Since the Pirates' firing of John Russell a few weeks ago, a number of writers and fans have argued that one of the problems with Russell was that he toed the company line, even when his superiors were making bad decisions, and thus the Pirates need someone who will tell Neal Huntington where to shove his next bad idea. This point of view might have arisen largely as a result of the reporting in this article:
When Huntington made a costly trade in acquiring overweight and under-motivated Aki Iwamura in the winter, the front office wanted so badly to get Iwamura going that Russell was urged to put his .169-hitting second baseman atop the order ...
When Charlie Morton's pitching was all that kept the Pirates from a winning record a month into the season, the front office wanted so badly to get him going -- Morton also was acquired in a trade -- that he lasted in the majors until late May, when he was 1-9 with a 9.35 ERA. He would need a breather from baseball and help from a sports psychologist in the minors to recover.
Perhaps most extraordinary, there was front-office meddling in game situations, such as the conspicuous defensive shifts earlier this season, drawn up off statistical models but often proving embarrassing when applied to actual games. These faded over the summer, largely because of Russell's wish.
Now, it isn't good that these things happened. The Pirates hung onto Iwamura (and Ryan Church, come to think of it) for way too long, and they kept Morton in the rotation for too long. The shifts, I think, are debatable. Judging with my eyes, they didn't work, but that's the sort of thing I don't necessarily trust my eyes to determine. If Pirates stats guy Dan Fox thinks they were a good idea, they might well have been, at least in the long term. And I think it's generally a good idea for a last-place team try tactics that have potential upside, even if they run the risk of looking silly.
Whether these things were good or bad, though, John Russell was right to do them if that was what the front office wanted. John Perrotto noted a few weeks ago that the Pirates were looking for another "yes-man." Well, they should want a "yes-man," in a way - not a sycophant, definitely, but someone who basically understands and will subscribe to the front office's idea. If you don't like that the Pirates played Iwamura or Morton for too long, you shouldn't hope for a manager who will defy his superiors. You should hope for his superiors (Neal Huntington, Frank Coonelly) to learn from the experience and get better at their jobs.
In the worst case, a willful manager can really mess things up for a general manager, as Jim Tracy did with Paul DePodesta back when Tracy was managing the Dodgers and finding excuses not to use young players. At best, a manager who is willful but not openly defiant might be able to help a front office see things it might have otherwise missed.
But I'm not sure such a manager would be well-suited to this front office. Not because this front office is perfect, but because it has spent the last three years building an extremely rigorous development program that's just now starting to bear fruit. Farm director Kyle Stark has run a very tight ship, and minor-league personnel who haven't gotten with the program, like Altoona's Matt Walbeck, have been shown the door.
That sounds draconian, but I think Stark deserves the benefit of the doubt right now. Pirates minor leaguers have struggled with injuries, but many of those injuries have been fluky, and when prospects have been able to stay on the field, they have mostly flourished. Many players who were big question marks when they arrived via trade, such as Jose Tabata, Jeff Locke, Bryan Morris and Nathan Adcock, have done very well. Rudy Owens became a very good prospect under Stark's watch, and he has given the Pirates' staff credit for suggesting changes that led to his emergence. All of the Pirates' big-bonus high-school pitching picks from the 2009 draft have gotten through short-season ball with their prospect status intact. The Pirates' development record isn't perfect (Tim Alderson's flop is one strike against them, even if his downfall probably started before he was acquired), but at least at the minor-league level, it has been pretty darn good.
In three years, the Pirates' roster will be composed largely of players who have gone through the Bucs' minor-league system. The single most important thing a major-league manager can do for young players is to teach them. The Pirates need someone who understands and is willing to follow their development procedures, which can be much more subtle than the issue of whether or not to play Aki Iwamura. It therefore seems especially important that they find someone who is on board with their ideas.
The Bucs should not have stuck with Iwamura or Morton for so long, and the front office has deserved a lot of the criticism it got for the way it handled those two players. But that doesn't mean the Bucs' new manager should be a headstrong type who wants to stick it to the front office. A lot of the front office's ideas are actually pretty good, especially in player development, which is critical right now.
Just Win Baby: You said Macha wouldn't mesh well with Huntington/Coonelly. So that means another substandard yes-man is going to be hired here?
Bob Smizik: A "yes" man does not have to be substandard. And let's not forget that the GM is the manager's boss. When I was a columnist at the P-G, my bosses usually gave me a free rein on topics. But sometimes they told me what to write. That's their right. Huntington might have interfered too much, but to suggest the GM should have no influence over the manager is not correct.
I hate to say it, but I agree with Bob Smizik. Hiring a manager who is on board with the Pirates' ideas does not necessarily mean hiring an anonymous manager, or a manager who won't bring anything to the table. As Perrotto points out in the article linked above, Eric Wedge was part of a "yes man" sort of arrangement in Cleveland, and Wedge is fairly well-known and has a good reputation. The Pirates shouldn't want a manager who radically disagrees with them, and neither should the fans.