When I heard the news that the Yankees decided against bringing Joe Girardi back in 2018, my first reaction was to scoff. Upon about ten minutes of reflection, however, I’m open to the argument — not yet established, but certainly possible — that it’s the right move. The fact that it can go either way says a lot about both Joe Girardi and about the current state of the New York Yankees.
Let’s be perfectly clear about one thing at the outset: Joe Girardi is a better manager than he was ever given credit for. He was often taken for granted and just as often disparaged because people have it in their heads that anyone can manage the Yankees. They’re rich! They’re laden with stars! If you don’t win the World Series with these guys every year you’re a failure and, heck, Girardi missed the playoffs with them four times!
This is nonsense, of course. The Yankees financial advantage is undeniable, but the money deployed by the Yankees front office has been suboptimal for years. Certainly during most of Girardi’s tenure when, just as often as not, he was forced to play past-their-prime veterans as opposed to genuine stars. You try managing a team with the corpses of Brian Roberts, Vernon Wells, and Lyle Overbay decomposing on your roster and the nearly-as-dead husks of Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira expected to lead your offensive attack. Until very recently he had no young blood to make up for those old bones, and it hamstrung the Yankees.
But it never hamstrung them so much that they could not compete. Indeed, the Yankees, while not always great under Girardi, were always respectable and often competitive. Many of these Yankees team were seemingly magicked into competitiveness due to Girardi himself. In large part because he was excellent at managing a bullpen. In large part because he was always able to, somehow, keep things running on an even keel despite the fact that P.R. storms always seemed to rage right outside the clubhouse door. Do you think just anyone could handle the insane drama surrounding the A-Rod era Yankees? I seriously doubt it.
A non-playoff Yankees team actually provided a good example of what Girardi brought to the table.
In mid-2016 the Yankees were a fourth place team, hovering around .500 with seemingly little upside. That trade deadline they sold off the two best relievers in the game in Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, put a couple of famous veterans out to pasture in Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez and called up a bunch of rookies. By all rights they should’ve tanked from then on like most other teams who do that sort of thing do.
Except they didn’t. They remained in fourth place, but they improved that record to a few more games above .500 and were in the thick of the Wild Card race until late in the season. Some of that was because of the better-than-expected performance of those rookies. Some of it was sheer chance. Some of it was just plugging holes and balancing bullpen roles and not having half the roster check out mentally to go fishing once they had a totally plausible excuse to do so in the form of the trade deadline selloff.
In most cases that sort of performance (i.e. doing better than expected given limited resources) is considered to be the work of the manager and the manager is normally praised. Joe Girardi, however, never got that kind of benefit of the doubt. He got mocked for using a binder.
Girardi may have averaged over 90 wins a year with the Yankees and may have won a World Championship, but was never given his due, locally or nationally. And, as the Yankees embark on a search for a new manager, it’s fair to say that it’ll be much easier for them to pick a manager worse than Joe Girardi than to find one his equal, let alone better.
Of course, there’s another side to this too. One that should make people keep their powder dry and to not fire on the Yankees for letting Girardi go, at least until we learn more about what was going on behind the scenes.
While Girardi spent most of his time in New York managing veteran-laden teams, the current New York Yankees squad is something else entirely. For the first time since the mid-90s they’re led by young stars in Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez. Luis Severino and Greg Bird. There are more stars just over the horizon, waiting to be called up. It’s possible, is it not, that while Joe Girardi has done a fine job with the Yankees over the past decade, that he is not the right guy to take this Yankees squad to the next level?
When I ask myself that question, I remember the little dustup with Greg Bird earlier this season, in which Yankees sources were questioning his commitment despite the fact that he was suffering from injuries. Girardi was absent from that story, but where did he fall in the dispute? I remember Gary Sanchez catching hell for his defense and Girardi going with Austin Romine behind the plate in a playoff game despite the fact that Romine is not a good defensive catcher himself (indeed, Romine made a defensive miscue in that game). Many had conflicting views on all of that, but do Bird and Sanchez believe their manager had their backs? Do Judge and Severnio think Girardi is the best guy for the job?
I honestly don’t know the answers to those questions, but they’re good questions which I presume people who cover the Yankees will report on over the winter. Rookies should not be in the business of choosing their own manager, of course, but a ball club has a duty to put a manager in charge who will get the most out of the most important players on the roster. At this juncture, that may or may not be Joe Girardi. In 1996 it proven not to be Buck Showalter in a similar situation, which was no knock on Buck Showalter.
All of which is to say that I can see both sides of this. I can see this as a big mistake by the Yankees because getting rid of an excellent manager is not the sort of thing that usually leads to success. At the same time, there is always the possibility of greater success when the right manager is paired with the right roster.
The Yankees won championships after getting rid of Miller Huggins, Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Billy Martin, Buck Showalter and Joe Torre. They can easily win one without Joe Girardi too. With the current makeup of the Yankees roster, it’s quite possible that it may be easier for them to do it with someone new.