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Mike Matheny is Done...Who's Next?
Let's talk managerial candidates!
The Royals made the news official that I’d been expecting for awhile now that Mike Matheny would not return as Royals manager. We don’t need to outline what went wrong, but I think it’s important to look back just a little bit on his tenure. When he was hired after Ned Yost retired, he spoke a lot about understanding the need to learn the analytical side of the game, and I do think he walked the walk somewhat. He definitely did in 2020 with his bullpen usage, but also that was a 60-game season, so it was hard to tell what would carry over to a full year.
I personally think he was better about those things with the Royals than he was with the Cardinals. He utilized his best reliever in non-save situations because the situation called for it. He put MJ Melendez at the top of the lineup when he was a very non-traditional leadoff hitter but does work counts and get on base. But ultimately, clubhouse issues plagued the team early in the season and it just felt like he got in over his head late in the year with some questionable work with the young players. And at some point, results have to be taken into account and his results were not good enough. The Royals went 165-219 under Matheny and took a huge step back this season when they were expected to take a step forward. That’s just not enough to keep a job.
For the Royals to take the next step in their quest to get back to respectability (gotta start somewhere), this was a move that needed to be made. But who could replace him?
Grifol was my choice when Matheny was hired because I love the way he combines the analytical side of baseball today with his experience in the game. I’ve been surprised he stayed with the team and I think he probably helped Matheny quite a bit with some of the more data-driven decisions we’ve seen. From what I know, he’s a great communicator and has a great feel for the game. if the Royals hired him this time, I’d be more than happy.
Thorman has worked his way through the Royals system, managing an A-ball, AA and now AAA with the Storm Chasers. People who have worked with and around him rave about his ability to communicate (yes, that’s a big deal) and his grasp on situational management. My concern with someone who hasn’t coached in the big leagues is the fact that the goals are a little different. It’s not so much about getting a prospect ready for the majors as it is about getting a team a win that day or setting up for a long stretch of games and whatnot. I think Thorman would be an interesting choice, but not my first.
When the Royals hired Wilson to manage in their minor league system, he was seen as a bit of a big league manager-in-waiting. It’s probably the fact that he was a catcher and any time a catcher manages anywhere, the assumption is that he’s going to be a manager in the big leagues soon enough. Wilson stayed in Northwest Arkansas for a long time and has been the third base coach, which might make his candidacy a bit difficult these days since he’s made questionable at best decisions regarding sending runners. Of course that isn’t what makes a manager good, but his decision-making is at least fair to question.
This is the name that keeps coming up when I ask people about who could take over if the Royals move on from Matheny. Zumwalt is thought of as someone who could literally do anything in baseball. He’s been part of the brigade to revamp the Royals offensive development program and that’s been extremely successful. Now he’s working with hitters in the big leagues and there’s been a noticeable change in approach both since he got there and since some of his disciples have made it. It also helps that JJ Picollo apparently loves him and his preparedness would go a long way toward helping the Royals find their way.
There are going to be more candidates who have managed before than I have on this list, but he keeps popping up for basically every opening. I don’t think he’s going to be a serious candidate, but I do wonder a little bit about what happens when he takes over a young roster. He’s managed the Tigers as they were on their last legs of contention and then managed a top-heavy Angels team for one year that nobody else has been able to figure out either. He’s spent a year with the A’s as Mark Kotsay’s bench coach. While I think this feels like another Matheny on the surface, everyone I’ve talked to says he deserves a real shot.
I feel like Beltran got a raw deal out of the Astros scandal. He was a player on that team. The players all had “immunity” and weren’t punished at all, but because he had retired and had already been hired as Mets manager, he had to face consequences that none of his teammates faced. He was fired before he could manage a game. Why did the Mets hire him in the first place? He has zero managerial experience but he’s a progressive thinker within the game and understands the game exceptionally well. He would require an experienced bench coach behind him, but this is an interesting, albeit risky hire. I understand why many would shy away from him, but he’s going to get a shot somewhere.
Here you’re hiring hoping that some of what Bob Melvin has done over the years as a manager has rubbed off on him. Christenson has been Melvin’s bench coach since the 2018 season and he’s moved with him to San Diego. He started managing in the A’s system in 2013 and was generally very successful in the minors before moving to the big leagues. He aligns well with the A’s philosophies as he was a candidate to take over for Melvin after Melvin moved on, but he chose to go with him, leaving the job to Mark Kotsay. I spoke with three different people who thought Christenson would be an excellent hire, so that’s something at least.
