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A's: Summer answer, or admitting failure?

6/11/2011

It’s reliably repeated that managers are hired to be fired, so perhaps it’s just as well that Billy Beane and company had to get around to whacking Bob Geren. There’s little joy to be taken from this development, wherever you come in on the subject of Geren’s tactical acumen or lack of it. Consider the previous pair of skippers Beane has worked with. Art Howe was the inherited caretaker with a good handle on working with young players. Ken Macha was supposed to be the technician who would achieve the postseason success that Howe’s teams had not. The A’s won a postseason series, and then lost one, at which point they were done with Macha.

Fundamentally, Geren’s firing -- like Macha’s -- is a public admission of failure, and a reflection upon the organization no different than a deal that doesn’t pan out or a prospect who flopped. In a sense, a prospect is exactly what Geren was. Geren was supposed to be the organization’s answer in the dugout, this after years of seeking the manager who would finally fit neatly within the Oakland smart-guy kaffeeklatsch, perhaps even to the extent that he might banter about World Cup soccer with Beane -- who was not just his boss, but a friend and former rival from a few long-forgotten San Diego high school diamonds. Geren was groomed to be the A’s manager after they had already cultivated and then decided to not turn over the job to Ron Washington.

The recurring problem is that much of the same vituperation that followed Macha out the door after the A’s lost in the 2006 ALCS seems to have been repeated with the closing of the much less successful Geren era. Geren and Macha both had players unload full broadsides into their former managers as they were dragged out the door, with complaints about what might broadly be referred to as “communication issues.”

In a day when a manager’s role is less dugout wizard than it is one part workload logistics manager, one part clubhouse ego masseuse and one part public spokesperson, it’s hard to identify how Geren or Macha were effective in these roles. Relievers were complaining about Geren’s usage patterns long before Brian Fuentes’ gripes got aired a couple of weeks ago. Lowlights of a track record peppered with tactical indifference include a blind eye to Daric Barton’s willful (and willfully ill-considered) bunting last year, on his own recognizance. Reporters haven’t exactly been thrilled by years of working with the close-mouthed Geren or Macha, men who could make Calvin Coolidge seem an engaging conversationalist.

These don’t have to be seen as the signal virtues of a manager. Just as he can motivate and inspire loyalty in his players, a good communicator can help a team’s marketing effort and even influence how it gets covered by the media. But a manager also doesn’t answer to either players or media -- he’s responsible to his general manager. To wind up at this denouement, where Beane and company have had to create Geren, only to discard him, reflects the extent to which he had become dispensable to a front office with responsibilities of its own to observe. Team Beane has once again soft-pedaled an offseason effort to build a contender, only to find that they're even further back of the pack in the age of parity. But Geren didn’t trade for Kevin Kouzmanoff, nor did he sign Hideki Matsui. Blaming Geren for five starting pitchers on the DL isn’t quite the same thing as blaming Billy Martin for it. In an organization that has been beset by controversies and questions about how it handles player injuries for years, you can’t really single out Geren in what might be another issue that has to be resolved above his pay grade.

Is Bob Melvin going to be Mr. Fix-It? His track record managing the Diamondbacks is mixed, but has its positives. He’s infamous for juggling his lineups and constantly tinkering with his orders, but if you’ve read Chris Jaffe’s indispensable Evaluating Baseball’s Managers, you already know it didn’t accrue him any additional runs, as the Snakes’ lineup underperformed. Maybe that’s inherently tied to the youngsters he managed, by turns promising and exasperating when it came to delivering on expectations, players like Stephen Drew or Chris Young or Mark Reynolds. The 2007 Snakes squad that won 90 games despite allowing more runs than it scored might represent some bit of cleverness on his part -- Melvin used his good relievers to good effect in the games his club could win, and his (very bad) bad relievers in the games out of reach, which tended to make blowouts worse considering the former BOB’s run-inflating environment. He has a better relief crew in Oakland and a park that’s much more pitching-friendly, but we’ll see if his experiences with a young lineup in Arizona will help him as the A’s break in Jemile Weeks and the like. Expectations are set low, because as a number of analysts have already noted, the track record of in-season replacements isn’t replete with historic turnarounds.

However, Oakland’s history on this score is different, and deserves to inspire different expectations. After all, aren’t the Beaniacs the smartest guys in the room? From the organization’s earliest days of stat-headed insight, it’s worth remembering the last skipper who took over an A’s ballclub at midseason, back in 1986: Tony La Russa, who just notched his 5000th game as a big-league manager. Next year, La Russa should pass John McGraw for the all-time record for wins by real managers -- Connie Mack’s all-time mark being a product of two additional decades of senescent inattention permitted by an indulgent league indifferent to little things like competitive balance.

La Russa was and remains a great example of the kind of the manager who did make a huge difference. After being fired by the White Sox during Hawk Harrelson’s reign of error as GM, hiring La Russa was the easy in-season choice for an A’s franchise under Sandy Alderson’s sensible direction, one that had endured more than three years employing mediocrities Steve Boros and Jackie Moore. La Russa presided over a quick in-season turnaround, running up a 45-34 record with a team that was 20 games under .500. That rally presaged finishing just four games out in ’87 and three pennants in ’88-’90. It helped that the A’s had a good farm system, Alderson, stathead Eric Walker and a good eye for talent. However, a huge element of that team’s success was its ability to get mileage out of discarded players, and La Russa deserves a big share of credit for delivering on that.

In the end, La Russa fit within a well-run operation to deliver Oakland from years of frustration. It’s the example of that legacy -- both Alderson’s and La Russa’s -- that Beane and Melvin have to deliver on.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.