It's a wild winter ride for MLB's rookie managers

Steve Henson
Rookie manager Mike Matheny is riding a wave of uncertainty as he awaits the outcome of Albert Pujols' decision

DALLAS – Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals could lose his close friend and best player in baseball, Albert Pujols(notes), before he can write his name on a lineup card even once.

Robin Ventura of the Chicago White Sox lost his closer, Sergio Santos(notes), to a trade Tuesday and likely will lose a reliable starter when free agent Mark Buehrle(notes) signs elsewhere.

Dale Sveum of the Chicago Cubs feels just plain lost, wandering wide-eyed through the cavernous Hilton Anatole Hotel where this week's winter meetings are held.

All three are rookie managers. Only Sveum has experience managing at any level, and he has only 16 games in the big leagues. All three are struggling to gain their bearings in a cauldron of media attention and front-office wheeling and dealing.

"Yeah, this is my first winter meetings," Sveum admitted. "Last night in that lobby, to see that many people standing around and gathering information. It's like, wow, it's good to see a lot of people that you don't get to see all the time. It is eye-opening. It's just a big baseball carnival."

Ventura walked into the hotel and was quickly told Santos – he of 30 saves in 2011 – had been traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for minor league pitching prospect Nestor Molina. Of course, Ventura fielded questions a couple hours later and the first thing he was asked was who would close for the White Sox.

"Yesterday when I talked to you, I knew who it was," he said with a wry grin. "But obviously, you know, right now you're going to wait and see how the rest of this week goes and figure it out from there."

[Related: The chase for Albert Pujols creates spectacle for Marlins]

Matheny stands to lose – or gain – the most when Pujols decides whether to take the Miami Marlins' 10-year offer or return to the Cardinals, his team of the last 11 seasons. Matheny, a coaching fixture in the organization since his playing career was cut short by concussions, was considered Pujols' confidant.

"We've always been close, but I saw him at his fundraising event last weekend, and the discussion never opened up," Matheny said. "It's a different dynamic now, where before I was more of a friend. But this is a business decision that he and [his wife] and his representation have put a lot of time into."

Matheny and the rest of St. Louis' decision-makers are on a dual-track preparation for the season: one with Pujols, one without. The slugger could make a decision as soon as Wednesday.

"The plan in place is to put the best possible team on the field," Matheny said. "As far as what that looks like, at this point I think it's too premature. I believe it'll be a good team regardless, and I think [Cardinals' owner] Bill DeWitt said it the best: It'll be a better team if you have Albert."

Sveum is hoping to gain a slugging first baseman. The Cubs might be a third team in on Pujols, and Prince Fielder(notes) also is a possibility. Sveum's relationship with Fielder, developed over many years together in the Milwaukee Brewers organization, is a lot like Matheny's is with Pujols.

"He should have played the game in the 1950s and '60s and '70s when guys played as hard as they possibly could every single day," Sveum said. "They cared about winning. They cared about their teammates. And Prince is all those things. He's just one of them special guys, who like I said comes around once in a lifetime.

"But I don't think that we've even started any talks or anything like that."

And like Matheny, Sveum is already mulling contingencies. Asked if recently signed outfielder David DeJesus(notes) would bat leadoff, he replied, "Leadoff, yeah, or he could be our fourth hitter. Who knows?"

Ventura, like Sveum, will embark on a rebuilding project in the city of broad shoulders. The White Sox are smarting from the lucrative long-term deal they gave Adam Dunn(notes) a year ago and also are counting the days until Alex Rios'(notes) contract expires.

Still, "rebuilding" isn't a word any player or manager wants to hear.

" 'Retooling,' I think, is the same. I think you can use that word," Ventura said. "I've been through the rebuilding as a player, and looking at our roster it's not the same as what I went through. I feel confident with what we have."

Managers must exude confidence, no matter how daunting their challenge. Even before their first day of spring training with their new teams, Sveum, Matheny and Ventura understand the drill. Nary a discouraging word. Keep options open. Adjust, then adjust again.

"This is different, obviously getting asked questions about personnel and not having gone through a year yet, so it's not like I know all of them all that well," Ventura said. "When things start changing, you start looking down different avenues of what's there on the team."

Once the winter meetings madness subsides, the three rookies will work the phones. Contacting every one of their players before the spring is important. Matheny has already done so. Ventura is making a call or two a day. Sveum vowed to talk to everyone by Christmas.

"We're new at this but a lot of it is about developing and maintaining relationships," Matheny said. "That starts once these meetings end."

And they all get out of the Hilton without any more losses.

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