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Let’s meet the new managers of the NL East

Everything just got a lot younger around here.

Philadelphia Phillies Introduce Cliff Lee Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Brian Snitker and Don Mattingly aren’t the talk of this division anymore. The NL East has been injected with new blood; blood from the next generation of baseball minds and fueled by organic, unprocessed foods.

Whether or not that will translate into a world of success for the three teams in this division with new managers remains to be seen. But before the wild speculation starts—darn, too late!—let’s take a look at who’s new around here.

Gabe Kapler, Phillies

Where’s he been? Making smoothies for the Dodgers as the director of player personnel; blogging about eating bones and running over squirrels.

What’s he done? Another former journeyman player joins the ranks of MLB’s managers, but Kapler probably holds one of the more exceptional early playing careers out of any of them: Drafted by the Tigers in 1995, his debut season in 1996 saw him named to the South Atlantic League All-Star team after leading the league in hits, doubles, extra base hits, and total bases. The next year, he led the league in the same categories (except for hits), was named an all-star again, won the SAL MVP in 1998 while knocking in the most runs in league history, played in two All-Star Games at A and AA, and was named MVP of the first one.

He was also:

  • A Baseball America First Team Minor League All Star
  • The Tigers Minor League Player of the Year
  • BA's No. 1 Tigers prospect
  • Named Minor League Player of the Year by USA Today, Baseball Weekly, The Sporting News

The Tigers couldn’t contain him much longer and he broke through that year. In 2000 with the Rangers, he hit safely in 28 straight games, a brief flirtation with history that became a full-on hook-up when he joined the 2004 Red Sox. After inheriting an outfield role from Trot Nixon, Kapler hit .300 from June until the end of the season, and was photographed standing next to Johnny Damon in Boston’s outfield during the World Series, with their numbers, “19” and “18” being interpreted as a sign that Boston was on the verge of ending the Curse of the Bambino [EDIT: their World Series drought that had been starving their fanbase since 1918]. Kapler and Damon maintained that they created the image unintentionally, but we know the truth: an almost 100-year-old conspiracy had culminated in two teammates standing near each other. Case closed.

After his playing career, Kapler was brought into the Dodgers organization as director of player development, and boy, did he ever make some developments. Just ask former Dodger Scott Van Slyke:

“I mean, who doesn’t like Cheetos? Who’s going to go, ‘A Cheeto? No, I’m good.’”

That’s right. Kapler had all the junk food taken out of the clubhouse, put a sign reading “WE ARE THE HEALTHIEST TEAM IN PRO SPORTS” up at Camelback Ranch, and served his players nothing but an organic menu, to the chagrin of guys like Van Slyke, or Howie Kendrick, who had begun a maple syrup-smuggling operation at the time of the ESPN article that conveyed all of this.

His widespread roots have allowed the 42-year-old to inch his way into sports media as well—always a bold, sexy move—having been hired as a panelist for FOX Sports, writing for WEEI in Boston (oof) as well as Baseball Prospectus, and hosting a radio show in Dallas.

What’s his deal? What you hear about Kapler is largely what Jim Prime told us in “Amazing Tales from the 2004 Red Sox Dugout:” that Kapler, despite being Hollywood handsome and Hollywood chiseled and Hollywood concerned-about-his-health-and-wellness and literally from Hollywood originally, is a decent human being:

“Gabe Kapler is living proof that we should never rush to judgement because a more articulate, thoughtful, intelligent, caring, well-read, humble, drug-free, health-conscious baseball player you will never find.”

It’s fair to say that most of us will never have that many adjectives stacked in front of our names, even by admirers. Assuming all those descriptors to be true, and the fact that Kapler is Jewish, it seems unlikely that a certain former teammate of his is about to find himself in his employ: Curt Schilling wants a job on his coaching staff; a concept that makes entirely too much sense to Sports Illustrated for some reason.

Of course, not everyone has as many nice things to say about Kapler; Jon Heyman noted that some around baseball view Kapler’s intensity as “over the top.” And by now, you’ve seen that his name is featured prominently in former Dodgers assistant director of player development Nick Francona’s accusation that he was pushed out of his job by the team, and Kapler specifically (Dodgers employees have said that the issue was more about a ‘personality conflict’ between Kapler and Francona than the discrimination Francona cites). The Phillies spoke to MLB investigators who’d looked into the matter and were apparently unconcerned about what they learned before hiring Kapler to be their manager, though Francona maintained that the Dodgers acted out of “ignorance” and “malice.”

So now, Kapler begins a new era in Philadelphia, and Philadelphia begins a new one with him, as well. This is the first modern version of a manager we’ve seen here, rather than an old school baseball mind connected to the franchise in some way. Kapler is a leader who weaponizes advanced statistics and enters the fray with a reputation for focusing on player health. How a room full of guys only 15-20 years younger than him will respond to that remains to be seen, especially coming from a clubhouse run by “players manager” Pete Mackanin, but Kapler has to have considered that, because supposedly, he thinks of everything.

“...ferocious with everything he does,” Dodgers team president Stan Kasten said of Kapler in regards to his team-wide dietary shift. But Kapler himself outlined his philosophy as something of a more fluid take on the old-school stubbornness that used to be a staple in the locker room:

“One thing we want to do is avoid locking ourselves into any organizational philosophy that can’t be easily altered or improved.”

Dave Martinez, Nationals

Where’s he been? Bench coaching the Cubs, being pals with Wade Boggs who broke the news of his new gig.

