Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cleveland Names Acta New Skipper

In an aggressive move, Cleveland decided to appoint their choice for manager on Sunday, rather than waiting until after the World Series as expected. Former Nationals skipper Manny Acta was the first candidate to interview with the Tribe, but must have left quite an impression over his two interviews with ownership and front office personnel.

Former Mets and Rangers manager Bobby Valentine, Torey Lovullo of the Columbus Clippers, and Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly were also interviewed. Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke was scheduled to interview with Cleveland at some point, but the team appeared to make a decision before those talks could further develop.

Besides standing out amongst the other candidates, Acta was also being courted by the Houston Astros to fill their managerial vacancy. This may have pushed Cleveland to make an offer to their top choice earlier than anticipated. Acta also has a history with the Astros franchise, as they drafted him in 1986 and later gave him his first management opportunity in the minors in 1993.

Acta broke into the majors as a third base coach with Montreal from 2002 to 2004 under former Cleveland player/manager Frank Robinson before manning the same post with the Mets from 2005 to 2006 under Willie Randolph. He took over in Washington after his former boss, Robinson, was fired after the 2006 season. Acta also managed the Dominican Republic in the 2004 World Baseball Classic and led the prestigious Tigres del Licey to a Caribbean Series title that same year.

It’s unclear who made the first move, but Acta reportedly turned down Houston’s two-year guaranteed offer and chose Cleveland instead. In his post-interview press conference, Acta seemed intrigued by Cleveland’s core of “exciting young players,” stating that the “Indians have a lot more in place…pretty much a whole lineup” to build upon right away.

Acta’s contract is for three years guaranteed (2010-2012), with a club option for a fourth year in 2013. The specific salary details of the contract have not yet been released yet.

There were a few factors attached to each of the other candidates that may have worked against them:

Bobby Valentine’s 14 years of major league managerial experience (plus five more in Japan) puts him well ahead in that particular category, but all that experience would have come at a price. Valentine made about $4 million in his final year with the Chiba Lotte Marines and would have likely requested a comparable salary with Cleveland.

Shapiro has gone on record saying funds would not prevent them from hiring their choice for manager, despite owing Eric Wedge at least $1 million for the final year of his contract. While I do believe money was not an absolute limitation, I bet it factored into the discussion about Valentine. It’s doubtful a team that just slashed their payroll doesn’t place significant weight on how much they’ll be paying their next manager.

Valentine also gave out a very unusual vibe during his sit-down with the local press. From his body language to the cryptic quotes he threw out, he gave the impression that he had just finished an interview with an employee he was thinking about hiring, instead of the other way around. Bottom-line, he sounded more like an old hand amused by the whole process instead of seriously considering joining a young, rebuilding ball club (it’s difficult to describe, I just didn’t like the impression he gave at all). Valentine’s self-described “lousy loser” mentality would have been a poor fit for a club that needs patience and guidance for its young players over the next two seasons in order to mold the team into a contender once again.

Torey Lovullo has been a manager in the Tribe’s farm system for eight years, with the last four spent in Triple-A. Despite his track record with the team and relationship with many of its upper level prospects, I’m not sure Lovullo was ever under real consideration for the position. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was actually interviewing for a coaching position with Cleveland, even if it was touted as an interview for manager. Lovullo has spent twice as long managing in the minors as Wedge did, so it would make sense for the team to offer him a promotion if he is regarded highly enough to be publicly nominated for manager.

The team hinted that they wanted to move in a new direction with their next manager. With the rebuilding process in full-swing and the departure of Wedge and his entire coaching staff, now seems like a suitable time to look abroad for a truly fresh approach. Every manager since John McNamara (dismissed part-way through the 1991 season) has been an internal hire, including Mike Hargrove (1991-1999), Charlie Manuel (2000-2002), and Eric Wedge (2003-2009).

Don Mattingly was probably my least favorite candidate. First, he was already passed over for a managerial position in favor of Joe Girardi in New York, leaving him with no professional managing experience (not even in the minors). I’m not a big fan of Joe Torre’s management style either (Mattingly has worked under Torre his entire coaching career), although obviously he has had great success in New York, albeit with a ridiculous amount of rostered talent every year.

Second, Mattingly has never been around a small-market environment like Cleveland. Los Angeles and New York are basically the complete opposites of Cleveland, right down to the payroll, media presence, and fan relations. As Terry Pluto pointed out, “it would be a major shock [for Mattingly] to be under the budget limitations that will come with [the Cleveland] job.”

Personally, I am very excited about bringing Manny Acta on board as manager. He seems to be an above-average communicator with both the players and staff and has the proper mindset and experience to develop Cleveland’s core of young players. As a native of the Dominican Republic, Acta has an advantage in communicating directly with the team’s Latino players, especially those newer to the league who may not yet be fluent in English. Combine his communication skills with a positive, upbeat approach to the game and I think he will have an easy time engaging and motivating the team.

Even though he’s coming from a losing franchise in Washington, that experience should make his first season in Cleveland seem much easier by comparison. Breaking in as a major league manager is difficult enough, but the fact that he did it with the worst team in the league had to have been a nightmare at times. Hopefully, by applying the lessons he learned while managing an extreme version of a team in transition, Acta will be that much more effective during his second tour of duty as a result (if you think the Indians have it rough, they don’t even come close to the Nats’ situation).

Acta also has a reputation as an excellent evaluator of talent and is a student of sabermetrics, which should fit in well with the team’s front office culture. Unlike some old-school managers, Acta embraces new types of baseball research. Saber-oriented thinking has become common-place in major league front offices, but is still a novel idea in the dugout, so I’m eager to see how Acta applies these emerging viewpoints into his day-to-day managerial decisions.

I’ll have more on Acta’s managerial style, his tenure in D.C., and the press conference introducing him as manager later this week.

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