P/C: David Phillip (Associated Press)
You’ll read it many ways. “…relieved of his duties.” “…parted ways with…” “…not retained…” It’s all semantics.
The facts are the facts. Shortly after 10:00 ET Thursday morning, and with cause, the Yankees fired 10-year manager Joe Girardi.
It goes without saying that pretty much any time a manager is fired, it’s either in response to or in initiation of a seismic shift in organizational philosophy. That’s not something that the Yankees seemed to need. They entered 2017 as a team not considered legitimate contenders by most, perhaps pushing for a second wild card if everything went right. Well, while an unexpected number of variables broke in the Yankees’ favor, plenty did not (as is typically the case with teams that are “in transition”). First-half AL MVP Aaron Judge’s bat went AWOL for the first six weeks after the all-star break. Didi Gregorius, Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Jacoby Ellsbury, Aaron Hicks, Clint Frazier, Masahiro Tanaka, and Michael Pineda – all impact players – spent over 300 days combined on the DL. Across the division, the loathed rival Red Sox had been gearing up to go all-in. The Red Sox had traded for one of the two or three best starting pitchers in the AL, after already having one of the best young outfields in the game, a budding superstar at shortstop, a top prospect ready to bust onto the scene at third base, and perhaps the most feared closer since some guy who used to enter games to a heavy metal track. The Red Sox had all the key core pieces, and the division was theirs to lose. In contrast, the Yankees had a bright future, and little-if-any expectations for 2017.
Alas, a funny thing happened on the way to October. New York won 91 games in the regular season, spent over eight weeks throughout the season with at least a share of the division lead, and won four consecutive elimination games, confoundingly playing their way to nine innings shy of pennant #41 before their hopes of finishing an improbable run melted in the Texas heat in games six and seven of the ALCS. This all being said, firing one of only five Yankees managers to ever win 900+ games for the team, on the heels of this near-success story (in professional sports, improvement is often misconstrued as success) has to be a mistake, right? The manager who helped lead a patchwork roster in 2013 to an 85-win season, told “sayonara” after the best record his team posted since 2012 (when they also went to the ALCS)? Perhaps his most overlooked accomplishment: managing the fifth-most games in franchise history. It’s well-documented that, in a country with an average life expectancy around 79 years, there is perhaps no shorter life expectancy than the tenure of a New York Yankees manager.
For the things that he has done exceptionally well in his decade at the helm, there remained a good amount for the Yankees front office to be concerned by. When someone signs a contract to be a manager in the MLB, a sort of ticking clock immediately begins. As the first two-or-so seasons pass, that manager gets assigned to one of three tiers. There are the elite – the Joe Torre, Terry Francona, Bobby Cox managers of the world. There are the fine, and there are the underperformers – often this tier consists of the solid coaches who simply weren’t cut out to be managers. Put bluntly: if you are not elite, you are, frankly, replaceable. I don’t believe New York made the same mistake Boston made in 2011, reacting to a late-season collapse by severing ties with a potential future Hall-of-Fame manager and the greatest skipper in their history. Brian Cashman and his associates are the same people who traded a hot but inconsistent pitcher in a three-team deal for a young shortstop that had yet to burst out between Cincinnati and Arizona, triggering a collective clawing at scalps from fans. That shortstop was budding star Didi Gregorius, who has 45 homers, 157 RBI, and a 6.6 fWAR over the last two years and will have only just turned 28 years old when the upcoming season begins. This is the same group that traded a third-string catcher for an underachieving former top prospect in Aaron Hicks. Hicks’ OPS this season was .847, he walked almost as much as he struck out (51 vs 67) and he posted a 3.3 fWAR despite playing just 88 games. It was this very front office that was, despite being in the midst of what was labeled time and again as a “transition year”, willing to move highly-touted prospect Blake Rutherford to beat out Boston in the 11th hour for a package that included Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson and Todd Frazier. Chances are their improbable run this season does not go as far as it did without that stunning transaction in July.
In short, I implore my fellow Yankees fans, hear out this group once more. This was not only a move that is understandable, but it was one that I believe needed to happen.
In press conferences, in interviews, and in the clubhouse, it was evident that players were enjoying the most electrified, joyful experience seen in pinstripes in several years. This joy, it also became evident, was often not shared by their now-former manager. As Yankees front office staffers were working to usher in a new (hopefully dynastic) era of Yankees baseball, friction was bubbling up behind the scenes between the coaching staff and the front office. Girardi’s own former star first baseman, Mark Teixeira, spoke out after the news was announced saying he understood the move and believed Girardi was too intense to lead that team from the ground-up. Fact is, Girardi was used to a veteran roster. When he took over in 2008, 20 of the 40 players on his inherited roster were 32 or older. This year, only seven of his 40-man roster players were of that age, and there’s a more-than-plausible chance that the majority of them have new homes in 2018 (Robertson seems the only guarantee to return; other names include Chase Headley, Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury, CC Sabathia, Matt Holliday, and Erik Kratz). Girardi’s feisty nature, as many outlets have reported, helped him attract respect in the locker room.
