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Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Keys to the Toolshed

ESPN's Buster Olney is reporting that former Washington National's manager, Manny Acta, has been offered a managerial job by both the Indians and the Astros. He has elected, according to ESPN, to take over the reigns in Cleveland (good choice).

Why, one might be inclined to ask, is a 40-year-old who never advanced past A-ball as a player and has a lifetime winning percentage of .385 suddenly in such high demand? There must be something underlying Acta's tenure with the Nationals which impressed the Indians and Astros front offices, because he damn sure isn't getting this job based on his results.

I'm guessing it had something to do with his familiarity with adversity. Acta's Nationals were not only plagued by mediocrity on the field, but were subject to a constant stream of distractions off it. Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Wily Mo Pena, and Dmitri Young, unfortunately, made headlines for a variety of extracurricular activities, and the front office was plagued by scandal as well, culminating in a rash of firings and the resignation of GM Jim Bowden last March.

From my perspective, Acta appeared composed throughout, striving always to make the best of a bad situation. Faced with a stream of questions designed to extract criticism, Acta always took the high road. When he had to, on separate occasions, demote Milledge and Dukes, talented players who were supposed to be at the core of the Nats' rebuilding process, he always expressed a great deal of respect for their talent and work ethic, and assurance that they would be back in the bigs very soon. When his already piecework bullpen absolutely imploded early in 2009, due to injuries and generally shoddy construction, Acta did not pass the buck, laying blame on players or the front office, which would've been easy to do. He juggled the remaining pieces, admitted that he had not found successful roles for all his pitchers yet, but urged the remaining corps to rise above expectations. Although he wasn't around to see it, that is exactly what happened. After going 12-for-30 in save opportunities during the first half, the Nats were 21-for-28 the rest of the way, despite the fact that they never added a bonafide lockdown reliever (Mike MacDougal definitely does not count).

In Cleveland, Acta will again be handed a team in disarray. Many of the franchises most popular and longest tenured players - C. C. Sabathia, Victor Martinez, Casey Blake, Cliff Lee, Franklin Gutierrez, Ben Francisco, and Rafael Betancourt - have been unloaded in an effort to slice payroll and rebuild the farm system after disappointing finishes in the last two campaigns. But the Indians are still carrying some bloated contracts (Travis Hafner, Jack Westbrook, Kerry Wood), so huge free agent acquisitions, never a big part of the Indians' philosophy, are probably not in the offing. The teams core of promising young talent, represented most clearly by Grady Sizemore, Fausto Carmona, and Asdrubel Cabrera, has not lived up to the potential demonstrated during the team's 2007 run to the ALCS. The front office will be looking especially for somebody who will motivate them, both to perform and to lead.

The good news for Acta and, perhaps, one of the reasons he appealed to GM Mark Shapiro, is that the Indians, like the Nationals, are very young, with lots of room for maturation. Hafner, Wood, and Westbrook are the elder-statesman on this team. Each is only 32. With the exception of Hafner, nobody projected to be in next year's Opening Day lineup is older than 27. The vast majority of the roster will be under control for several years to come, so Acta has a promise of stability he certainly never experienced in Washington, where the turnover rate was almost humorously high.

Cleveland's Probable 2010 Roster:

CF Grady Sizemore (27)
SS Asdrubel Cabrera (23)
RF Shin-Soo Choo (27)
DH Travis Hafner (32)
1B Matt LaPorta (24)
3B Jhonny Peralta (27)
LF Michael Brantley (22)
C Carlos Santana (23)
2B Luis Valbuena (23)

RHSP Fausto Carmona (25)
RHSP Justin Masterson (24)
RHSP Anthony Reyes (28)
RHSP Jake Westbrook (32)
LHSP David Huff (25)
LHSP Aaron Laffey (24)

C Lou Marson (23)
1B/3B Andy Marte (26)
OF Trevor Crowe (25)

CL Kerry Wood (32)
RHRP Chris Perez (24)
RHRP Jensen Lewis (25)
RHRP Joe Smith (25)
LHRP Rafael Perez (27)
LHRP Tony Sipp (26)
LHRP Jeremy Sowers (26)

In addition to the litany of fresh-faced players listed above, the Indians have several prospects on the verge, including RHSP Carlos Carrasco (25), SS Jason Donald (25), and OF Nick Weglarz (21). Shapiro will probably attempt to add some depth and take a little pressure off his youngsters by signing a couple of inexpensive, cagey veterans this offseason. Don't look for him to make a splash with Matt Holliday or John Lackey. He will be looking for role players with good "intangibles." Orlando Hudson, Placido Polanco, or Doug Davis might be a good fit.

Clearly, many teams looked at Washington as a team destined to fail and not as a reflection on Manny Acta. The same will not be true of Cleveland, where there is stability in the front office and many strong pieces already in place. He will have a season, maybe two, to work out the growing pains, but it will not be an extremely long leash. If the Indians aren't headed back to the playoffs by 2012, expect Acta to be once again looking for a job, at which time he probably won't be an any position to be choosy.

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