Sandberg would be fresh, familiar face for Cubs

Lou Piniella waves to the crowd before the start of his last game as Cubs manager.
( Y. Huh/AP Photo/Na)

The music started Sunday, and it’s not going to stop for a few months. The greatest game of managerial musical chairs baseball ever may see continued Sunday when Lou Piniella abruptly left the Chicago Cubs to tend to his sick mother. Forget this offseason’s class of free-agent players. The real intrigue concerns the gray-hairs who manage them.

Piniella and Atlanta’s Bobby Cox, both future Hall of Famers, say they’re retiring, opening up two of the game’s best jobs. Venerable Cito Gaston in Toronto is also leaving. The contracts of Tony La Russa and Joe Torre, two more future Hall of Famers, run out after the season. So do the contracts of Joe Girardi (the manager of the defending champion New York Yankees) and Ron Washington (the near-certain American League Manager of the Year). Add in the two jobs with interim managers – Seattle and Arizona – and a few more managers whose seats are somewhere between smoldering and incendiary, and the faces of perhaps one-third of teams in the major leagues could change between now and the New Year.

Certainly managers aren’t the dominant figures they used to be – Billy Beane started the neutering trend, and others have followed – but they remain publicly accountable as such. Torre still gets disproportionate credit for his four championships with New York; the grief on Cox for winning only one World Series with 14 straight division titles is undue.

And as Piniella wore a uniform for the final time, the prevailing sentiment was: Well, he couldn’t do it in Chicago, either. So goes life as a manager: minimal security, maximum grief. Piniella’s career ended in ugly symmetry, a 16-5 loss to Atlanta, the very same score as the Cubs’ defeat to the Braves on opening day. Piniella tipped his cap to Cox, caught a hug from Aramis Ramirez(notes), walked up the dank tunnel at Wrigley Field and left the denizens wondering whether …

Iowa Cubs manager Ryne Sandberg stands in the dugout before his team's game against the Oklahoma City Redhawks in July.
(Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo)

1. Ryne Sandberg would emerge from it on opening day 2011 as the Cubs’ newest hope. Though Mike Quade will lame duck it for the next six weeks, Sandberg, the Hall of Famer who spent all but six at-bats of his career with the Cubs, is the prohibitive favorite for the full-time job.

And he wants it. He wants it enough that his politicking is starting to develop a bit of mold. Sandberg manages the Cubs’ Triple-A team, and he reiterated Sunday that he’d love the big league job.

Judging Sandberg through the lens of other Hall of Fame players who flamed out managing – most notably Ted Williams – is misguided. Sandberg lived through the “Cubbie occurrences” Piniella so often referenced, the maladies that seem to afflict the Cubs year after cursed year. He has spent four years managing in the minor leagues and won. Were he named anything other than Ryne Sandberg, would he have a shot? Of course not, though that doesn’t disqualify him from succeeding.

The ultimate question from the Cubs should be: Does Ryne Sandberg give us the best chance to win …

2. Or could we go out and get someone like Joe Girardi? No, the Yankees still haven’t given a contract extension to the man who helped them win championship No. 27 – and promptly changed his uniform number to 28 just to signify his goal.

The attraction would be mutual. Girardi grew up in Illinois. He went to Northwestern. He was drafted by the Cubs and started his career with them. The allure of managing the Yankees is unquestionable. “So is the stress,” said a Girardi confidant earlier this season.

That same person admitted: “Joe is comfortable here. I can’t imagine he’d leave.” And after the Steinbrenner family stuck with him following a playoff whiff in his first season, it’s tough to imagine the Yankees not outbidding any team that tries to poach Girardi. Then again, with all the shuffling going on, it’s a buyers’ market, and …

3. Among the highest-ticket items is Tony La Russa. Because La Russa seemingly hasn’t aged in 20 years, it’s stunning to realize he turns 66 in October, a year younger than Piniella and three younger than Cox. He may stick around for a while, looking to concentrate power in a typically La Russian situation.

Of the teams that could find a new manager this offseason, only the New York Mets, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cubs have front-office instability. La Russa wouldn’t go anywhere near Arizona. The prospects of him in Chicago and New York, delicious though they are, remain far-fetched.

So St. Louis it almost certainly is, with La Russa heading back to his comfortable core of Pujols, Wainwright, Holliday, Rasmus, Carpenter and Garcia, which leaves …

4. Jose Oquendo in coaching purgatory. For more than a decade, Oquendo has been a loyal subject in La Russa’s fiefdom, and it’s gotten him nothing more than the managerial spot for Puerto Rico’s World Baseball Classic team. Joining him at the top of the list of coaches considered for managerial shots are the White Sox’s Joey Cora, Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell and Don Mattingly, the Dodgers’ bench coach.

Mattingly was passed over once before, in New York, where Girardi took the reins. And when USA Today reported this week that Mattingly isn’t the favorite in Los Angeles, either – that would be former Dodger and Triple-A manager Tim Wallach – it showed the ugly side of the game, the political one, where assumptions do you-know-what and thinly veiled promises go as deep as a kiddie pool. It also helps to understand the rules when visiting the pitcher’s mound.

