Terry Collins gazes adoringly at the current NL East standings.
How best to judge a major-league manager?
Is his ability to piece together the best lineup for his team a fair barometer? Is the way he handles a pitching staff, especially when juggling a bullpen, a true reflection of his ability? Maybe he's a strong motivator, knowing which buttons to push and when during a season.
In my view, ranking National League Manager of the Year candidates is mostly about expectations.
What sort of team was the manager projected to have and how has his club performed against those predictions? How does his roster compare to other teams in the division and league? If he's perceived to have a less-talented squad, are his players achieving more than expected? Should his team be playing better?
Has a manager lost his team? Are his players tuning him out?
It's still early in the season to make those sorts of judgments for certain, but based on preseason expectations and perceptions, these five managers are doing a fine job so far.
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Somehow, Brad Mills has the Astros in third place in the NL Central.
No, Brad Mills probably won't be the NL Manager of the Year. He might not even be ranked among the top five candidates here next week.
But the Houston Astros were expected to be terrible this year, finishing DFL. (I'll let you figure out what that acronym stands for. But you've done that already.)
Mills and the Astros still could finish with the worst record in baseball for the second straight season and take the consolation prize of the No. 1 overall pick in next year's amateur draft.
But going into Wednesday night's play, Houston had a 14-16 record, good for third place in the NL Central. So they're currently ahead of three teams, including the Milwaukee Brewers, expected to be a playoff contenders.
The Astros have the fourth-best offense in the NL (which maybe isn't saying much, considering how impotent several teams' lineups have been). And while their pitching might be middle of the pack, a team ERA under 4.00 (3.80, to be exact) is impressive for a largely young staff.
Playing over their heads, you say? Sure. But shouldn't the manager get some credit for that?
Don Mattingly wants to make sure you're aware that his L.A. Dodgers are in first place.
Yes, Don Mattingly benefits from having the best hitter and best pitcher on his team. But look at the rest of the Los Angeles Dodgers roster.
OK, the starting rotation is good. Ted Lilly, Chris Capuano and Chad Billingsley have been outstanding behind Clayton Kershaw. And though Aaron Harang has been roughed up at times, he still has strikeout stuff.
The bullpen has been problematic. Javy Guerra pitched himself out of the closer's job. With the exception of Josh Lindblom, middle relief has been a mess. It's mostly the Kenley Jansen show now. And using your best reliever as the closer isn't often the ideal way to utilize a team's talents.
However, let's look at that Dodgers lineup. They just signed Bobby Abreu, for Scully's sake. And they need him.
Obviously, Matt Kemp is swinging a bat far greater than those of mere mortal men. Andre Ethier is playing like a guy looking for a new contract, and with six homers and 30 RBI in 30 games so far, he'll probably get a nice one.
But besides those two guys, there's not much there. A.J. Ellis has been a pleasant surprise at catcher. After him, however, the lineup is littered with sub-.700 OPS batters: Mark Ellis, Juan Uribe, Dee Gordon, Juan Rivera, James Loney. That's not pretty, folks.
Yet Mattingly has his team in first place at 19-11. Up by four games, the Dodgers have the biggest division lead in baseball (tied with the Texas Rangers). Just imagine if he had some more talent on his roster.
Despite an injury-riddled roster, Terry Collins is keeping his Mets team in contention.
The New York Mets are four games over .500 and hold third place in the NL East (1.5 games out of first) despite being outscored by 22 runs. No team with a run differential of minus-22 is over .500, and certainly not within sniffing distance of a division lead.
Maybe that's an indictment of a disappointing NL East that has two of the division's favorites—the Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies—in fourth and fifth place, respectively. But the Mets could be losing games, too. Instead, they're winning.
David Wright has had a resurgent season, Ruben Tejada has been solid, and Kirk Nieuwenhuis has emerged as a possible everyday outfielder. But the lineup is mostly composed of role players like Daniel Murphy and Justin Turner. Ike Davis has been abysmal. Jason Bay is hurt again.
On the pitching side, Johan Santana looks to be regaining his form, which would be great news for the Mets. R.A. Dickey has been a fine No. 2 starter. Following those two guys, however, is a pretty mediocre rotation.
The bullpen has been the saving grace of the staff, with Tim Byrdak, Jon Rauch and Bobby Parnell each providing excellent relief. Though Frank Francisco doesn't have the prettiest numbers, he's got 14 strikeouts in 13 innings, providing the ninth-inning anchor that teams need to win close games.
Will the Mets keep this up? Probably not. The Marlins look to be pulling themselves together, though the Phillies are still struggling.
But Terry Collins is exactly the type of manager this team needs, someone to get more out of a less-talented ball club.
Most of Mike Matheny's moves have been on the nose this season.
With the most talented roster in the National League, maybe all Mike Matheny had to do was stay out of the way and let the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals take care of business on the field.
But the Cards also had several reasons to become deflated, chief among them losing Albert Pujols to free agency and Chris Carpenter to injury. Championship teams can also become complacent the following season, resting on their laurels and still a bit weary from a long postseason.
Maybe that's exactly what would've happened had Tony La Russa come back to micro-manage his 17th season in the Busch Stadium home dugout.
Yet with players filling new roles opened by departures and injuries, a relatively young Cardinals lineup has embraced opportunity and responsibility to help fuel the most productive offense in the NL and an excellent starting rotation to go with it.
A more controlling manager might have put a bit too much pressure on players such as Jon Jay, Allen Craig and Lance Lynn. Matheny's lighter hand has allowed them to relax and develop on their own terms.
That approach can be just as important as someone who tries to steer the game with his strategy. So far, it's worked extremely well for the Cardinals. We'll see if it can sustain itself through a full season.
Davey Johnson is asking everyone if they can play left field for the Nationals.
Other than Milwaukee Brewers manager Ron Roenicke, has any skipper in the NL had to deal with more injuries than Davey Johnson has with the Washington Nationals?
This team is one or two injuries from you or me playing the outfield for the Nats. Michael Morse has been out all season with a strained lat, and Jayson Werth will miss at least the next 10-12 weeks with a broken wrist.
Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche have missed time too, frequently depriving the Nationals of a middle-of-the-order slugger that would help produce much needed runs.
Fortunately for Johnson, phenom Bryce Harper looks totally comfortable in the majors, not overwhelmed at all by the higher level of play nor increased fan, media and player scrutiny. (Hit him with a pitch? He'll steal home plate.)
The Nats bullpen has been depleted by injuries, as well. Drew Storen has yet to pitch this season, requiring surgery to remove bone chips in his right elbow. Brad Lidge is on the disabled list due to an abdominal strain. That's forced Henry Rodriguez and Ryan Perry into roles they may not be ideally suited to play.
Yet somehow, Johnson has this team in first place. OK, it probably has a lot to do with a starting rotation that's compiled a 2.19 ERA, helping the overall staff to a 2.64 ERA. Without that, the Nats would be in serious trouble.
But dealing with continual injuries would deflate many teams, giving players the opportunity to make excuses. Despite everything they've struggled with, the Nationals believe they can compete in the NL East. They don't cower when the Phillies try to intimidate them. That sort of, ahem, Natitude comes from the man in charge.