06/30/11 1:53 AM ET
Managers' success beholden to players
By Larry Dierker / MLB.com
The Astros have never lost 100 games.
I don't know when the Mets will finally do it, but one day they will. The Astros may lose 100 games this season. The fleeting glimpse of respectability that they showed in August and September last year has gone up in smoke. They aren't what they seemed to be then -- a promising young ballclub.
This has been evident recently because they lack the depth to overcome injuries, and they are missing things that winning teams all have, like an ace in the starting rotation, power at the corners, and a proven closer.
On their last homestand, they went 3-9 against the Cardinals, Braves and Pirates. Their current homestand figured to be even tougher, and it has been. They opened up against the Rays and got swept. Then came the Rangers, and they dropped the first two against them. They are now playing .346 baseball and could lose 105 games at this pace. And they still have one more games with the Rangers and three with the Red Sox before hitting the road again.
I feel sorry for skipper Brad Mills. As Terry Francona's bench coach in Boston, he got used to winning. But Francona had lots of tools, and Mills has only a few.
Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn would start for most teams. Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, and Bud Norris would make most rotations, but not as the No. 1 or No. 2 starter. The only relievers that would make most team's bullpens are Mark Melancon and Wilton Lopez. Neither of them would be a closer.
No manager can, through the power of leadership, inspire a weak team to win. A poor manager can hold down a good team. Mills is hoping his squad will improve quickly enough to allow him to prove he can win with good players. But, from the scouting reports I've heard, the Astros Minor League system, though vastly improved, has no budding superstars at the top levels. If they did, those players would be in Houston now.
So, with a new owner awaiting approval, Mills is in a precarious position. Sometimes he seems to be grasping at straws. It doesn't take a genius to see that. But what would he do if he had a well-armed pitching staff and sticks in the dugout?
That's the question he hopes to answer. But a new owner generally likes to put his own stamp on his team. If he doesn't have a surplus of young talent, the only substantial move he can make is to change managers. The Dodgers stood by Walter Alston and Tommy Lasorda when they were in decline, but what other team has done the same in the past 20 years?
The long and short of it is that Mills hasn't done anything wrong except taking the reins. And how could he have refused to do that after a 15-year apprenticeship?
The Astros let me go after we won our division and got swept in the first round of playoffs in 2001. We had won our division in four of my five years at the helm. But, we were eliminated in the first round every time, going 2-12 in postseason play. I was frustrated and understood why the team made the change. After all, even if we had won the division again in 2002, there would still be a stigma going into postseason play. With another manager, there would not.
I only applied for two jobs after that -- the Red Sox and the Phillies. Those were the only two teams that figured to be contenders, and I didn't want to go through a losing season like I did in 2000. Every day, the press hit me with what became a mantra: "Do you think you're going to be fired?" It got so bad that owner Drayton McLane held a press conference to say that I was not going to be fired. That took the pressure off, but a short losing streak after 9/11 put me right back in hot water. We won two of three in our last series in St. Louis to win the division. Then the Braves, our playoff nemeses, beat us three straight and I got the ax.
The secret to my success was good players. My timing was perfect, as the Astros had finished second in the three years leading up to my arrival. We had speed and some power, and after we got Moises Alou in 1998, we had more of both. Our pitching was better than average. We were bound to win.
Davey Johnson had the same experience with the Mets. In the Minor Leagues, he actually managed most of the good young players who emerged in 1984 and thereafter. It would have been possible to screw those teams up, but he did not. He won 90 or more games for five straight years with those young bucks.
In the managing game, timing is everything. Davey and I had it. Mills did not. (I can only imagine the conversations he will have with Terry Francona this weekend.)
Chances are, the Astros will lose 100 games before the Mets pitch a no-hitter. But I'd say that the odds of a Mets no-hitter vs. an Astros return to postseason play are about 50/50.
Larry Dierker is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.