The American League Central has been a manager “carousel” of sorts, as both the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox had vacancies for their manager position this off-season. The Tigers knew of their need for a replacement earlier than other clubs, as former manager Ron Gardenhire announced his retirement in the final weeks of the season, citing health reasons as a catalyst for his retirement.
As for the White Sox, general manager Rick Hahn and the White Sox front office felt a managerial and coaching change was necessary, even though the White Sox finished with a winning record and made the postseason for the first time since 2008. A late season collapse (they lost 10 out of 13 games), a Wild Card loss to the Oakland A’s, and rumors of a disorganized and overly lax clubhouse seemed to cost Rick Renteria his job as manager, even though his record was more than serviceable during his four years at the helm (especially since the White Sox were in the midst of a rebuild during his first couple of seasons).
Neither the White Sox nor the Tigers wasted much time finding replacements after the conclusion of the World Series. Yesterday, the White Sox broke news that they hired Tony La Russa, a 3-time World Series champion manager who was most known for his days managing the Oakland Athletics in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and the St. Louis Cardinals for nearly two decades from 1996 to 2011. Inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2014, La Russa ranks third in all-time wins for managers, as highlighted in his announcement below via the White Sox’s Twitter:
Not be outdone, less than 24 hours later, Detroit announced the hiring of former Houston Astros manager (as well as former Royals catcher) A.J. Hinch, who led the Astros to the club’s first World Series title in 2017. Hinch was let go by Astros owner Jim Crane (along with GM Jeff Luhnow) in the wake of the team’s video-cheating scandal (“trash can gate”), and had to sit out a year as punishment from Major League Baseball. However, Hinch was re-instated this week with the conclusion of the Major League season, and the Tigers seemed to pounce on Hinch, who also seemed to be in the running for the vacant Boston Red Sox job, which is the only managerial opening available. Just past noon today, the Tigers officially announced Hinch as the 39th manager in club history:
The latter manager announcement is particularly bittersweet for Royals fans, because it appeared that Pedro Grifol was a top candidate for the Tigers position earlier this month:
While the Red Sox job is still available, his name has not been circulated around the position, nor has his name been mentioned in interviews either. In fact, it seems like the Red Sox most likely will re-hire Alex Cora, as he did lead the Red Sox to a 2018 World Series title, and rumors have been circulating that he has been in contact with the organization recently, as his suspended has been lifted as well, much like Hinch. And thus, while there still is an outside chance that Grifol could get the Red Sox manager job, it seems unlikely unless Cora turns it down (which doesn’t seem likely with no other jobs available at this moment).
Hence, this moment is bittersweet among Royals circles because this is the second-straight year where Grifol seemed like a top candidate for a managerial job, but just fell short. Last year, he seemed to be a finalist for the Royals job (whom I preferred as Ned Yost’s successor at the time) as well as the San Francisco Giants position, but instead, the manager jobs went to Mike Matheny and Gabe Kapler, respectively. Grifol is one of the most underrated coaches not just on the Royals staff, but perhaps in all of baseball, especially when it comes to his ability to work with and connect with Latin American players. Jorge Soler, Salvador Perez, and even Adalberto Mondesi have all credited their success in some way with the Royals due to their work and relationship with Grifol, who often works out of the spotlight and behind the scenes.
While it will be nice to have Grifol on staff once again, especially with more and more Latin American players making their way to Kansas City over the next couple of years through the farm system as well as trades, his inability to land a MLB manager seems a bit unfair. While he doesn’t have managerial experience at the big league level, which seemed to hurt his candidacy, many MLB teams have succeeded with managers recently who didn’t have MLB manager track records on their resume either. In fact, take a look at some of the managers of clubs who made the postseason in 2020 who didn’t have MLB manager experience before they took over their current club:
- Charlie Montoyo, Blue Jays.
- David Ross, Cubs.
- Mike Shildt, Cardinals.
- Jayce Tingler, Padres.
- Brian Snitker, Braves
- Aaron Boone, Yankees.
- Rocco Baldelli, Twins.
- David Bell, Reds
- Craig Counsell, Brewers
- Kevin Cash, Rays
- Dave Roberts, Dodgers
Hence, out of the 16 teams who qualified for the postseason, 11 of them had managers who never had managed a MLB team prior to their current position. And thus, while choosing a manager who has MLB managerial experience is a safe move for a club, it doesn’t often guarantee success. Case in point: both Cash and Roberts had never managed a MLB team before they were hired by the Rays and Dodgers, and they both led their clubs to the World Series in 2020.
