Per reports from USA Today’s Bob Nightengale and Jim Bowden of The Athletic, the Astros have concluded their managerial search and are expected to promote bench coach Joe Espada to the role, replacing retired skipper Dusty Baker.
Nightengale suggests the club is expected to make an official announcement on Monday regarding Espada’s promotion. As noted by The Athletic’s Chandler Rome, the Astros have announced a press conference for 11 a.m. CT on Monday morning with GM Dana Brown.
Espada, 48, was a second-round pick by the A’s in the 1996 draft and played nine seasons in the minor leagues. While he was selected by the Twins in the 1998 Rule 5 draft, he did not ultimately crack the Opening Day roster in Minnesota and never received a big league opportunity afterward, ending his minor league career with a .275/.363/.343 slash line in 644 career games.
After retiring as a player in 2005, he began his coaching career as a member of the Marlins organization in 2006, serving as a minor league hitting coach and infield coordinator before being named the major league third base coach prior to the 2010 season.
Espada ultimately spent four seasons in Miami as third base coach. When the Marlins attempted to reassign Espada to manage in the minor leagues following the 2010 season, he departed the organization to become a special assistant in the Yankees’ front office.
Espada returned to coaching in 2015 as third base and infield coach for the Yankees, serving in the role for three years before being hired by the Astros to replace Alex Cora as the club’s bench coach for the 2018 season following Cora’s hire as manager of the Red Sox. Espada has been the club’s bench coach ever since, serving under both A.J. Hinch and Baker over the past six seasons.
During his time as Houston’s bench coach, Espada has regularly been a candidate for managerial positions. The Cubs, Giants, Mets, White Sox, Marlins and Athletics are all among the clubs Espada interviewed with in recent years, though the job ultimately went to another candidate each time. With Baker having stepped away from managing, however, Espada is finally getting his first shot to manage in the majors.
Though the hiring of Espada as manager hardly constitutes a surprise, the club’s long-time bench coach was not the only candidate considered for the role. The Astros were briefly linked to Craig Counsell prior to him joining the Cubs, while former Tigers and Angels manager Brad Ausmus and third base coach Omar Lopez were among other candidates reportedly considered for the role.
Owner Jim Crane and adviser Jeff Bagwell were both thought to have “immense say” over the managerial search, though rumors indicated that Brown, in particular, pushed for Espada to take over for Baker in the dugout.
While Espada has no managerial experience at the big league level, he’s far from inexperienced after stints managing clubs in winter leagues as well as coaching in the World Baseball Classic for Team Puerto Rico in both 2013 and 2017 on top of his many seasons serving as bench coach under Hinch and Baker.
That deep experience both with the Astros organization and in the dugout should make the transition a smooth one for both Espada and the players in Houston, who won’t have to adjust to a new personality leading the team and clubhouse next season.
That continuity figures to be especially valuable to a club that’s cultivating a winning culture in recent years with seven straight ALCS appearances, four AL pennants and two World Series championships over the past seven seasons.
Espada’s first season as manager in Houston won’t be without challenges, however. Key veterans Martin Maldonado and Michael Brantley departed for free agency earlier this month, meaning the club will have to either replace or re-sign the duo behind the plate and in the outfield.
What’s more, the club’s starting rotation features plenty of question marks behind a front three of Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez, and Cristian Javier. Though the likes of Lance McCullers Jr. and Luis Garcia could return from surgery as potential midseason reinforcements, the club currently figures to rely on the likes of Hunter Brown, Jose Urquidy, and J.P. France as potential options to fill out the club’s Opening Day rotation. That trio combined for a 4.64 ERA across 355 innings of work last year.
Despite those potential holes in the roster, there’s also reason for optimism the club will perform better than their 90-win 2023 campaign next year. After all, the club figures to get full seasons out of Verlander, whom they re-acquired in a deadline deal with the Mets this summer, and Jose Altuve, who appeared in just 90 games this season due to injuries.
A full season from rookie catcher Yainer Diaz in his sophomore campaign should help bolster the club’s offense by replacing the below-average production of Maldonado’s bat in the everyday lineup, putting the Astros in decent position as they look to fend off the rival Rangers and Mariners for their fourth-consecutive AL West crown.