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Skilled management

Sun., April 4, 2010, midnight

MLB’s supreme skippers approach sunset

Electronic readers don’t come with traditional pages or the familiar numbering system. They show you a percentage of the book that you have read.

Sometimes, while looking forward to the ending, the book just ends. Who knew that the last 23 percent would be footnotes and acknowledgements?

Managerial careers can also be like that – over unexpectedly, without the ending that we wanted. The 2010 season brings with it an unusual, perhaps unprecedented, sense of foretelling.

Bobby Cox and six others who have been the best managers of their generation enter what could be their farewell season. A lot of people are hoping at least a few of them author fitting endings, if this is the end.

Among them, Atlanta’s Cox, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Tony La Russa, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Joe Torre, the Chicago Cubs’ Lou Piniella, the Detroit Tigers’ Jim Leyland, the Cincinnati Reds’ Dusty Baker and the Toronto Blue Jays’ Cito Gaston have compiled 12,330 victories over 154 seasons. But here’s the kicker fact:

One of these seven got his team into every World Series from 1988 through 2004, including four years when one managed against another.

“It has been a wonderful experience to be in the game at the same time as those other guys,” La Russa said this spring. “I’ve enjoyed every year, and I’m going to enjoy this year. You never know how a season is going to turn out. You know where you start, and that’s all you know. The fun is in the journey.”

Is it telling the 2006 World Series, when the Cardinals beat the Tigers, marks the only time in the last five years that one of the legendary managers still was standing for the last dance?

The baton seems to have been passed quietly to the new wave of proven managers – men like Terry Francona, Mike Scioscia, Charlie Manuel, Bruce Bochy and Ron Gardenhire. Will they and others among their contemporaries (say the New York Yankees’ Joe Girardi, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Joe Maddon, the Chicago White Sox’s Ozzie Guillen) allow the future Hall of Famers to come out for bows after an encore or two?

Brawn and brain power

There’s nothing like the first day of full workouts at Yankee camp to understand the mission facing 29 teams in trying to win a championship. The quick look around the clubhouse reveals all the familiar faces, but the truly frightening thing in 2010 involves less familiar faces.

Curtis Granderson was there. But so were Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, along with top prospects Jesus Montero and Austin Romine. Young outfielder Brett Gardner not only was there but he apparently was in manager Joe Girardi’s plans.

Not so long ago, the Yankees would have used the winter to sacrifice a prospect to add a pitcher on the verge of free agency. But the next Yankee dynasty – one that extends beyond Derek Jeter – is being built as much through traditional player development means as with money from the Steinbrenner vaults. General manager Brian Cashman runs an organization that is valuing its human assets as much as its financial resources, beginning with scout director Damon Oppenheimer.

“That’s a really scary organization now,” a rival GM said this spring. “They’ve always had the money, but the only thing they thought about was the next season. Now they’re looking down the road, like smart teams do, and they have more money to spend than the rest of us.”

Surprise, surprise

Anyone can pick the Yankees, Cardinals, Philadelphia and Boston to win, and just about everyone is. But which teams are the most likely to surprise in 2010? In order, they are:

1. Rays: Sports Illustrated is picking them to win the World Series, which wouldn’t be such a shock because they went there only two seasons back. But in this era anyone other than the Yankees and Red Sox getting out of the A.L. East has to qualify as a surprise.

An amazing fact about the Rays is they are investing only $9.47 million in their 2010 starting rotation. That ranks 29th in spending for starters, ahead of only the Blue Jays, according to Tim Dierkes’ study on

But Joe Maddon nevertheless has a rotation full of potential front-of-the-rotation guys in James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, David Price and rookie Wade Davis. Andy Sonnanstine, a key to the ’07 pennant, is an excellent No. 6 starter who opens the season in the bullpen. It’s a strong lineup too, with newcomers Sean Rodriguez and Kelly Shoppach giving Maddon more good options. Shortstop Jason Bartlett is better than most people realize.

2. Texas Rangers: Nolan Ryan’s team went into a spring training funk after the revelation manager Ron Washington had tested positive for cocaine during last season. It wasn’t the greatest storyline of the spring but this is a veteran team that shouldn’t be derailed, even if Washington becomes an issue when the team returns to Texas, where its fan base could be unforgiving.

If Ryan feels the need to make a change, he has Clint Hurdle in the dugout, along with wise man Jackie Moore. One way or another, the manager won’t determine if the Rangers have enough meat on the bone to overtake the vulnerable Angels, whose talent level has taken a hit.

The key is whether the lineup built around Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler and Michael Young scores runs like it can. Nelson Cruz, newcomer Vladimir Guerrero and even first baseman Chris Davis also could drive in 100 runs. No team in the majors has a set-up man like Neftali Feliz. He hit 101 mph on four pitches in striking out the side against the Colorado Rockies last week.

3. Reds: With veteran starters Bronson Arroyo and Aaron Harang and manager Dusty Baker all in the last guaranteed year of their deals, there was a sense of urgency in their camp that wasn’t felt elsewhere in Arizona and Florida. The Reds, who went 27-13 to end the 2009 season, believe they need a fast start to keep the wolves at bay.

They have the parts to put one together, assuming youngsters Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Drew Stubbs come out swinging. The Reds should have enough pitching to put together a winning season and perhaps to challenge the Cardinals in the N.L. Central.

They open the season with Arroyo, Harang, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and either Travis Wood or Mike Leake in the rotation. They have the very impressive Cuban, Aroldis Chapman, in the wings, and hope to get Edinson Volquez back from Tommy John surgery by the All-Star break. They also made a smart move adding itinerant shortstop Orlando Cabrera. His teams win more often than not.

4. Milwaukee Brewers: If any team in the N.L. has a middle-of-the-order combination that can match Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, this is the one. That’s how good Ryan Braun has become while developing in the shadow of the powerful Prince Fielder (sorry Chase Utley and Ryan Howard).

The Brewers unraveled last year because they lacked pitching depth after losing CC Sabathia and Ben Sheets from a wild-card team in 2008. They have addressed the shortage by adding the under-appreciated Randy Wolf along with Doug Davis and LaTroy Hawkins. Still, they need a pleasant surprise or two from their organizational ranks, perhaps from Manny Parra or Chris Narveson.

Rookie shortstop Alcides Escobar is a reason for optimism. His play in the field contributed to the Brewers allowing fewer unearned runs this spring than any team in the majors.

Spring chicken

Jamie Moyer hasn’t been around as long as the infield-fly rule; it just seems that way. But the 47-year-old lefty had to earn his spot in Philadelphia’s starting rotation during spring training, and he did just that.

Moyer, sidelined when the Phillies went to a second consecutive World Series last fall, is in the last year of a two-year contract, but hopes it won’t be his final season. He bounced back from a series of surgeries to take a starting job away from Kyle Kendrick, who had pitched well.

“Jamie proved that he’s healthy,” Phillies pitching coach Rich Dubee said. “… He’s throwing the ball well, he’s functioning well …”

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