Despite this tidbit, when it came to filling jobs this off-season, clubs either went for familiar names, even if those candidates had either been out of the dugout for a while (La Russa) or their previous tenures were shrouded in controversy (Hinch and maybe Cora).
And that kind of “risk averse” hiring may not be good for the game as a whole, especially when there are candidates like Grifol available on the open market.
Clint Scoles of Royals Academy in his latest “Minor Thoughts” had this to say about the La Russa hiring, which I wholeheartedly agreed with:
We know of the White Sox that they are a heavily Latin influenced team with Jose Abreu, Yoan Moncada, Luis Robert, Yasmani Grandal, and Eloy Jimenez thumping in the middle of that lineup. Is La Russa the right guy to lead that group? It seems odd you would want an old veteran white guy to do that. What does he have in common with these guys? Can he speak to their journey? There are questions here to that.“Minor Thoughts 10/30/20” by Clint Scoles; Royals Academy
The last time La Russa managed in baseball was in 2011, and he succeeded in an era of baseball that wasn’t particularly diverse (African American participation was plummeting and Latin American participation was growing, but wasn’t at its current levels yet) and honestly, in a city (St. Louis) that really didn’t care if the team was all that diverse. Sure, La Russa had Albert Pujols, but I can’t really name another major African-American or Latin American player on that team, and I believe most baseball fans wouldn’t be able to either, unless they were a Cardinals fan, of course. Furthermore, La Russa’s tenure in the front office in Arizona was a disaster, and he has been well-documented for having conservative and traditional viewpoints, especially in regard to anthem protests (though his PR team is trying to change that).
And as for AJ Hinch? Yes, he succeeded in Houston, but his time as manager as the Diamondbacks was a disaster. He didn’t last even two seasons, and he finished with a career winning percentage of .420. Yes, the Tigers have some promising talent coming up in the system, but this team still finished in last place in 2020, and has some logjams and problems at the Major League level (particularly with Miguel Cabrera, who has declined sharply as a player and still is being paid a massive amount). Thus, it will be interesting to see if Hinch was primarily the reason for the Astros success, or if it was due to a talented front office. Hinch’s tenure with the Tigers will certainly reveal the winner of that debate.
That being said, as fans can see from both La Russa and Hinch’s flaws, it doesn’t make sense that the White Sox and Tigers saw Grifol as a “lesser” candidate, especially if one takes away the “experience” factor. Grifol would be a perfect fit in Chicago as a Latino manager who would be able to speak literally and figuratively to his young Latin core. Furthermore, he most likely would be able to connect with Tim Anderson, the White Sox’s socially active and vocal star. He also would have been perfect in Detroit, as he knows the Central’s landscape well, and knows how to develop and keep a strong clubhouse during rebuilding campaigns, which he has been the case the past few years in Kansas City under Matheny and Ned Yost.
And still, despite being able to offer so much as a manager, Grifol will be on the Royals staff again in 2021. I’m not mad, because I love Grifol. However, I am disappointed. I am disappointed for him and the game of baseball. Latino players are making a bigger impact than ever before, and yet, we continue to not see that same representation in the managerial ranks. As of now, the only Latino managers in Major League Baseball are Montoyo of the Jays, Luis Rojas of the Mets, and Dave Martinez of the Nationals. Hence, only 3 managers of the total 30 in baseball are Latino (10 percent), even though nearly 30 percent of MLB players identify as Latino. If baseball truly wants to cater to a rising population of Hispanic/Latino fans (around 60 percent of the Hispanic population consider themselves baseball fans), then there needs to be more representation, and not just from players, but managers as well.
Grifol will help the Royals on the field in so many ways if he remains on staff in 2021 (which seems likely as of now). The Royals continue to add talented players in their system from Latin America, continue to invest in their facilities in the Dominican Republic, and players who reach Kansas City next year undoubtedly will receive valuable tutelage from Grifol. The Royals organization used to be a ghost town for Latin American players. Now, it is flush with Latino talent, which is great for the organization not just in terms of being competitive, but adding diversity to this club, as well as city.
Grifol has been a big catalyst in terms of helping Royals Latino players make an impact at the MLB level. In 2021, Grifol will most likely continue to have that kind of impact in the Royals dugout, which could have dividends not just in the clubhouse, but in the win column in 2021 as well, as he continues to help Dayton Moore and Mike Matheny bring this team back to competitiveness.
But he deserves to be a manager, not just a coach. He deserves the chance to make a strong impact on a young, budding team as the head of the dugout and clubhouse, even if it is for another team.
And it’s just a shame for baseball as a whole that he isn’t able to do that just yet.