Managing Change–Poorly

Larry Levin

Dan Jennings may be an incredibly smart baseball man, but he is a virtual infant when it comes to managing in the dugout. And other than in “Saturday Night Live” sketches, like Berk Bennett’s instant classic “Office Boss”  (http://bit.ly/1rfs0eq), it’s really hard for a baby to learn on the job.

The Miami Marlins, owned by the mercurial Jeffrey Loria, apparently disagree, installing Jennings as their bench guru less than a quarter of the way into the season. High expectations for the Fish – despite the absence of their pitching ace, Jose Fernandez, til mid-season from surgery last year – made Loria and his management team move Jennings, the team’s general manager, from the skybox to fieldside.

Why is this weird? Well, he’s not been a major league player, coach, or manager. Or a minor league manager. Or any kind of manager (well, perhaps he coaches his kids’ little league teams, I really don’t know). So not only did the team upset the apple cart super early, but they determined their own GM was a better choice than virtually any other pro with managing experience.

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A manager without experience becoming one with experience has happened, most notably to Cardinal fans with the hiring of Mike Matheny. But Mike had seen well over a decade of MLB action from the catcher’s spot, and had been in dugouts practically his whole life. The dynamics of coping with the ups and downs of 25 talented professionals (many more than that if you include injuries, promotions, demotions and trades) is vastly different than the kind of scouting and evaluation tools Jennings brings to the table.

The justifications offered by the team were rampant, of course, whining about a needed change of direction and how Jennings was just the ideal candidate (which begs the question: If the team was doing so poorly, why wasn’t Jennings held accountable as GM?). The Marlins are talented, and manager Mike Redmond, who had come in during 2013 to right the ship and performed admirably last season, served as the scapegoat for ownership’s frustration. Though a boneheaded move firing Redmond, it’s hardly a first; managers in all sports often take the blame for underperformance, and the displacement of the leader is often a shorthand fix, since a whole roster can’t be axed.

But Miami was only a few games below par when the move was made, and there was truly no need to panic. When Milwaukee said adios to manager Ron Roenicke earlier, replacing him with longtime MLB vet Craig Counsell, two things were evident: The Brew Crew didn’t have the roster to compete going forward in its rugged NL Central Division, and Counsell was going to oversee the evolution to a new generation of players.

Not so the SoFla Fish. Plenty of weapons, from MVP-caliber Mike Stanton, once again healthy and devastating, to the Dodger reject Dee Gordon, off to an otherworldly start that puts him on base almost half the time, suggest a shifting landscape for the team.

It didn’t start well for Jennings, as the Marlins’ slide continues, going 1-9 in their last 10. But Miami is in the lower-middle of the pack in both hitting and pitching, next to the hefty Red Sox in the former and the decent Orioles in the latter. And if fundamentals were ownership’s concern, they reacted for nothing, as the Marlins sit third in the majors in the least number of errors.

It was disingenuous of Marlins management to blame Redmond for a few more losses than wins, especially since he was fairly highly regarded by the team and players just a short time ago. It would be equally disingenuous to blame Jennings for the continuation of the team’s woes (but watch the team spout rhetoric like “it’s too early to evaluate Dan’s performance, right after they axed Redmond under similar guise).

One thing’s for sure, though: Jeffrey Loria gets what he asks for. As the old adage indicates, however, he oughta be more careful what he asks for.