I sometimes wonder why Cora hasn’t been a manager yet and that gives me pause to include him, but I also feel like he may deserve a shot somewhere. He’s the brother of Alex Cora, who is obviously very successful, though that doesn’t mean that Joey would find that kind of success as well. But he’s still paid his dues. He’s been a coach since 2003, working with the White Sox, Marlins, Pirates and now he’s currently the bench coach on the Mets. He has been interviewed for some jobs, so again, there’s some pause there, but I think he should at least get a look. What I find interesting is that he’s worked as a counter to his manager in the past, meaning he’s been calm when the manager is crazy (Ozzie Guillen) and a little bit fiery when the manager is calm (Clint Hurdle, I guess). That tells me that he can adapt, which is a nice quality in a manager.
If you like the way the Giants operate, Correa would be a very interesting hire. John Sherman may know him from his time with Cleveland, though he was the AZL Indians infield coach in 2018 and the short-season defensive coordinator in 2019, so maybe not. But when Gabe Kapler was hired by the Giants in 2020, he found Correa to be his bench coach. He’d be the youngest manager in baseball, not turning 35 until July, but he’s a name I’ve actually heard mentioned by some people if the Royals want to change their stripes in a big way. He’s extremely detail-driven and can obviously relate to young players, which is important. With a roster with as much flexibility (the good and the bad that comes with that), his experience with a Giants team that platoons as much as anyone could be a boon. Like Beltran, it’s a risk, but it feels like one a team like the Royals should be taking at some point.
Espada is a little like Grifol to me. Is there a reason he hasn’t gotten a job yet when he’s interviewed for so many? He played professionally and actually spent a little time with the Royals organization in 2002. He’s been a coach with the Marlins, Yankees and Astros and has been the Astros bench coach since 2017. If there’s an organization to emulate, the Astros would be a good one. A manager (and coach) finds success due to the talent on the team, but Espada has certainly been around a lot of success and is still a very young managerial candidate. He’d be worth an interview to see what the hype is about.
The difference between Fasano and some other candidates is he actually has managerial experience in the minors. He’s managed at A-ball and AA for the Blue Jays and Angels and has been the Braves catching coordinator since 2018. He interviewed for the Tigers job before AJ Hinch was hired and his name has popped up periodically. He’s the typical backup catcher turned coach, which has worked quite a bit in the past. It also feels like something that should work more often than it does for a manager. But the idea of someone coming from a winning organization is very nice and the Braves are absolutely a winning organization. He also has experience as the Blue Jays minor league pitching coordinator in 2015 but was let go in 2016. That wasn’t the best time for Blue Jays pitching prospects, so that may or may not be a good thing.
Another former Royals player! Would Febles even want to leave the Red Sox? He’s been coaching or managing in that organization since 2007, managing at multiple levels before rising to the big leagues as their third base coach in 2017 and has been there ever since. His time in the minors was interesting for a young team because he helped with the development of guys like Andrew Benintendi, Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers and others. That’s something that you’d like to see from a guy moving to a first-time job with a young team. He’s been loyal to Boston for a long time so maybe he doesn’t even want to make a move, but he’s intriguing to me.
Hale is a name you don’t hear much of on the managerial circuit, maybe because he’s older at 61, but he’s the Guardians bench coach and has been for the last two seasons, which means he had the chance to manage a bit last year when Terry Francona had to leave the team for the last couple of months. So there’s a little experience at least, but anyone who had a chance to learn with Francona at least deserves a mention. While he would come from Cleveland, there isn’t a Sherman connection as he joined the staff after Sherman left.
Kelly is currently the bench coach for the Pittsburgh PIrates and has been since the 2020 season under Derek Shelton. Prior to that, he had been the Astros first base coach and a big league scout for the Tigers. Having worked in all those roles, including as a bench coach for Shelton, Kelly appears to have a wide variety of experience and is considered to be both incredibly organized and prepared while also carrying a recent playing career that should theoretically help him to relate to younger players. I have to say that I’m curious what he could do, but he isn’t my first choice here.
Meulens was a hot managerial candidate a few years ago and never got a job, which could be a red flag, but boy does he have experience. He was the Giants hitting coach during their World Series wins and served as bench coach after, was the bench coach of the Mets in 2020 and has returned to New York as one of the hitting coaches for the Yankees this season. Many around the game have lauded his communication skills and his ability to utilize modern technology in team development.
If the Royals are looking for youth, Negron might be the best possible answer. He’s currently the first base coach for the Mariners but played in the big leagues as recently as 2019 for the Dodgers. After his retirement, he was hired as the Mariners assistant to the director of player development and then was named manager of their AAA team for the 2021 season where he was named AAA West Manager of the Year. He served as interim manager for the Mariners earlier this year as well. I would say that if the Royals were going to go with Negron or really anyone like him that an experienced bench coach would be vital. This quote from this article has maybe made me love Negron more than any other candidate.
“I think it’s just getting to know the arms and the bullpen management-type stuff because obviously I was a position player so that wasn’t my forte,” he said. “Learning that last year and just kind of kind of learning the whole pitching philosophy, the analytics and all that stuff, something that I really took a lot of pride in getting to know last year with my pitching coach (Rob Marcello Jr., who is now with the Padres) down in Tacoma.”
