There are several notable Astros storylines heading into the final weeks of the regular season, but what might be the most fascinating one is Dusty Baker’s future in Houston.
Hired in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal and just before the shortened season of 2020, the future hall-of-fame skipper has managed the Astros to two straight ALCS berths, and it seems feasible that there could be a third this year.
In 2020, he oversaw a club that became one of the few in history to force a game 7 after losing the first three, and then fell only two wins shy of winning a World Series title in 2021.
Baker has had quite a bit of success as Astros manager. But it seems he might not be long for the job.
Entering the 2021-2022 offseason, there was a possibility that the Astros brass would decline to exercise Baker’s 2022 option. While usually not aired out publicly, it’s fairly clear that he and the front office do not exactly see eye-to-eye. It’s understandable given that James Click did not hire Baker, but when each has spoken about a hot-topic issue such as the Myles Straw trade of 2021 or the questionable lineup decisions of 2022, their messaging differs, albeit subtly.
With that said, the divide in philosophy has had little to no impact on the club itself. Entering Friday, the Astros own the best record in the American League by a decent margin and, according to FanGraphs, have the third-highest World Series odds in the major leagues. It naturally begs the question: Does it matter that Baker’s archaic thinking doesn’t align with Click and the front office’s?
The team is winning. A lot. And it’s been that way since Baker arrived. As long as the trajectory remains the same, does it truly matter that he’s not up-to-date on modern tactics? As frustrating as it can be to watch certain decisions be made, it’s hard to argue that they’ve made a meaningful impact in the grand scheme.
On the other hand, there is a case to be made that a team like the Astros is essentially foolproof. Its roster is one of the deepest and most well-rounded in all of baseball. Even if not managed optimally, there will still be plenty of games won.
So where does this sort-of-complex-but-maybe-not-really situation leave Baker after 2022? It’s hard to guess.
There is a scenario where the Astros win the World Series and send Baker off into the sunset, having finally secured a ring as a manager. There is another where the Astros again make it to the last series of the season but again lose its final game, putting the organization and the legendary skipper in almost the same situation as last year, with the difference being that there is no option for 2023. The contract would simply expire. From there, it’d be anyone’s guess. Neither Click nor Jim Crane have indicated much regarding Baker’s future.
An additional factor — independent of what happens in the postseason — is bench coach Joe Espada, who is likely to garner interest from other clubs needing a manager.
Espada, who has been with Houston since 2018, and whose resume reads similar to former Astros skipper A.J. Hinch’s, could be quite the commodity. The Astros have luckily kept the 46-year-old Espada despite being a finalist for multiple jobs in recent offseasons, but chances are they won’t be able to dodge that bullet again in the upcoming offseason.
In the end, everything boils down to winning. Baker has done that and then some since being hired. Do the ends justify his questionable means? Has he merely been a part of a club that would still play at a high level with any other manager? They’re all valid questions.
Whether Baker’s future hinges on the outcome of the current season or not, he’s done what he was brought here to do, and he did it under bleak circumstances. Perhaps every other manager could’ve won here over the last two-plus seasons, but few would’ve better guided the team amid a national scandal as effectively as Dusty has.