching prospects. I have chronicled often his poor handling of Gavin Floyd last year, who after a sterling victory in his first start in St. Louis, was unceremoniously told by Manuel that he would be moved to the bullpen once the veteran Vicente Padilla was deemed ready to pitch.
Not surprisingly, Floyd was basically useless the rest of the season, only resurfacing this year after a heart to heart talk from Gillick, assuring him that if he did well his spot in the rotation would be secure. Although his path has been at times bumpy, Floyd's 4-2 record is promising and a testament to the art of building rather than destroying confidence.
Equally damaging was the recent treatment of another youngster, Ryan Madson. Again, Madson's path to stardom has been marked with potholes and his status as a starting pitcher was far from secure anyhow but the timing of his banishment to the bullpen could not have been worse...after a solid if unspectacular 4-1 against the San Francisco Giants. While it is true that he struggled early in that game, he displayed tenacity and a desire to challenge Barry Bonds when few pitchers dared to.
Instead of preparing for his next start, he was demoted to the bullpen to make way for super phenom, Cole Hamels. While the promotion of Hamels was certainly deserved, the timing of the move was poor, and Manuel handled it poorly. Not surprisingly, Madson has pitched poorly since being moved back to the pen. Manuel did the worst possible thing a manager can do to a player...give him an excuse to fail. Madson can merely say that he was not prepared for the move, and has been unable to adjust after having been a starter since opening day.
And while this probably was an organizational decision, one has to assume that Manuel was the ultimate bearer of bad news to Madson, and did not handle it properly if at all. Speaking of the bullpen, here is where Manuel has displayed some very poor leadership. His insistence on having relievers pitch only one inning each from the seventh inning on, and almost never using his closer, Tom Gordon, in a tie game has increasingly caught up with the team lately.
There is an old baseball axiom that I believe that says that if you use enough pitchers, one of them is bound to pitch poorly. This seems more truth than fiction, and the Phils are Exhibit A of this result. On many occasions, hurlers like Ryan Franklin, Rheal Cormier or Geoff Geary would pitch a stellar seventh inning, only to make way for Arthur Rhodes in the eighth. This move has backfired several times, and nearly cost the team victories.
Equally perplexing is his insistence on having shortstop Jimmy Rollins hit first and Bobby Abreu hit third, even though both have struggled mightily in recent weeks. Shane Victorino, who has been starting since the injury to Aaron Rowand, merely won an MVP award in the International League last season as a leadoff hitter, yet bats sixth or seventh in Manuel's lineup while Rollins continues to watch his average and OBP sink lower and lower.
The same can be said for Abreu, who until his breakout game against Boston, was mired in a power slump of alarming proportions. Chase Utley, on the other hand, seems to have taken Abreu's mantle as the best hitter on the club, and it would not have been the worst move in the world to switch Abreu and Utley, at least for a short term. Instead, Utley continues to hit second, and Abreu third, seemingly to the detriment of both, as well as the team.
Finally, much like that manual transmission car that started, stopped, started, stalled, the Phillies record under Manuel has been much the same, with starts, stops and stalls the rule rather than the exception. Truth be told, this team has been maddeningly inconsistent under the leadership of the Good Ship Chollypop with records of 12-1 and 13-1 followed by long and difficult losing streaks. Equally frustrating has been the slow starts in both of Manuel's seasons on the job, even after making a strong start a major priority.
Another thing to remember is that Manuel was not hired by Gillick, who instead inherited him. A patient man by nature, Gillick is unlikely to fire Manuel at the first sign of alarm, but is equally unlikely to allow too much time to pass before making a move. With the recent five game losing streak, the team now ranks ninth in the record race for a wild card berth, and Gillick is certainly well aware of this.
Gillick must also be aware that the National East race is there for the taking, with the Phils, Mets and Braves all justifiably convinced that they are the most likely candidate to wear the crown. The Mets remain the favorites, but after a 10-2 start, they have played at a very pedestrian 15-15 pace since then. If ace reliever, Billy Wagner's recent control problems are a sign of injury, the Mets could be in serious trouble health wise.
By the same token, the Braves, for all their fortitude, look infinitely beatable, with a weakened rotation, a poor bullpen and no Leo Mazzone to bail them out. While still formidable, the Braves are no longer invincible. This makes these next few weeks before the All-Star break even more important to the Phightins. With young Hamels seemingly set to star, and with the veteran Randy Wolf prepared to make his first rehab assignment in Clearwater on Tuesday, the Phillies staff could soon take on the look of a very well rounded array of arms.
Good pitching breeds good hitting and defense so it seems imperative that the team make their move to the top soon. I am sure Gillick feels this way, and could well begin casting a skeptical eye at Manuel if the team continues to move like a car with manual transmission... start, stop, start, stall.
If Gillick should decide to look elsewhere, watch for names like Lou Piniella, Davy Johnson, and maybe even Gaston to surface to the top. While neither Piniella or Johnson have indicated a desire to restart their engines as managers, both might well be inclined to take on such an appealing job with the Phils, especially since both are known items and comfortable with Gillick's style.
If the Phils should stay in house, then names like Bill Dancy or Mark Bombard might well come to the forefront. Certainly, Bombard in particular has more than paid his dues as a successful minor league manager and knows the players well as a current coach. Another name that could crop up, although doubtful, would be John Vukovich, now an assistant to Gillick. Remember, it was Vukovich who was once hand picked by now Phillie executive, Dallas Green, to manage the Chicago Cubs when Green was the GM.
Regardless of the eventual names to be mentioned, this much is certain. Just as I eventually had to make a decision upon which type of car to drive, an automatic that made climbing easier to take, or the stick shift with manual transmission with its constant starts and stops, the Phils may soon be forced to make a decision about their future choice in managers.
While the road certainly looked clear and smooth during the recent hot streak, the following losing spell continued to remind one and all that under current manager, Charlie Manuel, the road is likely to remain a bumpy and uneven one, guaranteed to have starts, stops, starts and stalls, much like any car stuck with... "manuel transmission."
Columnist's Note: Please send all questions and comments to email@example.com or visit Philliestalk.com and email me there and I will attempt to respond. Thank you! CD from the Left Coast