The Diamondbacks have made the wrong man their latest manager. While Wally Backman will certainly do a good job, he wasn't the best candidate for the position. A young, inexperienced, and cash strapped club needs a special kind of manager to lead it. Frankly, a manager with more experience than the players have, and Backman, who will make his Major League Managerial debut with the Diamondbacks, is not that man.
Jim Leyland is.
Leyland has interviewed with both the Mets and the Phillies this off season. The Mets were asking more than Leyland had to offer, while the Phillies are still considering the former Pirates, Marlins, and Rockies skipper.
He was never even offered an interview in Arizona.
The Diamondbacks have been in existence eight years. Backman is their fourth manager. This is not what is often referred to as 'stability.' Which is not to say the Diamondbacks have made poor decisions in management. Buck Showalter was absolutely the right man to build this franchise, a franchise which made the conscious decision to win right away. Showalter built a team with drive, confidence, and a nice mix of stars and role players. When Showalter was let go, it was with a plan. He had built the team, but someone else would have to take that team over the hump if they wanted to win the World Series, and Jerry Colangelo felt Bob Brenly was the man for the job.
Quite obviously, he was.
Brenly went with his gut, trusted his veteran ballclub to do what needed to be done, and seemed to have a perfect feel of when to deflect criticism from his players, and when to needle them publicly to get them going.
When Brenly was let go, it again appeared to be the right time. Those veterans that Brenly could trust to make the right decisions and come through in clutch situations were either traded (Steve Finley and Curt Shilling), hurt (Luis Gonzalez and Richie Sexson), or broadcasting and gunning for his job (Mark Grace). His gut feelings often resulted in kicks to the groin, his frustration with the bullpen resulted in overuse. The players lost their faith in Brenly, and the Diamondbacks fans quickly lost faith in a franchise that had won the World Series just three years before.
Al Pedrique was a stop gap. Since the team was essentially going to be made up of minor leaguers, why not get the guy who had managed them in the minors. It was, again, an obvious choice. Pedrique had to know that his job was, at best, temporary, and has been acting like it since the season ended, openly campaigning to remain on the staff, but balking at returning to the minor leagues.
The problem is, Backman seems to be the same choice as Pedrique. Another manager that is coming out of the Diamondbacks farm system (though Pedrique had the experience of being the third base coach for the Diamondbacks for half a season), with no Major League managerial experience, and the question becomes, second verse, same as the first?
Certainly Backman is a bigger name. A 14 year veteran of the Majors as a player, and a World Series Champion with the '86 Mets (also as a player). He was named the Minor League Manager of the Year this past season by The Sporting News and has been at least on a Major League team's shortlist before.
But two things are almost certain now that Backman has been named the Manager.
The 2005 Diamondbacks will be without Richie Sexson and Randy Johnson.
Sure Backman said all the right things at the press conference announcing his hiring. Richie and Randy are his top priorities, he's here to win now, this is not a rebuilding process. Sexson filed for free agency the same day as Backman was named the Manager, hardly a vote of confidence, and within two days his representatives publicly acknowledged that he would be speaking with clubs other than the Diamondbacks, including the New York Mets.
Speculation has Johnson furious with the selection, though publicly he has offered no comment on Backman. At 42 years old even the seemingly ageless Big Unit has to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and can't be happy with thinking that the team is going to be good...three years from now.
The question becomes, could the Diamondbacks make a run at winning right now without Steinbrenner style spending, and would it ensure that in three more years we'd be staring at another 51 win season?
With Backman at the helm the answers are no, and no.
With Leyland, the answers could be yes and yes.
The two very simple reasons why are Sexson and Johnson.
A veteran manager like Leyland would show Big Sexy and the Big Unit that the Diamondbacks are still looking to be competitive. Sexson would have a Manager with a World Series ring, a Manager with 14 years of experience in the bigs. He would have a manager who coached a young Barry Bonds to the playoffs. A manager who knew what it took to win.
For both players, not to mention the fans, Leyland would be a reason to believe.
Those two would be enough. But it would get even better. There's a domino effect that comes with players of Sexson and Johnson's caliber, and a Manager that garners as much respect as Leyland. Other players want to come here. What's more attractive for a veteran like Steve Finley. Come finish your career under a manager who's never been above double-A, with a team mostly comprised of player in their first or second year of major league action, or finish your career under a veteran manager, next to a certain first ballot Hall of Famer and one of the most promising young power hitters in the game?
The Diamondbacks would need more pitching, and if you're Carl Pavano, do you want to sign a huge deal to be the ace on a team that averaged less than four runs a game last season, and seems likely to be no better (or even worse), with little to no consistency in their defense (after all, at least five, and possibly as many as seven positions are up for grabs), or be the #2 starter on a team behind Randy Johnson, with a slugger like Sexson patrolling first base?
And it isn't like Leyland doesn't know how to get results on a budget. While the Marlins were pretty free spending during Leyland's World Series run, the Pirates have never been a 'break the bank' team, and he took them to the playoffs on multiple occasions. He can work with the kids, but there would be less of them to work with. He can work with veterans, and there would certainly be more free agents willing to sign with a team Leyland was at the helm of.
The Diamondbacks have made a good choice in Backman, but a better one would have been Leyland.
Good luck Wally, you'll need it.