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When the Astros extended Dusty Baker, they risked losing Joe Espada. It may soon become reality.

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The Astros bench coach is a candidate for multiple managerial jobs, including one where he is a finalist.

Toronto Blue Jays v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Ever since the sign-stealing scandal cost A.J. Hinch his job as Astros manager in early 2020, bench coach Joe Espada has seemingly been the heir apparent. Despite not being elevated after Hinch’s dismissal, the hiring of 70-year-old Dusty Baker signaled that the organization wanted an experienced hand guiding the club through the treacherous waters that lay ahead, and that once the storm had been weathered, the much younger Espada would be promoted. Based on Baker’s one-year contract (with a club option for 2021), that appeared to be the plan.

Two deep postseason runs later, the status quo is changed.

Although there may have been a possible disconnect between Baker and the front office this past season, it will not prevent him from getting one more shot at a ring — the now 72-year-old skipper will be back in 2022 after signing a one-year extension in early November.

This leaves the 46-year-old Espada in his current position. For now.

Espada is a finalist for the Mets’ top job, and it’s expected that a hire will be made by the end of the week. New general manager Billy Eppler, once a colleague of Espada’s, is conducting the search.

This isn’t the first time Espada has come close to becoming a big-league manager — he was on the Giants’ short list two years ago. He was reportedly the runner-up to Gabe Kapler.

If the Mets opt to go in a different direction, there is another managerial opening in Oakland, and the A’s have their eye on Espada as well:

It’s unsurprising that Espada is a hot commodity. The Astros’ success aside, he’s built an impressive resume.

While he never made it to The Show as a player, Espada has been a coach in the major leagues for 11 years, serving as a third base coach for the Marlins and Yankees prior to his Houston tenure, which began in 2018. He also has some experience leading teams in his native Puerto Rico, managing the the Atenienses de Manatí in the winter of 2012 and the Gigantes de Carolina in the offseason of 2014.

More than a decade of coaching in the bigs is certainly notable, but what might stand out the most is Espada’s time in the Yankees front office in 2014, when he was a special assistant to GM Brian Cashman.

In an era where teams desire managers who can comprehend the complex information provided by analytically-driven front offices, Espada embodies what is coveted: a coach who not only understands the data, but can convey it to players. It was ostensibly a key reason why his former boss was hired by the Astros seven years ago (Hinch had front-office experience).

In a 2019 story by Joe Lemire of the The New York Times, Cashman himself lauded Espada’s astute skill set:

As infield coach, however, Espada not only advocated the shift but also worked with the analytics team to help improve its algorithms and then communicate the plan to the players.

“He was a big reason why we were able to be transformative eventually with the shift,” Cashman said. “When he was in charge, it was still something that was resisted by our players, by our field staff. Other people were constantly poking fun at it, questioning it, whether it was our media, our radio broadcast team, whether it was the fans, the YES Network broadcasters.

“Whenever it failed, there was a lot of tension, a lot of animosity from all involved, including the pitchers, so he was on the front line having to push it.”

“He was one of the better coaches I’ve had,” Cashman said. “And I’ve been here a long time.”

Also featured in Lemire’s piece is former Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, who described how essential Espada was as Hinch’s right-hand man:

“We use a lot of information to help our coaches do their jobs,” Luhnow said. “He’s very receptive to it. He pushes us when he doesn’t agree, but ultimately he’s responsible for making sure everybody — all of our coaches and players — are following the plan that A.J. sets.”

Former Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira spoke to Mike Puma of the New York Post and gave a player’s perspective:

“We always had a veteran team with the Yankees and we all loved [Espada],” Teixeira said. “It’s because he is willing to put the time in with the young guys, but he’s also smart enough to understand when you have to back off the veterans. When a veteran says, ‘Hey, this is kind of the way I want to do this,’ and Joe says he trusts you. He’s good enough to be able to handle both.

At the time, it was understandable why the Astros made an external hire in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal. Promoting from within would’ve been questionable at best from an optics standpoint.

On one hand, Espada was not a member of the 2017 coaching staff, but on the other, MLB’s investigation found that the team had kept its illegal system in place for parts of 2018 before abandoning it, and Espada was the Astros bench coach that season, making him appear at least somewhat culpable.

Baker was perhaps never meant to last beyond 2021 when he was initially brought aboard, but considering the success the Astros have had across two challenging seasons, it would’ve been a suspect decision not to renew his contract. Given that he’s the second oldest manager in baseball behind 77-year-old Tony La Russa, the organization could find itself at a similar juncture a year from now.

Regardless of what ultimately happens with Baker in the short term, granting him another season at the helm may end up costing the Astros their ideal manager in the long term.