The spring day that Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane picked up Cecil Cooper's contract option for 2010 was the day another club official predicted Cooper would not last the season. The option, the official said, gave McLane cover to drop the hammer on Cooper if the team failed to meet the owner's inflated expectations.
Call it a severance package, and call it delusional that McLane thought firing Cooper with 13 days left in the season and the first-place Cardinals in town after an 0-7 Astros road trip would send the message to Houston fans that the team was really trying to make things better for 2010.
Cooper's firing will not be the last managerial change in the coming weeks. In Cleveland, it appears that general manager Mark Shapiro has been given little choice by ownership but to fire Eric Wedge. Orioles manager Dave Trembley may be offered another position in the organization, and in Washington, Jim Riggleman is uncertain whether the "interim" will be taken off his job description.
Ken Macha had a rough first season in Milwaukee but appears safe. However, baseball sources say two blockbuster changes might be in the works. One involves the Mets and the team's former manager Bobby Valentine plotting a return to the U.S. after a six-year run in Japan as the manager of the Chiba Lotte Marines. Incumbent Mets manager Jerry Manuel was given a vote of confidence by owner Fred Wilpon, but one former Met recalled Wilpon's meeting with the team in the final days of the 2002 season, Valentine's last.
Wilpon, the former Met told an associate, held a clubhouse meeting in which he challenged the players and threw his support behind Valentine, the F-bombs flying in surprising numbers. "This guy is my manager,'' Wilpon told the club.
"A couple of days after the season ended,'' the ex-Met told the associate, "he fired Valentine.''
Could a similar fate await Manuel, and would Valentine, whose name also has been linked to the Nationals job, go back to work for the man who fired him? It's a stretch but not impossible, sources said, especially for a man who loves the big stage as much as Valentine.
Another situation that bears watching is in Atlanta, where manager Bobby Cox has been hedging about whether he will be back. According to a major league source, the relationship between Cox and GM Frank Wren deteriorated during the spring to the point that Cox packed his bag and climbed into his car to drive home from spring training until dissuaded from doing so by one of his coaches.
Cox was unhappy at the way the John Smoltz(notes) issue had been handled, the source said, and because he had not been kept up to speed on other personnel decisions. The relationship appears to have been patched up, although the parting with Tom Glavine(notes) was another strained episode, and the expectation is that Cox will be back because he's excited that the Braves have another core of young talent developing. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, back in Houston, any discerning fan would look at the team's horrendous spring training – the Astros went 22 days between wins – a roster that was the league's oldest in 2008 and over the winter added more AARP members (Ivan Rodriguez(notes), Mike Hampton(notes), Russ Ortiz(notes) and Aaron Boone(notes)), and a clubhouse environment in which players long ago tuned out Cooper and wonder why this hadn't happened long before. Houston Chronicle columnist Richard Justice reported that Astros players had taken to wearing T-shirts that read "Really?" as in, can you believe Cooper really did that?
Third-base coach Dave Clark was named interim manager, and while he likely will be interviewed this winter for the permanent job and help the Astros toe the line about considering minority candidates, he would appear to be a longshot.
Cooper's coaching staff was advised that while they might stick around under the new man, they were free to pursue opportunities elsewhere. Cooper was not hired by GM Ed Wade, who knows the team needs a drastic overhaul but has been hamstrung by an owner who refused to move veterans that might have brought something in return because he considered that tantamount to waving the white flag. He also gave no-trade clauses to Carlos Lee(notes) and Roy Oswalt(notes), two of Houston's most valuable chips, making Wade's job all the more challenging.
The Astros' next manager will be the team's fifth this decade, a list that includes Cooper, Phil Garner, Jimy Williams and Larry Dierker. The constant turnover takes its toll, and the next couple of seasons may be painful, as Wade presumably will finally begin the overdue job of making the Astros younger.
The next managerial hire will be Wade's first, giving him a chance to put his stamp on the club. Possible candidates include Jim Fregosi, with whom Wade had an excellent relationship when both were in Philadelphia, manager-turned-broadcaster Buck Showalter, and Manny Acta, who was an Astros coach before he became manager of the Nationals. The name of former Astros star first baseman Jeff Bagwell(notes) also has been floated, though he has no experience as a coach or manager.
Other names expected to surface as managing hopefuls in the coming weeks are Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, whose deep ties to the Indians as player and coach make him a favorite if Wedge is let go; Orioles bench coach Dave Jauss, who has extensive big league coaching and minor league and winter league managing experience but never played pro ball; Arizona third-base coach Chip Hale; Giants bench coach Ron Wotus; Torey Lovullo, the Indians' Triple-A manager in Buffalo; and Brewers bench coach and former Mets manager Willie Randolph.