Joe Espada is an intriguing managerial candidate for the Blue Jays
Just under a year ago, as the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers were set to clash in the World Series, the Boston Red Sox announced Astros bench coach Alex Cora as the club’s new manager. At the time, Cora was 41 years old, making him the youngest Red Sox manager since Kevin Kennedy (40–1995) with him receiving the honor only six months into his first major-league coaching gig with Houston. After a thorough process that saw the Red Sox and team president Dave Dombrowski interview a bevy of candidates, some — and presumably all — with more experience than Cora, the organization found their guy.
As it turns out, Dombrowski made a wise choice. Opting for a younger, more analytically acute manager in Cora, the move paid dividends in Boston as the club transitions from a historically great regular season to the ALDS. With Cora’s 2018 debut in mind, front offices across the majors looking for a new manager are likely to follow a similar path than that of the Red Sox, hoping to catch lightning in a bottle.
Enter the Toronto Blue Jays, one of five teams (with the potential for more) that will begin the process of interviewing candidates to fill its current void. It will be general manager Ross Atkins’ first-ever hire, one that will undoubtedly go a long way in shaping his vision of what the team hopes to become in the not so distant future.
Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Atkins highlighted some necessary attributes he’ll be searching for in the team’s next manager.
“Tough, smart and passionate,” he told Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi.
Some names already being tossed around are former Blue Jays players Mark DeRosa (MLB Network) and John McDonald (Cleveland infield instructor), along with Canadian-born Stubby Clapp (Cardinals Triple-A manager). Similar to what Boston did with Cora, the Blue Jays could take a hard look at current Astros bench coach Joe Espada; a man that, coincidentally, has a strong connection to the first-year Red Sox manager.
It’s believed the Blue Jays will go with someone much younger than John Gibbons (56) to lead the next core of players. That would fit the trend of what several clubs — including the New York Yankees, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, and Red Sox — did last offseason in the hiring of Aaron Boone (45), Mickey Callaway (43), Gabe Kapler (43) and Cora. Along with this group, there are nine other club’s with managers in their 40’s, much of them on successful teams.
*Denotes a rookie manager
As the table shows, a handful of these managers had an immediate impact, with others — specifically Hinch and Roberts — widely regarded as two of the best in the game today. Comparable to most of these managers at one time or another, Espada fits the bill as being a young, up-and-coming baseball mind (he turned 43 in August) with experience as a scout, third base coach, and bench coach.
Espada’s major-league coaching career started in 2010 when the Florida Marlins hired him to be their third base coach; a position he held until the end of the 2013 season. Espada was offered and turned down the opportunity to stay in Florida to manage in Class-A advanced, and it was around then that he caught the eye of Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who hired the young coach as a special assistant.
His time in the Yankees front office would be brief. Before the 2015 season, Espada was assigned to be the club’s infield and third base coach. For three years in that capacity, Espada was around the likes of several veterans including Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran, as well as younger players such as Didi Gregorius, Aaron Judge, and Gary Sanchez, respectively.
The 2017 season in New York was a success as the club finished with 91 wins, its most since 2012, clinching one of two wild-card spots. The club would advance to the ALCS to face the Astros, and despite leading 3–2 in that series, would go on to lose the final two games. The Yankees opted against bringing back manager Joe Girardi, sealing Espada’s fate in New York. Eventually, it led to him deciding between joining Cora in Boston, or accepting a position in Houston, which he ultimately did.
Ahead of the 2017 World Baseball Classic in March, Espada was announced as part of Puerto Rico’s coaching staff. The team, led by a collection of stars including Carlos Correa (who Espada would later coach in Houston), Francisco Lindor, and Javier Baez, advanced to the championship game, eventually losing to the United States.
On top of his age, Espada checks off a lot of boxes regarding what teams are expected to want in a manager.
“He (Espada) was high on my list,” Cora said last March after Espada accepted the position in Houston, according to The Athletic’s Jake Kaplan.
“He’s very organized, very structured.”
In that same interview, Espada touched on several critical components, including the use of analytics and his desire to someday manage in the majors.
“I do. But that’s not the reason why I took the job,” Espada said at the time. “It’s just the fact that this is (Houston), in my opinion, the place to be. This is the best team. The opportunity to be part of it, I’m very humbled by it. But one day, if the opportunity (to manage) presents (itself), I will strongly consider it. Sure.”
It’s no coincidence, then, that the Astros — known for their extensive use of analytics — pursued Espada, who said his time with Cashman and the Yankees opened his eyes to that part of the game.
“I think it’s been one of the best moves I have done in my career,” Espada said of his time in New York’s front office. “How you have to be open-minded, progressive for where the game is going and how much better it (analytics) makes your players. It makes it easier for me to explain it to the players why we do things a certain way.”
Top Astros performers of 2018 (infield)
It would appear that Espada, at least early on, is a strong fit as a managerial candidate. Though not confirmed by Atkins, let’s assume for a second that the Blue Jays seek out the following few traits in their next manager:
- Strong communicator
- Progressive mindset/analytically driven
That would certainly give Espada more than a well-deserved chance, especially if you consider a recent quote from Atkins.
“There are people learning a great deal from the Houston organization right now with how they’re deploying information,” Atkins told Sportsnet. “There are a lot of examples. The way we’ve been thinking about it is more organization and less person. What organizations are they learning from? That definitely has value.”
Whoever the Blue Jays decide on, the process will be swift. Atkins said that in about one week’s time the club would begin to interview 10 or more candidates on the phone. Then, they’ll try and cut that down to five contenders for the position, all of whom will receive in-person interviews. There are sure to be some names that will intrigue, and others that will be widely unrecognized among a fanbase that have known no one but Gibbons for the past six seasons. On top of introducing a new manager, the Blue Jays will be faced with a ton of difficult decisions this winter — specifically with the starting rotation. Will Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman stay? If they do, can both regain their form? Will the club dip into the free-agent pool? On the diamond, will veterans Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar and Kendrys Morales all be back? All of these questions will need to be answered at some point.
As a new wave of Blue Jays talent slowly begins to make its way to the majors, a return to contention isn’t imminent. That part will take time. What Atkins and Co. can do, though, is put in place a manager to help them get there, perhaps as early as 2021. Espada could very well be that guy, and, by all accounts, is worth a hard look in the coming weeks.
Statistics courtesy: FanGraphs