Two weeks after he was hired, Dusty Baker was on the stage where Alex Bregman, José Altuve and owner Jim Crane apologized to the public for the team’s illegal in-game activities during 2017. The Astros’ new manager had zero involvement with the club’s now infamous sign-stealing scheme, yet he chose to attend the highly-scrutinized spring press conference and publicly backed his players as they faced an unprecedented onslaught of vitriol from their peers and opposing fans.
In a sense, it’s why the legendary skipper was brought in. The organization and its players were soon going to deal with hostile environments in every road ballpark they played in, and an experienced, steadying hand such as Baker’s was needed to guide them through awfully treacherous waters.
Nearly 20 months later, it appears that task has been completed. The Astros still receive their fair share of jeers outside of Houston, but for the most part it seems like the brunt of the storm has passed. With less than a month remaining in the regular season, the Astros are primed to reach the playoffs, as FanGraphs currently gives them a 98.7 percent chance of winning the AL West.
Following 2020’s playoff run that saw the Astros finish one game shy of booking a return trip to the World Series, the 2019 American League champions have the second-best odds in all of baseball to win the Series, per FanGraphs.
Baker has never won a ring while at the helm of a team. Despite having the 12th-most wins by a manager in history, he’s yet to properly cap it off. The 72-year-old was a member of the 1981 Dodgers team that won it all, but as he alluded to when he first arrived in Houston, he’s long wanted to win a world title as a manager. It was a big reason why he accepted a job mired in controversy.
When Baker was hired in early 2020, he signed a one-year contract with a team option for 2021. Regardless of how this year’s campaign ends, it’s currently slated to his last as Astros manager.
Less than two weeks ago, Baker expressed desire in returning for 2022, even outright saying that he plans to re-sign this winter. The question then becomes whether the Astros will re-up him.
In many cases, these predicaments hinge on the outcome of a club’s season. During his time in Washington in 2016 and 2017, Baker led the Nationals to consecutive division titles. But because he failed to advance beyond the NLDS in both years — when the Nationals had lofty expectations — he was fired. It’s feasible to believe that had they at least reached the Series in either year, perhaps there wouldn’t have been a change in clubhouse leadership.
It’s hard to say the same about Baker’s current situation. The Astros were one game away from winning another pennant last year and expect to vie for the AL crown again next month, but even if they achieve that goal, appear in another World Series and possibly win it, there’s a reasonable chance the organization will still opt to go in another direction in the offseason.
Throughout the year, there have been hints of a potential disconnect between the front office and Baker, and it seemingly came to fruition at the trade deadline after a surprise deal sent starting center fielder Myles Straw to Cleveland in exchange for reliever Phil Maton and a prospect.
Based on general manager James Click’s fairly candid comments at the time, it was evident that the analytically-driven front office had a viewpoint on certain players that differed from that of the old-school skipper. The apparent disagreement put Click and Baker’s compatibility in the spotlight.
The difference in philosophy is hardly surprising given each person’s age and background, and perhaps more importantly, neither had a say on the other’s hiring, as Click was brought into the fold merely days after Baker was inked.
The reality is Click is under contract beyond 2021 and Baker is not. Click will presumably be one of the chief decision makers this winter, and with that power may come an inclination for the ex-Rays executive to tab his manager of choice. It’s not definitively known that Baker isn’t the guy, but there’s been little indication that he is.
Astros bench coach Joe Espada would seem to be the ideal fit. The 46-year-old Puerto Rican native was a minor-league player for several years and has a decade of coaching experience, including some managerial experience in Puerto Rico’s winter league. Additionally, Espada spent time in a big-league front office, as he was a special assistant to Yankees boss Brian Cashman in 2014.
It’s an appealing resume, one that nearly landed Espada the Giants managerial job in late 2019. Though he wasn’t hired, it’s telling that an organization run by the revered Farhan Zaidi held Espada in such high regard. Espada has been the Astros bench since 2018 and could seamlessly step into the manager’s role.
In a perfect world for the Astros, they win the last game of the season and send Baker off riding into the sunset with his coveted championship ring, while the younger and more analytically-savvy Espada is elevated to the big job for 2022 and beyond.
Independent of what happens, no one can say Dusty hasn’t held up his end of the bargain. He voluntarily walked into the eye of a hurricane, and not only has he stuck it out, he’s displayed steadfast leadership in a time when the Astros sorely needed it.
But now that the sign-stealing scandal has gradually become a less contentious issue, it’s possible that the organization believes the future Hall of Famer has ultimately served his purpose.