On the firing line

Given baseball's copycat nature, don't be surprised if there is a midseason run on managerial firings this season. Consider this the Jack McKeon factor.

Before McKeon's stunning success with the Florida Marlins, general managers had apparently forgotten about the potential medicinal value of an in-season managerial switch for a lumbering contender. Either that or the modern breed of GM was either more compassionate or -- more likely -- less nervy than their old-school predecessors.

But given Florida's .605 winning percentage under McKeon, compared to the .475 winning percentage under the man he replaced last season, Jeff Torborg, you can expect frustrated owners to prod their GMs into more scapegoating this time around.

Here's an early forecast for guys who could be saying adios somewhere along the trail in 2004, as well as some of the guys who might be replacing them:

The front lines
Jimy Williams, Larry Bowa, Bob Brenly and Jim Tracy
Unlike in the American League, where the top five teams can easily be established, there's a power vacuum in the National League. The Braves appear more vulnerable than ever and there's no clear-cut frontrunner in the West. At least three teams in each division feel they have an excellent chance to reach the playoffs.

The team voted most likely to succeed appears to be, of all teams, the Cubs. That's an outfit that has averaged 75 victories over the last five seasons and hasn't had back-to-back winning seasons since Leo Durocher was the manager. So you understand why this could be a tumultuous year.

With Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens on his payroll, Houston owner Drayton McLane isn't going to be satisfied with the usual second-place finish by Williams (who has had six in a row in Boston and Houston), especially if it doesn't come with an easily acquired trip to the playoffs as a wild card. According to sources around the franchise, McLane has long had his eye on Don Baylor and Phil Garner, and could put out a call for one of them if things don't go well in the first half for the Astros.

Bowa, of course, is a clubhouse revolt waiting to happen. The fact that GM Ed Wade added pitchers Billy Wagner and Tim Worrell in the offseason only means that there's a higher class of reliever waiting to be appalled by the heavy handed treatment they will get from Bowa. While the Phillies have a talented roster, Bowa remains the central figure for the franchise. That's not good. Wade might have to jettison Bowa to save his own skin.

Brenly's stock in Arizona has taken a tumble since 2001, and there's an easy replacement available in coach Robin Yount. Tracy is an excellent manager, but new ownership and a new GM in Los Angeles will make it easy to pass the blame for a second-division season to him.

The second wave
Tony La Russa and Buck Showalter
One way or another, this seems likely to be La Russa's last season in St. Louis. He is in the last year of his contract, turns 60 at season's end and hasn't been given enough pitching to win a division in which both the Cubs and Astros have loaded up during the last two offseasons. The question is whether La Russa will leave on his own terms or perhaps be pushed should a slow start lead to an ugly summer at Busch Stadium.

Showalter is a symptom of the disease (call it bigtimeitis) that has befallen the Rangers in the Tom Hicks era. Hicks wasn't satisfied with solid baseball men like Doug Melvin and Jerry Narron. He wanted to surround himself with flashy guys he could show off on his trips to Augusta National. Well, he got them, and he's also likely to get 100-plus losses this season.

Turning in keys to the suites
John Hart and Ed Wade
Hart is expected to turn the Rangers over to former Oakland scouting director and current Rangers assistant GM Grady Fuson at the end of the season, remaining in the organization as an advisor. Wade, the Phillies' GM, could be swept out himself in Philadelphia if the team again misses the playoffs.

Believe it or not
Walt Jocketty
Jocketty has done an excellent job as the general manager in St. Louis, but is on the line for the lack of homegrown pitching in recent years. He was counting on having a stable of inexpensive arms to go with his high-dollar lineup, but has had to fill in the gaps with guys like Jason Simontacchi and a revolving cast of one-year free agents. He's under pressure from owner Bill DeWitt Jr., who apparently became a lot smarter after reading "Moneyball.''

On their way
Paul Molitor, Marc Bombard, Wally Backman, Grady Fuson and Wayne Krivsky
Molitor, who joins Bob Melvin's coaching staff in Seattle, won't have to wait long for a manager's job now that he's willing to work full time. He could already have had the manager's job in Milwaukee, but seems to be waiting for a situation where he'll have the resources to win.

Bombard, who leads the minor leagues with 1,487 minor-league victories, is waiting in the wings for the Phillies at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre. He's more than qualified to step in for Bowa, as is third-year bench coach Gary Varsho, and could do a good job elsewhere if he got the chance.

Backman, the former second baseman, did an excellent job winning while with the White Sox's Double-A team in Birmingham but allowed himself to appear too eager to replace Jerry Manuel. He moves to the Arizona organization, where he'll manage the Lancaster Jethawks in the Class A California League. He will be a consideration if things go badly for Brenly and could be a popular choice for the Mets, who have Art Howe in the second year of a three-year deal.

Fuson, who oversaw Oakland's scouting department in the years when the Big Three pitchers (Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito) and guys like Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada were identified and signed, should be in control of the Rangers by the next winter meetings. Krivsky, an assistant for state-of-the-art Twins GM Terry Ryan, almost landed a job with Cincinnati last winter. He would be an excellent choice for any small or medium-market team making a general manager switch.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.