The issue that transpired, however, is he simply was not “loved” the way that, say, Joe Torre was by the youngsters that helped create the turn-of-the-millennium dynasty. Girardi became uncomfortable to watch, more often than not, as the season wore on (and, evidently, wore on him). His answers became brief, abrupt, robotic, and testy – regardless of score, following a victory or a defeat. His management decisions apexed in controversiality and questionability as well, to supporters and cynics alike. In a crucial game with the team holding on in the division race by the skin of its teeth, and midseason acquisition Sonny Gray in trouble with a one-run deficit in the fifth, he went to Jonathan Holder and Chasen Shreve with several other pitchers rested, and they proceeded to bust open the game. I won’t delve into the broken record of his ALDS missteps, but let’s reflect on the Aroldis Chapman midseason fiasco. From August 11 to August 18, Chapman pitched four times, throwing 4.1 innings, allowing 5 hits, 7 ER, walking 5 and striking out 5 as well. This isn’t entirely surprising, as a pitcher like Chapman thrives on rhythm, which he lost somewhat after going from pitching 10 times between July 14 and July 31, to just making two appearances between August 1 and August 12. Chapman was taken out of his rhythm, for one reason or another, situational or not, and then after not pitching in six days, tasked with facing the following hitters in a hearty Boston lineup: Jackie Bradley Jr, Eduardo Nunez, and Mookie Betts. Unsurprisingly for a fireballer coming off uber-extended rest facing hot bats, he tried to pitch around them. Also unsurprisingly, in doing so, he walked the bases loaded. His rhythm had lost its sharp edge, and this could have been the beginning of his confidence going the same way, as the team would publicly announce days later, after that fourth and final rough outing in that aforementioned seven-day stretch, that Chapman was not going to be the closer thenceforth. He was later reinstalled though, as Girardi attempted to use other pitchers in the ninth inning, some of whom (Betances and Robertson) had already shown in the past they were better off not being thrust into that role.
There is no job, perhaps in all of sports, as demanding of an individual as being the Yankees manager. The exorbitantly frequent turnover at the position is often attributed so greatly to the requirement of sustained success, that often it’s overlooked how much physical, mental and emotional wear-and-tear someone withstands in the role. Managing almost 2000 games, answering to New York media personnel in multiple thousand press conferences, the nightly explanation to Meredith Marakovits of what made Player X from his (or his opponent’s) team so effective… there’s an expiration date on a manager’s ability to both effectively and joyously continue at that helm. I believe that Brian Cashman did the right thing and correctly identified that Girardi had reached that point, and objectively realized that what he and the front office considered best for the team (a manager more adept to relate to the players, with a more analytical and less by-the-binder approach) was only attainable by firing him. Girardi had been the manager for 10 years. Save for his predecessor, Joe Torre, the last manager who lasted that long with the Yankees was Casey Stengel, who won seven World Series titles in his stint from 1949-60. Ralph Houk came close, lasting eight years between 1966-1973. Point being, Girardi’s greatest accomplishment may be the number of chances of which the front office deemed him worthy. Unlike Girardi himself a few too many times, Cashman pulled the trigger and made a switch before it was too late. This is still the Yankees, where it will forever be true that if you’re not one of one, you’re simply one of the other 29.
All of this being said, the logical next question becomes: “Who takes the reins?” Well, in short, that’s anyone’s guess at this juncture. Internally, you’ll hear the names Rob Thomson (who is probably the early favorite), Tony Pena, Joe Espada, Al Pedrique. If they look outside of the organization, either on a player, coaching, or other level, the reported names Kevin Long, Eric Chavez, Jerry Hairston Jr., Raul Ibanez, Don Mattingly, Pete MacKanin, Trey Hillman, Dusty Baker, John Farrell, and Jason Giambi come to mind. They could easily go in a completely different direction, but I’d focus on the following traits to come down to our candidate: 1) a familiarity with the New York media market; 2) an established relationship with Brian Cashman; 3) experience with young teams; 4) former player; and 5) having competed at the World Series level. With these criteria in mind, and from this list alone, I believe that one name sits comfortably above the rest as the best fit for the job.
For me, nobody on this list checks all the boxes quite like Raul Ibanez. He has been lauded for his leadership, baseball IQ, ability to handle intense media scrutiny, and personability from coaches and fellow players, even from opposing teams. He fits the mold of what multiple industry sources indicate the Yankees are after: a younger manager who is “loveable” to a younger team, not just “respectable”. He is almost eight years younger than Girardi, made a postseason run with the Yankees in 2012, their last one before this season. He has played in 10 postseason series, including four championship series and one World Series, which came in Philadelphia, arguably the toughest media market outside of New York or Boston. His Cuban lineage could also be an aiding factor in helping him relate to the younger Latin members and prospects of the team’s core, and endearing himself to them. In addition, the team has sought a manager who is much more in tune with analytics. Ibanez spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons as a special advisor to Andrew Friedman with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Since his days with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Friedman has been touted as one of the top individuals in the game when it comes to successfully incorporating new-age analytics into his teams’ and rosters’ philosophies. Spending two seasons – including one in which they played their way to the World Series – under the right hand of Friedman suggests to me that he could bring the fresh, less-conventional perspective to the role that the Yankees are heavily rumored to seek. The Yankees are under the gun to wrap this up in short order. They just released an announcement that all of their coaches’ contracts will be allowed to expire on Tuesday. Depending on how many individuals they want to interview for the managerial vacancy, they could potentially take at least three or four days to wrap up just the first round of interviews. It seems likely they will want at least one or two of those guys back for a second round before making their decision, another two days. This is probably looking at next weekend before a manager is in place. Then, assuming current events hold up, he would have to fill his coaching staff. Free agency could start as early as Saturday, November 4, and I don’t believe the team wants to enter that portion of the offseason without a manager named and coaching staff filled. I would expect interviews to begin and official reports of names to begin trickling out of New York as soon as this weekend.
Joe Girardi achieved accomplishments with the Yankees in his decade at the helm that will allow the overwhelming majority of fans to remember him fondly going forward and appreciate his role in getting core players acclimated to the Major Leagues. It will be intriguing to see where the franchise opts to go from here after these stunning developments. In my opinion, it’s not only worth giving Raul Ibanez a shot, Raul Ibanez is as close to an ideal candidate for this role as you will find available this week.