For Joe Girardi, the clock is ticking.
He heads into his 10th season as the New York Yankees manager – longer than all but Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Joe Torre and Miller Huggins – and there is little doubt that he is as much on trial here as Gary Sanchez, Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and all the other unanswered questions on his re-made roster.
In fact, he is probably under more scrutiny than any of them, because unlike the kids, we already know Girardi’s act. We’ve seen his tendencies, are well acquainted with both his strengths and his weaknesses, can recite everyone one of his press conference answers by rote.
For the rest of them, the story is yet to be written, which makes this in some ways the most interesting Yankee season in 20 years. But Girardi’s story is already well-known, and what happens this year may well determine if this is the final chapter of his career as the manager of the New York Yankees.
Just in terms of sheer length of service, Girardi is reaching the end of his shelf life as a Yankee manager; McCarthy lasted into his 16th season, and Huggins, Stengel and Torre were done after 12. All of them, needless to say, had more to show for their tenures than Girardi, whose team won the World Series in 2009 but is 10-14 in post-season play since.
Asked if his lame-duck status entering this season would affect the way he managed, Girardi said this at his inaugural press conference Tuesday in the Alex Rodriguez Memorial Circus Tent at George M. Steinbrenner Field: “It doesn’t really impact me. I won’t seek any clarity. They have not extended managers as long as I can remember during the course of the season. Let’s just go play it out. I don’t envision myself doing anything different. This is what I know. This is what I’ve done for a long time.’’
How much longer, of course, is the question. Girardi is heading into the final year of a four-year deal that has paid him $4 million a season. Through the first three years of that deal, the Yankees record is 255-231, a .524 winning percentage. They have managed two second-place finishes in the AL East, and last year ended up fourth. They have not won a playoff game since 2012.
Not all of this has been his fault; he has been hamstrung by an aging, overpaid roster and until this past year, a depleted farm system that offered little in the way of reinforcements. And in truth, Girardi at times has done a remarkable job of keeping his team in contention despite all its shortcomings.
But this year, he has been given pretty much of a clean slate. Girardi will no longer have the easy out of old age and infirm bodies. Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran are gone. Sanchez, Judge, Bird, Tyler Austin, kids whose best years are presumably still ahead of them, are believed to be ready to become everyday players, and there are highly-touted prospects Clint Frazier, Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo stacked up behind them, as well as a collection of live young arms.
It may be too much to ask of Girardi to win it all with this fledgling bunch this season, but you can bet he will be expected to show that he can manage a roster full of kids, something that has been a glaring weakness of his throughout his Yankees tenure. All too often, Girardi has seemed reluctant to use young players or to trust them in high-leverage situations. This season, he will have no choice.
But to get the best out of them, Girardi will have to curb another of his most basic of instincts, the tendency to inject unneeded pressure into situations that don’t warrant it. Every loss seems to eat at Girardi. His temper grows short at questions that he believes impugn his strategy. His quick hook with certain relievers no doubt undermines their confidence in themselves, and their belief in the manager’s confidence in them. And quite frankly, he never seems to be enjoying himself, win or lose.
That attitude can cross over into the clubhouse, adding unnecessary stress into an already difficult situation, especially for young players who may still harbor doubts about their own ability. This season, Girardi is going to have to somehow swallow his reservations and trust his players, because quite frankly, his future is in their hands.
“I think this spring is probably going to be different from a few different perspectives,’’ he said. “There’s more competition. We haven’t been this young in a long time, maybe since 1996. I think it’s going to be a very exciting year.’’
He mentioned spring competitions between Bird and Austin for the first-base job, between Judge and Aaron Hicks for the rightfield job, and between no fewer than five pitchers – Luis Severino, Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Bryan Mitchell and old reliable Adam Warren – for two rotation spots.
I would submit that makes for an interesting spring while reserving judgment on how exciting it will turn out to be. While a lot of things have to go right every season for any baseball team to be successful, clearly more things have to go right for the Yankees this season than in any in recent memory.
“There’s a lot of talent in that room,’’ Girardi said, parroting one of the most meaningless things said every year by every manager of every team. There’s a lot of talent in every big-league clubhouse.
But as Girardi presciently pointed out, “Talent is one thing. Production is another.’’
Whether the new collection of talented young men in Joe Girardi’s clubhouse will produce enough to save his job will be one of the most compelling Yankee storylines of 2017.
The clock is ticking on that one, and it may be many months before we know exactly for whom that bell will toll.