It's 2010, and the National League West is as strong as it has ever been.
The Los Angeles Dodgers, the previous year's winners, stumbled early in the year but are playing spoiler late. The San Francisco Giants, who eventually won it all, finally put together the team they'd been trying to muster up since their last postseason appearance in 2003. The Colorado Rockies appear primed to put together a second consecutive postseason run and third in the last four seasons.
And the San Diego Padres, led by manager Bud Black, are coming out of nowhere to upset the whole thing.
Black's Friars that year were 76-49 in late August and held a 6½-game lead in the division, only to lose 10 consecutive games before eventually getting back on track. San Diego, not long after taking a crucial three-game series against the spiraling Rockies, took the Giants to the final game of the season before having its postseason hopes dashed -- not entirely unlike a certain Game 163 a few years prior -- but that the Padres even got as far as they did with an anemic offense and the sixth-youngest pitching staff in baseball was admirable at worst and, at best, exceptional.
Twenty-two-year-old Mat Latos emerged as the ace of a staff that saw great performances from a trio of pitchers aged 26 and younger. Another group of 20-somethings led by Luke Gregerson, Edward Mujica and Ernesto Frieri anchored the league's best bullpen.
Fast forward to 2016. When talking about the prospects of Black as Rockies manager, a position he officially took over on Monday, many have brought up concern about his lack of winning in San Diego. And they're not wrong; Black finished with just two winning seasons -- and no postseason appearances -- in his eight-plus years at the helm. But the perennially stuck-in-neutral (where have we heard that before?) Padres regularly trotted out the least-talented offenses in the game and a revolving door of pitchers that never seemed to have success outside the hurler-friendly confines of Petco Park.
Outside of those obvious wins and losses, it can be hard to truly evaluate managers. Fortunately in this case, we have a large sample and the benefit of hindsight to which we can refer. Nine years of Baseball Prospectus manager comments for Bud Black can help us figure out what to expect from the longtime big league pitcher-turned-skipper.
First, if you're looking for Black to be more fiery and intense than Walt Weiss, whose relaxed demeanor was the stuff of legend, you will probably end up disappointed. From the 2012 BP annual:
Watching him "argue" with umpires is fascinating. There are no histrionics; he just strolls out of the dugout and chats with them, as one might chat with old friends over tea and miniature cucumber sandwiches.
So, don't expect to see Black go all Bobby Cox and get ejected a bunch of times. Not much of a change there. But what about his bullpen strategies? As everyone who's reading this probably knows, the Rockies weren't good in that area over the last couple of seasons (results wise, if nothing else). Can Black right the ship? From the same annual:
As a former pitching coach, Black is attuned to the needs of his moundsmen and tends to have a quick hook with his starters. Like most managers of his era, Black's usage of relievers borders on mechanical and he seldom deviates from the established order of things. Pitchers are given a defined role and left there, although he has adopted the Earl Weaver strategy of breaking in young arms out of the bullpen, with Tim Stauffer, Cory Luebke, and Anthony Bass being three recent examples.
Other than throwing young starters into the fire via relief, that doesn't sound a lot different than Weiss, who often drew criticism for pulling starters too early and failing to go outside the box when it came to bullpen roles.
Another thing plaguing the Rockies is their inability to win despite seemingly having a decent collection of talent. Here's where we start to see some separation. Look no further than the review of Black's 2012 campaign in the 2013 annual:
Considering Jason Marquis, Ross Ohlendorf, Eric Stults, Jeff Suppan, Kip Wells, and Andrew Werner combined for more than a third of the club's starts, 76 wins and a fourth-place finish seem remarkable. As in 2009, before San Diego's improbable run the following year, the team performed very well in the second half with Black letting the kids play and run wild.
That was not 4-WAR, 2009 Jason Marquis, mind you. The Padres' front office had a knack for bringing in just about every washed-up veteran available during Black's tenure, and the results were predictably not great. But when Black chose to go with young players over the journeymen, things seemed to work a little better, as noted above. This was a recurring theme throughout his time in San Diego. Back to the 2012 book:
He shows ... patience working with young players, whether it be sticking with Kevin Kouzmanoff through his early-season struggles in 2007 or giving Cameron Maybin a full complement of plate appearances despite periodic slumps. Black even kept running Anthony Rizzo out to first base long after it had become evident that more minor-league seasoning was needed, which is a downside of such patience.
That excerpt sounds similar to what Weiss was able to accomplish last season, remaining patient with Trevor Story and Tony Wolters during a dreadful May for both players while perhaps sticking with a struggling and inexperienced Carlos Estevez for too long.
The most recent set of BP comments on Black, while a little more vague than some of the excerpts above, point to the real reason why the Rockies felt he was the right person to bring in as Weiss' successor. If some of the strengths and weaknesses appear to be even to this point, this section of the 2015 annual might sway you:
Shy of owning the team, Connie Mack-style, or playing for it, Jimmy Dykes-like, how do you explain Black retaining his job with that record? The same way you explain the gap between his reputation as one of the best and his career winning percentage, which places him south of Ned Yost: Managers have a limited impact on their team's success. Black has worked miracles throughout his tenure with San Diego rosters that were average on the rare occasions when they were healthy. Factor in the constant change above him -- at the management and ownership levels -- and he's been the franchise's lone stabilizing force for most of the past decade.
A closer look reveals why many industry folk adore Black. Whether it's his California cool personality, allowing him to relate to the modern player, or his willingness to eschew tradition in favor of logic -- i.e. bat the spot-starter eighth so he can be pinch-hit for earlier, as was the case with Donn Roach in May -- it's easy to wonder just how good he would be with a better roster at his disposal. Turns out we might get an answer soon.
I think we've reached a verdict. As we suspected earlier, Black never had much talent in San Diego, but throughout his tenure there, it was widely agreed that he got the most he possibly could out of it. That, combined with the success he had with his bullpens and his apparent willingness to cooperate with Jeff Bridich's vision for the team (read: maybe a little analytical, maybe a little unconventional but definitely not tinfoil hat stuff), makes him an upgrade over Weiss. Whether Black turns out to be a significant upgrade remains to be seen, but from the improvement we saw at the big league level last season, significant might not be necessary.