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The Manager Search Continues
It's been three weeks and it feels like 50.
When the Royals made the decision to fire Mike Matheny (and Cal Eldred), JJ Picollo mentioned at his press conference that the decision to find a new manager would not be especially fast. I think that worried some people who thought the best candidates might be snatched off the board. It’s now been three weeks since the end of the season, which is generally about the time when teams start to come to managerial decisions. And this year has been no different. Only it’s been kind of super different than past years.
There were seven “open” managerial jobs. I use quotes around that word because two of the seven teams on a managerial hunt were playoff teams led by their interim manager. Another one is a team likely going through a sale. So before the dust could really settle, the Angels (Phil Nevin), Blue Jays (John Schneider) and the Phillies (Rob Thomson) all had the interim labels removed. So we were already down to just four openings. The four teams remaining after that logjam was cleared were all in sort of interesting positions.
The Rangers started their track to winning by spending last season. After firing their long-time president, former Royals pitcher Chris Young was tasked with finishing the job. So he went to one of his old managers and one of the most successful the game has seen, Bruce Bochy. The Marlins have all the young pitching in the world but just needed a different voice. They went with one of the hot candidates, Skip Schumaker, who has been seen as a rising star in the industry for a couple of years now. I think they believe they’re closer than their record would indicate because they just need to figure out how to hit. We’ll see how that goes, but that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.
So that’s five jobs filled by other teams without a single known Royals candidate getting any of the jobs. I’ll get to the Royals candidates in a minute, but a few had interviewed for at least the Marlins job, but obviously, only one person can get it and I haven’t heard the Royals linked to Schumaker at all in this time period. It could just be that they knew they couldn’t bark up the Cardinals tree again so they didn’t even approach it, but regardless of the why, all of their top candidates seem to remain in place.
I was asked on Twitter if that says anything about the Royals candidates. I don’t think so. I think if the Royals were busy spending time on interviews with random bullpen catchers around baseball, then yeah, maybe, but they’re interviewing legitimate top candidates around the game. It’s also very easy to wonder if every other team is smarter than the Royals, but generally, when there’s a managerial opening, it’s because that team is struggling too. Maybe they are smarter, maybe they’re not, but they’re in a similar boat to Kansas City.
And, as I’ve said before, it’s not uncommon for the best managers in a hiring cycle to come at the end. Buck Schowalter (say what you want but he wins) was the second-to-last manager hired last year. Gabe Kapler was third-to-last before the 2020 season. Dusty Baker was last! In the 2015 season hiring cycle, Kevin Cash was the last manager hired and he didn’t get the job until December. There are so many excellent candidates out there that every team could have an opening and every team could hire a new manager who would be cutting edge. They wouldn’t. Inevitably some team or three would hire a retread, but the point is that great far more great candidates exist than job openings. It’s a matter of finding that great candidate.
I haven’t exactly hidden my thoughts on the managerial search. I had heard early that they were “enamored” with Matt Quatraro, the Rays bench coach and former Cleveland hitting coach. And as the process unfolded, they seem to be feeling the same way about current Phillies third base coach, Dusty Wathan. Those, to me, are the two favorites. I said on Twitter the other day that I would take the field over any one candidate, but I’d take Quatraro or Wathan over the field. At this particular moment, I think I give the slight edge to Wathan, but neither hire would surprise me in the least and I’d probably say it’s more of a toss-up.
The one candidate we didn’t hear much about for a long time is Clayton McCullough, the Dodgers first base coach. Jon Morosi tweeted right after Matheny was fired that McCullough was already a candidate. His father is a scout for the Royals, so there’s a bit of a connection. And he’s obviously been a part of one of the most successful franchises over the last decade. He was a manager in the Blue Jays organization from 2007 to 2014 before he became the Dodgers minor league field coordinator. Yes, the minor league field coordinator for one of the most prolific player development organizations in baseball. And then he shifted to the big league coaching staff before the 2021 season. He’s a very interesting candidate and maybe there’s more to this, but I still think he’s behind Quatraro and Wathan.
The other known candidates right now are internal - Pedro Grifol, Scott Thorman and Vance Wilson. I did hear Steve Phillips on MLB Network Radio list Joe Espada as a Royals candidate, though I haven’t seen any confirmation that he’s interviewed. Could others have been interviewed? Absolutely. Would we know? Not necessarily! No, I don’t know why they’re so secretive. But they are and we can’t change it.
The first mention of Thorman as a candidate came the other day from Anne Rogers, but he was mentioned back in my big list of candidates I put out the day after Matheny was fired. I don’t believe he or Wilson are serious candidates to actually get the job. I will say that’s not based on any sources, but just me trying to think about it logically. If they wanted to hire someone who they already had in house, I can’t imagine they would still be sitting here waiting to make a hire. I could absolutely see either of them in the bench coach role, which I’ll get to in a minute, but I don’t think either is a real threat to get the top job.
I don’t list Grifol in that group because while I think most of that is true for him, he also spent the last few weeks interviewing with both the Marlins and the White Sox. The White Sox job is still vacant, though they’ve been linked a lot more strongly to Espada of the candidates who might be in view for the Royals. But it’s important to remember that they hired Tony LaRussa a couple of years ago and they are also interviewing Ozzie Guillen for the job. Never underestimate the White Sox to make a hire that’ll make you scratch your head.
In my opinion, the Royals can’t go wrong with either Wathan or Quatraro and I think McCullough is a great candidate as well. I’ve shared this before, but when I started writing about managerial candidates back in September, I asked as many people as I could who knew a lot more than me their thoughts on some potential names for a big list. I heard Wathan’s name from two or three people and kind of scoffed. Finally after hearing it from more people throughout my writing, I dug in a little bit more and I kind of fell in love with him as a candidate. I keep coming back to two things - the way his former players through his minor league managing glow about him and how he incorporates analytics into his decision-making as a third base coach, which is pretty cool.
In Quatraro, he’s a candidate without much in the way of actual managerial experience like Wathan, but he’s been a part of very successful big league coaching staffs. He did manage in the minors early in his coaching career, but was the minor league hitting coordinator for the Rays from 2010 through 2013. Then he was the assistant hitting coach with Cleveland for three years, helping with some solid offenses in that time. He then returned to the Rays for the 2017 season as their third base coach before shifting to the bench coach role since 2019. The last four seasons for the Rays, with him as bench coach, have all been playoff seasons. I’m not saying you necessarily attribute that to the bench coach, but he’s been a part of watching successful baseball for a long time. He’s only been on the staff of one big league team to finish below .500 and that was in 2017 when the Rays finished 80-82.
I just don’t think they can go wrong with either. I suppose you never know and a surprise candidate could emerge to take the role between now and whenever they make their decision, though I do sort of think they’d have an answer already if it was someone who isn’t either part of a postseason run (Wathan) or part of multiple interview processes (Quatraro and Grifol), so it seems likely that we know exactly our answer here. I would imagine a pitching coach will be named quickly after these interviews with the interview process including their thoughts on coaching candidates, so once this gets done, the rest will move pretty quickly.