Rodriguez stands out among new managers

Florida Marlins manager Edwin Rodriguez is the only one among those in their first or second year of managing who has a winning record. Rodriguez, 50, took over the Marlins on June 23 of last season after Marlins owner Jeff Loria, team president Larry Beinfest and GM Mike Hill relieved Fredi Gonzalez of his duties. Rodriguez went on to lead the Marlins to a 46-46 record the rest of the way and a third-place finish in the National League Eastern division.

Rodriguez, after a thorough managerial search, was given a one-year contract extension through the 2011 season, and the early returns are showing why the Marlins made a wise decision to give him a full season to prove himself.

Rodriguez has been magnificent in the handling of his bullpen, tweaking his lineups, and mixing and matching injured and slumping players, and dealing with holes at third base and in left field (the latter due to an injury to Logan Morrison). As Rodriguez said, “The good thing about this club is the versatility of the players.” My response is this: The good thing about this club is it has a manager who knows how to utilize the versatility of his players.

The Marlins are 21-15 and have the second-best record in the National League, trailing the best team in the league, the Philadelphia Phillies, by just three games. The top three in the rotation -- Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Anibal Sanchez -- are a combined 8-2, mainly because, unlike last year, the bullpen has been able to hold leads. Closer Leo Nunez is a perfect 12-for-12 in save opportunites, and he credits Gonzalez's belief in him as much as the improved location of his fastball and changeup.

The Marlins are third in the National League in runs scored and fifth in the league in OPS despite Hanley Ramirez's season-long slump, Morrison's stint on the disabled list, a rotation at third base involving Greg Dobbs, Wes Helms and Emilio Bonifacio, and Mike Stanton’s slow April start due to injury.

The pitching staff is sixth in runs allowed and fifth in WHIP, and that’s with the combined ERA of Javier Vazquez and Chris Volstad being north of 6.00. Rodriguez has done a masterful job of mixing and matching his relief pitchers. Mike Dunn, Randy Choate and Brian Sanches all have ERAs under 2.00, while Edward Mujica, Ryan Webb and Clay Hensley have all been effective when healthy in bridging the gap to Nunez. Rodriguez has the knack of knowing the proper matchups to allow his bullpen to maximize success.

When the Marlins lost a few games, Rodriguez tweaked the lineup. Chris Coghlan would move to the second spot in the order and Bonifacio to the leadoff spot. When that didn’t work, Coghlan returned to the top Tuesday night, getting on base, scoring the first run and driving in the winning run against the division rival Phillies. Rodriguez, tweaks, adjusts, and wins.

Rodriguez is getting rave reviews from the players and the front office. Instant respect. Steady hand. He keeps the clubhouse calm. He instills confidence. He makes the Marlins play fundamentally sound baseball. Move the runners over, get them in, one at a time -- unless, of course, Stanton, Gaby Sanchez, Morrison or John Buck go yard.

Rodriguez is quickly becoming an early lead candidate for National League Manager of the Year, and the Marlins' front office has to be thinking about a contract extension for one of baseball's bright new managers.

There are six other active major league managers who are either in their first or second year of managing at the big league level. Here is the complete breakdown:

Mattingly is getting high marks in his managerial rookie season. His experience as a player and coach with the Yankees has helped him do a tremendous job in not allowing the ownership situation to affect his clubhouse, keeping the players away from the controversies. He has handled the pitching staff, allowing Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley to pitch deep into games, and dealt with the ineffectiveness and elbow injury to Jonathan Broxton. His wisdom to delegate authority to his coaching staff and lean on Rick Honeycut for pitching advice has paid off. Allowing Jerry Sands to develop at the major league level and helping James Loney get through a season-long slump without him losing confidence has been remarkable. Adjusting his infield at second, shortstop and third due to injuries to Rafael Furcal, Casey Blake and Juan Uribe has been challenging, but he’s found a way. Mattingly is a born leader, has a bright baseball mind, and -- when his team is good enough -- will be winning at Chavez Revine.

Gibson has brought an old-school mentality back to baseball. His managerial style mirrors his playing days -- play the game hard, play the game right, or get out of my way. His players told me Gibson's spring training camp was more of a “military camp” then a normal baseball spring training experience. His players were there early and worked on fundamentals as much as any team in baseball.

Kelly Johnson, the Diamondbacks' second baseman, told me this week that Gibson demands that the game is played right. Johnson said the club works hard on the small details of the game, such as first-and-third bunt plays, hitting the cutoff man, holding runners, and slide-stepping. The fundamentals are drilled into the players, and they are carried out. That's the way the Diamondbacks play baseball. For Gibson's team, it's not a suggestion, but a way of life.

The Diamondbacks are a much-improved team from a year ago. The strikeouts have been cut down, the bullpen is better, and most importantly, because of Kirk Gibson, they’re becoming a fundamentally strong team. Gibson, like Rodriguez and Mattingly, has quickly embraced his new career as a major league manager.

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