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Saturday, October 09, 2010

BBA Ballot: AL Connie Mack Award

Announcements of the second-annual BBA awards will begin later this week with the Connie Mack Award for managerial excellence.  Here's an explanation of my ballot for the American League:

American League:

Honorable Mentions: Ron Gardenhire (Twins), Ozzie Guillen (White Sox), & Joe Maddon (Rays)

Gardenhire is likely to get a lot of support this season, and much of it is deserved, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out that he was coaching the defending champion in the AL Central, a relatively weak division, and his front office blessed him with a 50% spike in payroll and brought in reinforcements like Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes for his depleted bullpen at the deadline.  Gardenhire did a pretty good job compensating for his team's defensive deficiencies and he got a lot out of his starting rotation, but I'm not sure the Twins dramatically exceeded expectations, which is arguably the best way of judging a manager.

Minnesota's rival, the White Sox, who stayed in the hunt until September, were probably a bigger surprise, as they were a losing team in 2009.  Guillen, as controversial as ever, might've won this award running away if he'd been able to mount a pennant-winning charge in the final month.  Even so, the Sox improved by nine wins, the third-biggest improvement in the AL, despite the fact that the roster had very little turnover.  I believe that Ozzie and GM Kenny Williams deserve at least a modest shout-out for that accomplishment.

It's hard to leave the winningest manager in the AL off my ballot, and I do believe Joe Maddon deserves a great deal of credit for the success the Rays have had the last three seasons.  He made some very deft moves this year.  As always, he managed his bullpen as efficiently and effectively as anybody in either league.  He was patient with his young pitchers and they rewarded him in spades.  He mixed and matched at four positions in order to keep everybody on his deep, talented bench involved.  The Rays played great defense, they got clutch hits (until recently), they held leads, and their starters pitched deep into games.  Impressive work, Joe.  It is, however, one of the most talent-laden rosters in recent memory and they went the entire season without a critical injury, so he had a pretty nice template to work from.  It would've been hard to manage this team out of the postseason.  So Maddon falls just a hair short of my ballot.

Third Place: Terry Francona (Red Sox)

Gardenhire's supporters will frequently cite the losses of closer, Joe Nathan, and All-Star first-baseman, Justin Morneau, but the Twins were the picture of health compared with Boston.  The Red Sox, who finished with just five fewer wins than Minnesota, in a significantly tougher division, suffered significant injuries to Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Victor Martinez, Josh Beckett, and Mike Cameron, yet they were still within striking distance of a playoff berth with less than a week remaining.  Francona got way more than anyone could've expected out of replacement-level journeymen like Darnell McDonald, Bill Hall, and Daniel Nava.  He continued to cobble together innings from an aging, overworked bullpen.  And he gingerly nursed the egos of his stars and they struggled with prolonged slumps, flukes, bad breaks, misdiagnoses, position battles, and quarrels, both on and off the field.  The Red Sox missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006, but one could easily argue that this was among Francona's most masterly performances.

Second Place: Cito Gaston (Blue Jays)

Last offseason, Toronto said a tearful goodbye to quite possible the greatest player in their franchise's history (only Carlos Delgado has a competitive claim), Roy Halladay.  They also gave away their most talented (and overpaid) hitter, Alex Rios.  Their two best hitters from 2009, Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, began the season mired in horrible slumps and finished with a combined drop of more than 400 pts. in OPS.  Yet, somehow, despite everything working against them, the Blue Jays improved their record by ten wins in 2010.  With no Halladay, what passed for an elder statesman on Toronto's staff was 28-year-old Shaun Marcum, who hadn't pitched in a single game during 2009, yet somehow four young Jays reached double-digit wins, and combined for a .627 winning percentage.

Gaston's much-maligned free-swinging approach helped Jose Bautista, John Buck, Fred Lewis, and Alex Gonzalez achieve career years, and former superstar Vernon Wells turned in his best season since 2006.  When the season began, this team was expected to be overwhelmed by the stiff competition of the AL East, but not only did they finish with a winning record, miles ahead of the Orioles, but they managed go 10-10 against the playoff-bound Yankees and Rays.  If you include Texas and Minnesota, Toronto was actually 23-16 against the best teams in the American League.  Gaston deserves at least some of the credit for this highly unexpected turnaround and his successor is going to have a very tough act to follow.

First Place: Ron Washington (Rangers)

Yes, I'm partial to Washington and the 2010 Rangers.  That's well-established by now.  However, the case for Washington goes well beyond his extremely high Narrative Likability Factor, buoyed in part by the adversity which marred the Rangers Spring Training and forced him into answering silly questions about cocaine.

The Rangers were not a charmed franchise this year, despite the fact that they turned in their best performance in over a decade.  For one thing, the fragile trio of Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Ian Kinsler remained fragile (Hamilton made 116 starts, Cruz 101, Kinsler 102).  Likewise, Rich Harden and Scott Feldman, who entered the season #1 and #2 in the rotation, made a combined total of 40 starts, compiled a record of 12-16, and an ERA upwards of 5.50.  Texas also spent a significant portion of the season without incumbent closer Frank Francisco.  There was an ongoing clusterfuck at three different positions, as highly-touted youngsters Julio Borbon, Justin Smoak, Chris Davis, and Max Ramirez were all busts.  As a result, Texas ranked near the bottom of the league in OPS from catcher (28th), first base (27th), and center field (20th).  Clearly, not every move Ron Washington (and GM Jon Daniels) made worked out perfectly, but here are some crucial ones that did:

1.) Putting Elvis Andrus in the leadoff spot and leaving him there, even after Kinsler returned.  Andrus struggled a bit with a hamstring injury down the stretch, depressing his numbers, but his excellent first half (.361 OBP, 23 SB) helped Texas take control of the division.

2.) Putting Neftali Feliz in the closer role and leaving him there, even after Francisco returned.  Feliz notably set a rookie record for saves, with 40, threw 70 innings, and was among the most dominant closers in the AL (2.73 ERA, 9.2 K/9, 0.88 WHIP).

3.) Putting Alexi Ogando in the bullpen and leaving him there.  Ogando, another rookie, had not even thrown a pitch in A-ball prior to this season.  But the Rangers rushed him through the organization and Washington had the confidence to make him a late-inning reliever almost from the moment he reached the bigs.  In 44 innings, all coming after June 15, Ogando compiled a ridiculously low 1.30 ERA.

4.) Putting Tommy Hunter in the rotation and leaving him there.  With Harden, Feldman, Derrek Holland, and others clamoring for starts in the second half, the 23-year-old Hunter was not the favorite of many in the Dallas media.  But the Hoosier responded with eight straight wins in June and July.  He finished the season 13-4 with a 3.73 ERA and will take the ball in Game 4 of the ALDS.

As you can see, Washington never made the easy decision by going with the status quo or a mediocre veteran over ayoung player.  He had the audacity to go against the conventional wisdom, even though many local sportswriters were calling for his head even before the season began.  Even on the hot seat, Washington was always the picture of calm and never threw one of his players under the bus.  And, now, largely due to his example, the Rangers are a win away from their first ever ALCS (knock on wood).

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