Well, that was sudden.
I think we all knew Trey Hillman would not be the Royals' manager for long, it was just a question of how long he would last. I admit I was surprised when Hillman was fired Thursday afternoon (or to be technical, when it was announced Thursday afternoon)--I figured he would last for a few more weeks, and there was even a good chance he'd finish out the year and his contract, then not brought back next year.
I don't take joy in anyone losing their job, but Hillman needed to go. When the Royals hired him, I really thought he had a chance to be a success. But I was wrong; I greatly underestimated the need for a manager to have spent some time in the majors as a player or coach before taking over a major league team. That sort of experience doesn't guarantee success, but it now seems obvious it helps give even a rookie manager some credibility. Looking back, it is apparent Hillman lost most of his team almost before his tenure even started, and I believe ultimately that doomed him as a manager. And then there were the odd strategic decisions, the irrational desire to use sacrifice bunts, and the inability to stand up to veteran players (letting Gil Meche talk him into leaving Meche in games, letting Jason Kendall play everyday, etc.), among Hillman's other failings.
I am OK with the Royals hiring Ned Yost as Hillman's replacement. Yost will probably never be confused with John McGraw, but he has played, coached and managed in the majors, and has even had some success (let's discuss that in a minute).
Ultimately, however, a manager is only as good as the players he's given. I do believe the Royals have more talent than their current 13-23 record shows, but not a lot more. Even if Hillman had managed every game perfectly this year (by which I mean, chosen the best option when he picked a relief pitcher or pinch hitter, or picked the right time to steal or bunt or whatever), how many more wins would that be worth? Three? Four? Whatever it would be, I'm sure it wouldn't be enough to vault the Royals into contention. For example, look at the May 6 game in Texas--Hillman brings in his best reliever (Joakim Soria) to hold a 1-run lead in the 8th inning. I suppose you could argue that Hillman should have let Robinson Tejeda, who had looked good getting the first two out in the inning, finish the job. But I think every Royals fan probably felt good about Soria coming in with a 1-run lead. Two homers later, the Royals had another loss.
That said, I believe one area where a manager can make a difference is in setting the atmosphere and mood of the team. At any level of baseball, it is impossible to play well if you are pressing too much or trying too hard. So I can only imagine what it's like for players at the highest level of the sport when they find themselves in a pennant race in September. And this is an area where Yost apparently failed in his previous managerial stint--the Brewers fired him with 12 games left in the 2008 season, as they desperately tried to hold on to a playoff spot. That Brewers team started September with the second-best record in the NL, 4.5 games behind the division-leading Cubs and with a 5.5 game lead in the wild-card race. They proceeded to go 3-11 over the next two weeks and blow the entire wild-card lead. That's when the Brewers replaced Yost, and they were able to capture the wild-card spot.
I suppose the bright side here is that the Royals are a long ways away from any sort of playoff contention. And to be fair, I think Yost deserves some credit for leading the Brewers' young talent from a 106-loss season the year before he took over to the brink of a playoff spot. It just looks to me that, based on history, if Yost helps the Royals get to playoff contention, they may need to find someone else to finish the job. For now, though, the emphasis should remain the same: getting young, talented players to the majors ready to play, and then put them in position to succeed. Yost is supposed to be good at this part of the job. We will see.