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NL Manager of the Year Rankings: Pirates Skipper Clint Hurdle Makes a Charge

Ian CasselberryMLB Lead WriterJune 11, 2012

NL Manager of the Year Rankings: Pirates Skipper Clint Hurdle Makes a Charge

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    May I be honest here? I don't think there are five candidates for NL Manager of the Year anymore. 

    Ozzie Guillen was on the list, but the Miami Marlins have lost six in a row when the NL East lead was there for the taking. Sure, he could be a candidate again. But he's not right now.

    Who else could take his place? Do the Cincinnati Reds hold first place in the NL Central despite Dusty Baker or because of him? Should either Bruce Bochy or Kirk Gibson be considered, even though the San Francisco Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks have played far below expectations? Brad Mills has the Houston Astros playing above expectations, but his team's lack of talent is getting increasingly exposed.

    As soon as next week, this list could have a legitimate five possibilities again. But for now, here are the four leading contenders for the NL Manager of the Year award, with one other thrown in. 

5. Fredi Gonzalez, Atlanta Braves

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    Someone had to be fifth in this week's NL Manager of the Year rankings, so Fredi Gonzalez looked like as good a choice as any other.

    OK, that's probably unfair to Gonzalez. Since the Atlanta Braves lost eight consecutive games toward the end of May and fell to fourth place in the NL East, Gonzalez and his team have righted the ship. Winning eight of their past 10 games, the Braves are back within sight of the NL East lead, two games behind the Washington Nationals.

    Gonzalez has shown considerable patience in dealing with a couple of his starting pitchers, and that approach appears to be paying off.

    Mike Minor was battered throughout May and looked deserving of a demotion to the minors. But Gonzalez thought Minor would benefit from continuing to face major league hitters, and the left-hander may have had a breakthrough in his latest start, allowing one run (despite five walks) against the Miami Marlins. 

    The same goes for Randall Delgado. Maybe pitching for Class AAA Gwinnett would have been better than getting beat up as the Braves' fifth starter. But Gonzalez stuck with him, knowing Delgado had some tough-luck losses. Now, Delgado is pitching with authority, allowing four total runs in his past two starts.

    Gonzalez has also kept his lineup productive despite season-long struggles by Brian McCann and Freddie Freeman's recent contact lens-sports goggles episode that prevented him from playing. 

    Though Gonzalez's even-handed approach might be frustrating to Braves fans at times, not getting too high or low through the early part of the season has kept his team calm and competitive.

4. Terry Collins, New York Mets

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    Last week: No. 3.

    With a calmer, less high-strung approach, Terry Collins has done an excellent job of managing the New York Mets this season. With a roster that looked like a last-place team and a deeply slashed payroll, expectations were for the Mets to finish last in the NL East. 

    That could still happen, of course. The Mets are beginning to take on the look of a team whose run is nearing its end. Losing two of three to the Washington Nationals last week was a setback that cost the Mets a chance to take over first place in their division. But then the Yankees stomped on their chests in a three-game weekend sweep that made the Mets as vulnerable as they've looked all season. 

    Team performance aside, Collins could also come under some heavy scrutiny if it turns out Johan Santana hurt himself by throwing a career-high 134 pitches in completing the franchise's first no-hitter 10 days ago. Santana was bombed by the Yankees on Friday, giving up six runs and seven hits (four of them home runs) in five innings. 

    Whether it's fair or not, Collins will be criticized for ceding to a player's wishes at the expense of his health if Santana continues to pitch poorly. I think that would be unfair, as Collins was basically in a no-win situation. Of course, the short-term disapproval of pulling a pitcher during a no-hitter would be easier to live with than the long-term consequences of getting a player hurt. 

3. Clint Hurdle, Pittsburgh Pirates

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    Last week: No. 5.

    Ladies and gentlemen, your first-place Pittsburgh Pirates. 

    Granted, we're almost halfway into June, so getting too excited would probably be premature. Besides, the Pirates got to first place last season too, only to go into a major second-half tailspin. 

    But we're talking about a team that is the only club that hasn't scored at least 200 runs yet this season. They also have 20 fewer hits than the next-worst team in baseball. The Pirates compensate for that with a pitching staff that's compiled the third-best ERA in the majors.

    Most importantly, Hurdle appears to have changed the mindset of his team. As MLB.com's Tom Singer writes, the Pirates aren't just satisfied with being .500 anymore.

    Managers probably get too much credit for this sort of thing. And the Pirates have enough younger veterans tired of losing to have fueled an attitude change themselves. But a team as young as the Pirates also tends to take its lead from its manager. And Hurdle seems to have made it clear to his team that being mediocre isn't acceptable. 

    For weeks, I've thought Don Mattingly was a lock for NL Manager of the Year. But if the Pirates finish over .500 and manage to contend for a playoff spot, is there any way Hurdle doesn't win the award?

2. Davey Johnson, Washington Nationals

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    Last week: No. 2.

    The Washington Nationals faced a challenge to their first-place standing in the NL East last week in a three-game series versus the New York Mets. The Nats won two of three games.

    Visiting Fenway Park for an interleague series against the Boston Red Sox loomed as a major test for the upstart Nationals. Davey Johnson's team knocked out the Red Sox with a series sweep.

    Going into Monday night's game against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Nats had the second-best record in baseball. They were a season-high 12 games over .500 and held a two-game lead over the Atlanta Braves in the NL East. With the way the other three teams in the division have been playing, it's beginning to look like we might have a two-team race. 

    Every major league team has dealt with injuries this season. So the Nationals are certainly no exception. But beginning the season without the team's leading power hitter and closer was a major setback. So was losing the starting right fielder with a broken wrist. The starting catcher blew out his knee. The replacement closer had a sports hernia.

    The Nationals keep encountering storm after storm. Yet they've managed to stand their ground and now look stronger for it. Those injured players are returning. Struggling players are turning their seasons around. Johnson's club is getting comfortable in first place. 

1. Don Mattingly, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Last week: No. 1.

    Is it possible that the Los Angeles Dodgers have already put the worst behind them? With Matt Kemp out of the lineup (where he'll stay for at least another three weeks), the Dodgers lost seven of 10 games and let the San Francisco Giants back into the NL West race.

    Things looked to be getting worse with a four-game road series versus the Philadelphia Phillies, followed by a cross-country trip back west for a three-game set with the Seattle Mariners. 

    However, the Dodgers swept the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park, largely on the strength of starting pitching that's been their foundation all season long. The team did get no-hit on Friday in Seattle by a combination of six pitchers. But the Dodgers rebounded to win the last two games of the series. 

    These Dodgers are resilient. Just like their manager, who had to wait for years and years before finally getting a big league managing job. 

    Don Mattingly and his Dodgers have the best record in baseball. Their lead in the NL West is back up to five games. Kemp will hopefully come back soon. And if general manager Ned Colletti can bolster the lineup and pitching staff with a couple of solid additions, this team can be even better. Kind of a scary thought for the rest of the National League.

    Davey Johnson could win NL Manager of the Year. Clint Hurdle will win if he can manage the Pirates into the postseason. But are either of those two doing a better job than Mattingly? He's still the front-runner. 

     

    Follow @iancass on Twitter

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