What’s he done? Well, according to Evan Longoria, Alex Cobb, and Ben Zobrist, Martinez, the Rays’ former bench coach, was the best man for the managerial job when Joe Maddon left Tampa for the cursed fields of Wrigley. The Rays, who had specifically asked their players who they had wanted to be their manager, did wind up interviewing him, but apparently did not consider him among their top three candidates. At this point, Martinez had also interviewed to manage the Nationals, Indians, Blue Jays, White Sox, Astros, and Cubs and been denied each time.

On top of that, there’s a whole playing career to consider! Martinez has played for slightly more teams (9) than the amount that did not want him to be their manager (7). In 1987, he was part of a youth movement in the Cubs outfield that included a 22-year-old Rafael Palmeiro.

In 2000 alone, he played for four teams and slashed .285/.362/.387 before sticking with the Braves the following season, putting up solid numbers; and it’s a good thing he did, too, because after 15 years, the 2001 NLDS and NLCS were the only post season exposure he’d ever get. Fortunately, going into but not all the way through the playoffs is exactly the sort of post season experience the Nationals need at their helm.

What’s his deal? At 53 years old, Martinez is the old man of the new generation. We are living in a world in which the managers of NL East dugouts don’t look like they swallow their tobacco juice or have adult children. In game four of this year’s NLCS, he, after Joe Maddon’s ejection because he didn’t like how “OPS” wasn’t prominently displayed on the jumbotron, let Wade Davis bat against the Dodgers with a runner on and no outs. Davis struck out and the Cubs did not score that inning and then lost the game and eventually the series, meaning Martinez is responsible for whatever hex will now haunt the franchise for generations to come.

With the Rays, Martinez was in charge of more than just the bench; yes, he kept it tidy and sturdy, was ready with an answer if anyone asked what sort of wood it was comprised of (pine, like every other bench; nobody ever asked), and, presuming Larry Bowa is a solid example of what a bench coach does, Martinez remained prepared mentally and physically to gnaw someone’s jugular out should they offend his manager in any way. But Martinez also served as an instructor on niche areas like bunting and base running, and Maddon put him in charge of defensive positioning as well (Did you know Carl Crawford stole 50 bases in 2007 and 60 in 2009?) Martinez was successful enough that Mike Rizzo considered him one of the top three candidates to take over as the Nationals’ manager in 2013, but of course, that job went to Matt Williams.

After being turned down by the Cubs in 2014, Jed Hoyer gazed into the future and told us, "I think on [Martinez’s] own, he's very bright, very hard-working, very well respected. And then from the interview process, it sounds like he's learned a ton being with Joe Maddon. He'll be a manager really soon in the big leagues."

If the NL East is getting its own Joe Maddon, get ready for some even more insufferable baseball in Washington. At least the Nationals were too cheap to pony up for Girardi.

Mickey Callaway, Mets

Where’s he been? Pitcher-coaching the Indians.

What’s he done? Like Kapler, Callaway, too, is 42 and Callaway, too, has a World Series ring; his coming with the 2002 Angels, though he did not appear in any post season games with the team and was released following the season. But an even more impressive feat is the true definition of Callaway’s career in sports:

"I coached him in freshman basketball," said local baseball coaching legend Phil Clark. "You don't have a lot of 5-10 white guys that can dunk in the ninth grade. I remember one game against Central, he had six 3-pointers and four dunks. And I mean dunks.”

That natural athleticism got him drafted by the Giants in 1993, but Callaway headed off to Ole Miss instead, going to Tampa in the 1996 draft. After his trade to Anaheim, he got picked up by the Rangers before beginning a lucrative playing career in Korea with the Hyundai Unicorns, a team that, like real unicorns, stopped existing in 2008. Then it was an elbow injury, coaching Texas A&M’s baseball team, heading to China for a stint, and serving as a pitcher-manager for the Laredo Broncos, an independent league team that also no longer exists.

After hanging it up, Callaway infiltrated the Indians organization as a minor league pitching coach, slowly working his way up before getting the keys to the big league bullpen. From this point forward, starting in 2014, Cleveland has been helping to coach and maintain some of the league’s top hurlers, including Cy Young Award-winner Corey Kluber.

What’s his deal? While Gabe Kapler preaches the value of organic food, Callaway enforces a steady diet of curve balls. It was effective, as the the Indians led baseball in strikeouts for four straight years. Callaway oversaw a pitching staff that helped Cleveland win 102 games in 2017 before getting bounced out of the NLDS by Yankees; just like old times. They also couldn’t survive a World Series run in 2016, getting out-cursed by the Cubs.

Callaway has been absorbing the wisdom and style of Terry Francona for years, and brings that, as well as his pitching acumen, to a team in need of wrangling the raw talent of its hyper-terrifying rotation into an effective weapon.

Each year, we are haunted by visions of what the Mets rotation could become, and in 2015, it helped take them all the way to the World Series, but endless injuries and conflicting personalities have made them less menacing than they should be. In Callaway, they believe they’ve found the guy who can uncap that power: Sandy Alderson said he had a “visceral” reaction to his interview with the new manager.

And if that sounds like a strong word for the GM to use, then take a gander at how the fawning Mets press seems to have been utterly charmed by him.

It’s a new dawn in the NL East, and with focuses shifting, a manager’s role evolving, and teams looking for the leader to take their primed, or in Washington’s case inexplicably clutchless, teams to the next level, we will get to sit back and watch to see which of these gambles pays off.