Whoever takes over when …

Joe Torre and the Dodgers are in fourth place in the NL West.
(Gregory Bull/AP Photo)

5. Joe Torre departs – what, you think he’d actually come back to manage the fourth-place Los Angeles Divorces? – it’s going to be a mess. As Frank and Janie McCourt continue to play their game of side-by-side public seppuku, the Dodgers franchise shrinks evermore, the payroll under $100 million, the farm system thinned by McDeals – the McCourt-mandated prospect-for-player trades where the other team picks up salary in exchange for higher-end kids – the overall prospects bleaker than should be for a team in that market with that talent.

Already Matt Kemp(notes) is hankering to leave. Russell Martin(notes) is all but useless. Others can be satisfied hitting brick walls year after year. No wonder Torre is getting the hell out. He can go anywhere – Chicago? New York? Atlanta, if he’s feeling really sentimental – and make lots of money. Or he could do TV once a week, get bank and hang out with his family. It’s great to have so many options …

6. The sort of situation for which Jerry Manuel can only wish. The Mets, like the Dodgers, sit in fourth place. Except that New York’s payroll is somewhere in the $130 million range, and Manuel still hasn’t managed a postseason game in 2½ years with the Mets, and something has got to give.

Right?

By this point, it’s folly to figure out what Omar Minaya will do with Manuel (or what Jeff Wilpon will do with Minaya). Seeing Manuel back in New York, though, would be a surprise, just as seeing Ken Macha in Milwaukee would be, just as seeing John Russell in Pittsburgh would be, just as …

Ron Washington
(AP Photo)

7. Everyone figured seeing Ron Washington in Texas would be. In March, a Sports Illustrated report prompted Washington to admit that he had tested positive for cocaine last season. The circumstances were murky. The explanation was hazy. Washington kept his job, though it seemed a fait accompli that Texas would look elsewhere at the end of the season.

Wrong: The Rangers have told Washington they intend to bring him back next year and beyond, according to a source close to the manager. The team does not want to negotiate midseason and cause any undue distractions but plans on taking care of Washington’s contract after the season.

He certainly earned it. Washington might win AL Manager of the Year honors unanimously. His likely National League counterpart, San Diego’s Bud Black, already received an extension through 2013. Black’s extension gives him rare security among managers. He’s already the third most-tenured NL skipper, behind La Russa and …

8. The everlasting Bobby Cox, who could manage Atlanta for life if he wanted. Instead, Cox wants to go out on top, his Braves every bit as good as the other teams in the NL. Cincinnati may score more runs. The Braves’ ERA is a half-run better. San Diego may outpitch them. The Braves have outscored them by 33 runs. Philadelphia may have bigger names. The Braves are far deeper, even with Chipper Jones(notes) out for the season.

The way Cox has ushered in the next generation of Braves – Jason Heyward(notes), Brian McCann(notes), Martin Prado(notes), Tommy Hanson(notes), Jair Jurrjens(notes), Mike Minor(notes), Jonny Venters(notes), and, scarily, there are many, many more in Atlanta’s loaded system – sets the standard for easing youth into important roles. Such a deft touch is rare – Piniella was notoriously awful, though his handling of Starlin Castro(notes) this year is to be commended – and one of the many things that makes Cox every bit the manager of his contemporaries. That he didn’t ruin arms like …

Dusty Baker
(AP Photo)

9. Oh, hell, isn’t it time to give Dusty Baker a pass on Mark Prior(notes) and Kerry Wood(notes)? Probably not, though what Cincinnati has done this season, marching from afterthought to Cardinals slayer, indeed casts a fresh perspective on Baker’s career.

Until he wins a World Series, he always will be known as the guy who couldn’t do it during Barry Bonds’ juiciest years and couldn’t do it with two of the greatest young arms to come along in a generation. Yes, he abused Prior and Wood, and no, he hasn’t ever been publicly contrite for doing so. But as Stephen Strasburg(notes) and his biggest-MRI-in-the-history-of-MRIs shows, a team can take every bit of precaution with a pitcher and still end up with his arm in a tube and everyone’s breath held until their faces run the rainbow.

Baker’s a free agent this offseason, too, and he’ll be in demand if he leaves Cincinnati despite his past. All anyone remembers is today, and the Reds’ emergence is impressive. If Baker does depart, it won’t be …

10. Under the same circumstances he did Chicago, and his replacement, Piniella, did, and ones that Ryne Sandberg will eventually have to confront unless he does what they and 48 others haven’t been able to do over the past 102 years.

Because Sandberg’s credentials are so thin – Williams, and few others, have gone from their Hall of Fame speech to running a team within five years – the easiest explanation for considering him is that this group of fans deserves something exciting, something that tugs at its emotional core. That’s understandable.

As long as Cubs fans realize a manager can do only so much, the Sandberg route is a fair one. He’s not a savior. He’s not going to immediately foist a rebuilding team into contention. He would come to Chicago like every other manager did: trying to win. Whether, in this offseason of musical chairs, he gives the Cubs the best chance when the music stops is the biggest – and most difficult – question.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Aug 23, 2010