The Conflicting Priorities of Andy Green

During yesterday’s game, Andy Green made a curious move. Trailing 5–1 in the third inning, Green pulled a double-switch, removing Manuel Margot from center and putting Matt Szczur in his place. The move perhaps made a touch of strategic sense—it moved the pitcher’s spot from ninth to eighth in the lineup, so new hurler Robbie Erlin didn’t have to bat until the bottom of the fifth. Still, it was super early for a double-switch; avoiding a low-leverage at-bat from the pitcher’s spot in the third inning is hardly a needle-mover. If you believe Margot is a better player than Szczur, you can’t remove him in the third for a double-switch. (And if you don’t, perhaps Szczur should have just started the game.)

Without an easy-to-explain injury—one apparently wasn’t mentioned after the game—the move just didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it perhaps highlighted a difference in priorities between Green and the Padres front office.

The question about who’s better between Margot and Szczur right now is possibly an open one, but we can probably all agree on one thing: Margot has a future in the organization and Szczur does not—at least not unless he’s willing to drop his spare outfielder gig for one as a roving instructor. And even if the switch might have made some sense from a win expectancy standpoint—not a given, by the way—it just didn’t jibe in the big scheme of things. The Padres were facing a left hander and a bad team, and Margot, so long as he’s on the team, should get as many at-bats as is reasonable. Starting him and then removing him after one plate appearance isn’t doing anybody any good.

Of course, if Green is doing everything he can to squeeze an extra point of win expectancy out of a thin roster, maybe it’s hard to blame him.

In a perfect world, Green, the front office, and ownership would all be working in lockstep toward the common goal of winning at some point in the next half decade. In this scenario, Green would have leeway to play struggling young players; to push rookie pitchers through tough innings; to hit Margot higher in the order despite the shaky results; to avoid using Brad Hand for multiple-inning save chances once or twice a week. Green, in theory, would know his job was safe, so there’d be no reason to prioritize winning over development. No, he wouldn’t have to go full-tank or anything, but he could lay off the gas a little bit without fearing the red tag.

It’s not a perfect world. Almost any manager feels the inevitable specter of unemployment as the losses mount, even if all sides parrot the same message. Green’s been on the job since the 2016 season and the Padres haven’t sniffed a winning record yet; he won 68 games in his first year, 71 last year, and right now he’s on pace for just 65 in 2018. None of Green’s clubs were supposed to win, of course, but the simple matter of losing leaves a manger open to a firing, especially if there’s a perceived step in the wrong direction at any point.

Shoot, sometimes even winning doesn’t guarantee a safety net. Dusty Baker took over a Washington Nationals team that had collapsed in 2015, won a combined 192 games between 2016 and 2017, but went 4–6 in the playoffs and was unceremoniously canned. Last offseason, Joe Girardi met the same fate after a long and mostly successful run with the Yankees. And don’t look at other sports, like the NBA, where the Toronto Raptors recently fired longtime head coach Dwane Casey after a conference-best 59-win season and a Coach of the Year award.

The better comparisons for Green, however, are in his own sport. Managers Rick Renteria and Bo Porter were both hired in the middle of a rebuild—Renteria with the Cubs, Porter with the Astros—and both were generally (or at least initially) praised during their short stints for things like clubhouse management and player development. Both were also fired as soon as their teams were ready to win.

Renteria only got one year with the Cubs. That 2014 Chicago team went 73–89, good for a seven-game improvement over the previous season. Renteria helped get breakout performances out of players like Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, and Kyle Hendricks, players who would soon become key cogs of the Cubs curse-busting 2016 World Series winner. But as soon as the Cubs had a chance to hire the veteran Joe Maddon away from Tampa Bay, Renteria was good as gone. Renteria’s reemerged in the south side of Chicago these days, trying to work his way through a similar rebuild with the White Sox.

Porter nearly got two full seasons in Houston. After a 51–111 record in 2013, Porter seemingly had the Astros moving in the right direction in the following season. Through the first 138 games, he had guided the ‘Stros to a more respectable 59–79 record; like Renteria’s sole year in Chicago, that team had eye-opening performances from players like Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Dallas Keuchel. The abrupt mid-season divorce was a bit more messy than Renteria’s with the Cubs, as Ben Lindbergh once chronicled back at Grantland, noting breakdowns in things like leadership skills and clubhouse relations.

Either way, all of the manager firings mentioned here represent a possible fate for any manager, let alone Green specifically. Baker was fired because it was perceived that he couldn’t—or just didn’t—get his talented team over the top; Renteria was fired because a better manager suddenly became available; and Porter was fired because, despite the improving play of his team, he ultimately ended up being something other than what the Astros were looking for.

In any of the three cases, winning likely would have postponed a firing. Had Baker (or Casey) won a title, his chances of getting fired would have dropped to somewhere very close to zero percent. Had Renteria turned that 73-win team into an 87-win team, maybe the Cubs ignore Maddon altogether. Had Porter led the Astros to a stunning pennant race in year two, perhaps the Astros would have given him another chance to work on his faults.

In just about any situation, the simple presence of losing makes it easy to fire a manager, whether it’s losing the Big Game or simply losing too darn many of them. The Astros were probably right about Porter’s shortcomings—they’re a smart team after all, and he’s not managing another team today—but they also hired the man. Accompanied with winning, his abrasive style could have been looked at as a net positive, painting him in the light of the next Billy Martin or Bobby Valentine. Instead, next to a boatload of losses, each of Porter’s mistakes was just another reason to send him packing.

It’d be in the best interest of the Padres if Green managed like his job was safe. It’s not, however, and so it’s important to examine his behavior with as much in mind. Maybe Green and A.J. Preller & Co. really are on the same page; it’s hard to tell from here. But even if they are, Green can’t necessarily be faulted for managing with the fates of Renteria and Porter in the back of his mind. Every loss is anther step closer to the exit door, rightly or wrongly, and each one helps to magnify the negatives—a strange lineup, an odd double-switch, a dugout kerfuffle or two.

In one sense, Green’s managing with an eye toward the future. In another, however, he’s managing to win. In the end, if he doesn’t eventually win, that future will belong to someone else. And for Green, unfortunately, the tipping point could be tomorrow or two years from now or a decade and a championship away; it’s whenever his bosses decide someone else can do his job better.

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