This is going to be the most challenging season in Astros history and everyone associated with the organization understands that.
In the wake of the electronic sign-stealing scandal that led to the suspensions and ultimate dismissals of manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow, the Astros have become the pariahs of Major League Baseball.
They have lost virtually all of the good will and respect winning the 2017 World Series secured them. Few will trust them anymore. Angry opponents and alienated fans will hold grudges for a long time.
And from the start of spring training in a few weeks, until the end of the 2020 season, every stop they make on their schedule will bring the same questions from those interested in understanding the gist of the ugliest spectacle to rock the game in decades.
So when the Astros went searching for a manager to replace Hinch, they understood the candidate would have to possess more than a high baseball acumen. They would need someone nuanced, level-headed and calm, experienced and unflappable, capable of leading a team safely through unchartered waters filled with sharks.
On Wednesday, we learned who that person will be. The Astros have hired Dusty Baker. And that is the best thing they could possible have done.
Baker, 70, was introduced at Minute Maid Park on Thursday. And it appears he will be around just for a short time, long enough to help get things back on track. He signed a one-year deal with a club option for 2021.
According to multiple reports, Joe Espada, the Astros bench coach last season, the guy who was considered a major candidate for the job, will remain alongside Baker. But Baker is expected to bring with him coaches he’s worked with before, especially those who were with him in Washington during his two seasons there (2016-17).
“We hired Dusty for two reasons. He’s a person of high integrity, a respected leader. He has great baseball experience and will earn the players’ trust,” Astros owner Jim Crane said Thursday. “The second reason is, Dusty has one of the most impressive records in baseball. He had a storied career, on and off the field. He’s the best person to lead this team to a championship. His goal is our goal. … Hiring Dusty Baker is one big step for us in moving forward. He’s the right person at the right time and we’re absolutely thrilled to have him here.”
Baker has already managed the Giants, Reds, Cubs and Nationals over 22 seasons and won 1,863 career games. He is a three-time National League manager of the year. And no MLB manager will be more respected by his players. But he has never won a World Series so his hiring must be categorized as somewhat of a gamble.
“This is my last hurrah,” Baker said. “This is a new beginning for me. … I’m excited to be here and excited to win. It’s my last chance to accomplish the goal (of winning a World Series).”
Baker will inherit one of the most powerful teams in the game, which won 107 games and came close to another World Series championship before falling to the Nationals in seven games. Ironically, Baker was replaced as Nationals manager after the 2017 season by Dave Martinez.
If the Astros make it to the playoffs in 2020, Baker will become the first manager in MLB history to bring five different teams to the postseason.
It will be fascinating to watch how Baker plays things this season, how he juggles the off-the-field histrionics with the responsibility of managing his team. And it will be interesting to see whether his players follow his lead when faced with the questions, the catcalls and potential retribution from opponents.
“All of your experiences in your past should help you in the present,” Baker said. “I’ve been through a lot in my life. I feel like I can help the players, the organization and the city. I wasn’t here when a lot of it happened, but I followed it. I felt badly for the city and the organization and for whatever players were involved. But this is a new beginning for us and for me. What we have going for us is the amount of love I know the players have for the city and for each other. It will be very positive. I knew it would be challenging when I took the position, but I’ve always met challenges.”
One thing is for sure: He will be the oldest manager in the Majors. The Elias Sports Bureau tells us Baker becomes just the third manager in MLB history to be hired at 70 or older, joining Casey Stengel – 71 when he was hired by the Mets in 1962 – and Jack McKeon, who was 80 when the Marlins chose him in 2011.
The Astros have won three consecutive American League West titles – and at least 101 games – three years in a row. With the notable exception of pitcher Gerrit Cole, lost to the Yankees through free agency, the team will be loaded again.
“I’m just hoping to bring some love back to baseball, some integrity to the game, and I think I got relative respect in the game,” Baker told MLB.com after interviewing. “There’s something missing. I need a (World Series) championship, and I’d like to bring a championship to the city of Houston.”
The next step for the organization is to find their next general manager. Sources told MLB.com, Royals director of pro scouting/special assistant Gene Watson and Rays vice president of baseball operations James Click have interviewed.