The current MLB Network Radio host and ESPN analyst seems to have popped up for a handful of jobs over the past few seasons. Perez checks off an awful lot of boxes in that he’s a good communicator, has an advanced tactical approach based on his broadcasting and has learned quite a bit from the analytical side from his appearance on the Statcast broadcasts ESPN has done over the last few years. I question a bit how much he wants to give up the much less frantic life he seems to have now. Still, I’d be interested.
My first thought when thinking about how the Royals can get better is to just do what the Rays are doing because it works. And their bench coach is Quatraro. Quatraro was in Cleveland when Sherman was, as the assistant hitting coach from 2014 through 2016, which included a couple of very nice offensive seasons for the team. He’s been the bench coach to Kevin Cash since 2019, which has been just an incredibly successful four-year run for the franchise. He’s interviewed for a couple of jobs and ultimately is still in Tampa, but I would have to think he would be a home run hire on paper at the very least.
While Schumaker doesn’t have managerial experience, he did go into coaching immediately after he retired, working as the first base coach for the Padres in 2018 and 2019 and then was the associate manager (whatever that means) in 2020. He was a candidate for the Cardinals managerial opening before this season but ended up moving over there as their bench coach. He’s highly regarded and one person in baseball who I’ve spoken with thinks Schumaker has learned from a crash course in big league coaching and has a chance to be a very successful big league manager. Like a few others on this list, an experienced bench coach would help quite a bit.
Tingler is an interesting name because he was thought of as an up-and-comer who manages in a way a lot of young managers do, but he cut his teeth developing in the minor leagues, which kind of makes sense as a hire for a team as young as the Royals. He’s also local, born in Smithville and playing in college for Mizzou. His managerial stint with the Padres had its issues, which is why it ended after just two seasons. The Padres did collapse down the stretch last season and Tingler came under fire for criticizing Fernando Tatis Jr. for breaking an “unwritten rule.” His lack of playing experience was said to be an issue in the clubhouse, so that’s at least something to monitor with him as a candidate. But he also didn’t have as much say in building his coaching staff as you’d like a manager to have and the Padres have been a revolving door for coaches over the past seven or eight seasons, so maybe there’s more to this story. Tingler is currently the bench coach for the Twins. I’d give him an interview for sure.
Here’s another player on this list who isn’t very far removed from his playing career. He retired following the 2016 season. He was the Cubs first base coach in 2018 and 2019 and then coached third for them in 2020. And he is currently the Red Sox bench coach, having managed a few games when Alex Cora had to miss time for various reasons. He’s been said to be a hybrid of a lot of the old-school approach mixed with new-school. That’s honestly a little concerning because you wonder how much he’ll slip from one to another, but I think it’s an important skill to have if it can be used properly. Tony Gwynn Jr., who was a teammate of Venable’s has said that he doesn’t rest on his laurels and is always wanting to learn more, regarding strategy. He’s a good communicator who is able to verbalize some of the more analytical tactics he may use, which could serve him well.
While the playing career wasn’t illustrious, Wathan did appear in three games for the Royals in 2002 and went 3 for 5 with a hit by pitch, so the numbers are exquisite. Forget the last name for a second because this Wathan’s candidacy stands on its own. He has been a manager across just about every level in the minors. He is actually the winningest manager in Reading history in AA. And now he’s been the third base coach in Philadelphia since 2018, under three managers. Rhys Hoskins was quoted a few years ago as talking about Wathan as a player’s manager who was open to having discussions with players about just about anything. He doesn’t have big league managing experience, but the bloodlines combined with the dues he’s paid in the minors and the fact that he’s now worked under three big league managers (Gabe Kapler, Joe Girardo and Rob Thomson) mean that he’s got plenty of experience and could be a great fit for a young team. I also really like that maybe there’s a relationship with Brian Kaplan, the Phillies assistant pitching coach and director of pitching development who has some interesting ideas that I may get to when I do something like this about pitching coaches.
That’s 22 candidates. There are others too. I wonder how wide-ranging this search will end up, but whatever they do, there are a lot of quality candidates out there. In writing this, I started off being all aboard the Quatraro bandwagon. I think it just fits. And while I still am, I found myself very intrigued by Wathan in a strange way. I’m not sure I can put my finger on it, but I do like the way the players talk about him. I can see value in any and all of these candidates, but I think if I’m looking at those outside the organization, my top four choices are Quatraro, Wathan, Espada and Correa. And if they stay in-house, I’m very curious what Zumwalt would be able to do given everything we know about him along with his relationship with the players.
Come back tomorrow for pitching coach candidates.
This is going to be interesting and I’m excited to see how this search wraps up.