First, a disclaimer: I believe the last time Joe Torre positively influenced on-field action with his decisions happened around 1997. He was once a brilliant bullpen manager and he did have a knack for making difficult lineup decisions and putting veteran players in places so that they could succeed. His first couple of years in New York were downright brilliant as he guided an imperfect roster to a World Series win and then another playoff appearances. Then, his role shifted to a manager of egos as the Yankees began their days of acquiring high priced talent. His later role with the Yankees was very valuable and he proved to be a master with the media and with his players. For that time period, he was exactly what the Yankees needed. But, his in-game strategy became non-existent with the roster given. He showed signs of his 1996 self in Los Angeles during his first season, but at that point, he was Joe Torre, the man who had a presence and calming effect more than an in-game effect. Secondly, I am not a fan of the bunt and I completely understand why it is not a sound baseball play in almost every circumstance.
Ok, with that out of the way…
Over the last couple of days Joe Torre, the Manager of Team USA, has taken much criticism for his handling of the team both before and during the game against Team Canada. Torre ordered for three bunts during the game and started both Shane Victorino and Ben Zobrist in what was an elimination game for the US. These moves meant Joe Mauer would catch instead of DH, Ryan Braun would shift to DH, and that Giancarlo Stanton would be on the bench. On face value, sitting Stanton in favor of Victorino hurts the lineup. Most prominently, he is taking criticism for his belief that he has a responsibility to Major League Baseball.
“We still have to be mindful of the promise I made to take care of these players and make sure they get back and get ready to start the season. So we’re still going to do the same things, try not to repeat with the bullpen. We have to think the same way. We have to get at-bats, we have to get guys in the games,” said Torre after the victory over Canada.
The bunts are worthy of criticism considering the lineup Torre has. It is also counter what Torre was with the Yankees as he rarely bunted with anyone other than Miguel Cairo or his pitcher when they were in the National League parks. Bunting Jones once and Zobrist twice can’t be defended. There are really only three possible reasons for it. Torre got caught up in the small mania that the Asian teams have been playing. Or, he thought he could get something going by doing that considering his offense had been dormant. Or, he thought he could take advantage of Canadian third baseman Taylor Green’s inexperience. Technically, the one Zobrist bunt worked as Green committed an error and the US went on to score two runs. It was reminiscent of the old little league strategy where the overeager manager will order a bunt to rattle or take advantage of an unsteady third basemen. Still, if there is anything Torre deserves criticism for, it is his sudden fascination for bunting.
But, criticizing him for keeping the promise of getting his players at bats and returning them to their clubs ready for the season is beyond hypocrisy. Leading up to the WBC, almost every columnist opined how the event was a gimmick, a nuisance and simply not important to the United States. There were warnings of injuries, how the event was mistimed, and how there is simply not enough meaning to it to take players away from the club. There was no real outcry when star players like Justin Verlander, Mike Trout, and Bryce Harper declined to play. The general consensus was that it would’ve been neat to see Trout and Harper, but their obligation does really lie with their respective teams. Following up on historic rookie seasons was more important. In general, the tone was one of “who cares?” rather than discussing the team’s chances.
Then the games start and Joe Torre was true to his word. He didn’t overtax his relievers, refusing to warm them up more than once and then use them in a game. He found playing time for all three of his catchers, using Joe Mauer as a DH in order to save the catcher from additional wear and tear, much like the Twins would handle him had he been in camp.. No starting pitcher was pushed. Of the regulars, only Willie Bloomquist hasn’t had an official at bat. Every reliever has appeared in a game. Even in the decisive game three against Canada, Torre didn’t revert to matchups. His relievers–all Major Leaguers–needed to work.
Yes, there is a sort of juxtaposition in all of this. The goal is to win, but the application of trying to win doesn’t involve an all-cost effort. The Major League Baseball season is far too important. Joe Torre feels he has a responsibility to the clubs because he really does have the responsibility. He is an employee of Major League Baseball. He has a roster of stars that does have far more talent than every other team–save, the Dominican Republic–in the tournament. Playing his roster and making sure all of his players return to camp in shape shouldn’t hurt the team’s chances.
Writers can invoke the cliches like “it’s not Little League” and “not everyone gets a trophy” all they want. They can do so to fill columns that directly contradict the ones they wrote a couple of weeks ago when saying the event didn’t matter and that it was a burden to the teams. This is the cost of having the event. The WBC does have an important purpose when it comes to developing the game internationally. It is not going away. But, the United States team will always have to balance winning and getting its entire roster ready for the more important regular season. They are the only country in the tournament that is comprised of strictly Major Leaguers. That point gets lost. Every single one of their players are Major League players. Theoretically, it shouldn’t matter who is in the lineup. Whoever manages the team has to make sure the entire roster is ready.
Is the lineup better with Giancarlo Stanton in it rather than Shane Victorino? Sure it is, but is it fair to the Red Sox or Victorino to not have live at bats for a couple of weeks? Nope and there is no debating that.
Joe Torre was never the perfect Manager, but he always got people and how to put his players in the right spots. He is showing that again, even as columnists make not so veiled swipes about his age and being out of touch. Torre hasn’t changed his stance about getting every player time and returning them to their clubs as ready as they can be. It is only the media that has changed its tune. Some things never change.