The talent always has been there for a more diverse pool of major league managers. The ability to advance to such positions has not.
Just 6 of 30 big league managerial jobs (20 percent) are occupied by people of color, while non-whites represent roughly 40 percent of the player pool. Yet there is evidence of a significant change to how the coaching pipeline operates, one that suggests a potentially more diverse group moving forward.
For years, coaching staffs have had a measure of diversity but with only limited job mobility for non-white coaches. Many teams would hire Black and Latin ex-players as first base coaches — from 2015-20, 61 percent of first base coaches have been people of color — but then featured steadily diminishing representation at the more prominent (and typically better-paying) coaching positions.
In many instances, first base coaches have remained locked into their positions for years rather than graduating into more prominent roles. There’s been a narrowing funnel, with less diversity among third base coaches, hitting coaches, bench coaches, and ultimately managers.
“There have been a lot of challenges helping individuals to get out of kind of getting pigeon-holed or typecast as the first base coach when they have skills to do more,” said Tyrone Brooks, MLB’s senior director of the front office and field staff diversity pipeline program.
Frequently, coaches with managerial aspirations would see their paths stall.
“There’s nothing wrong with coaching first the rest of your life. I absolutely loved doing it. But there has to be growth … Coaching first, you make a ton of decisions, but you’re not making managing decisions,” said George Lombard, who was hired this month as the Tigers’ bench coach after five years as the Dodgers’ first base coach. “In talking to [Dodgers president of baseball operations] Andrew Friedman, you very rarely see a guy jump from coaching first to managing a major league team. It just doesn’t happen.”
The bottleneck had been caused in part by teams’ preferences to hire individuals with prior managerial experience for the roles of manager and bench coach — a preference that reinforced historical patterns of discrimination. Yet in the last couple of years, a shift has occurred while teams have deemphasized managerial experience as a prerequisite for governance of in-game strategy.
From 2015-17, there were just five non-white bench coaches in the big leagues. That number increased slightly in 2018 and 2019, before jumping to 12 in 2020.
This offseason, change has continued. With the Tigers’ hiring of Lombard, the Red Sox hiring former Cubs third base coach Will Venable, and the White Sox tabbing Miguel Cairo (a former Yankees minor league coordinator), MLB is poised to feature people of color in 14 of the 29 bench coach positions. (The Orioles do not have a bench coach.)
That development changes the pool of future managerial candidates, given that 16 of the 30 big league managerial positions are held by former bench coaches. The job that is the most common springboard to managing features a new cast, opening the bottleneck.
Case in point: James Rowson spent 18 years as a hitting coach with the Yankees, Angels, Cubs, and Twins. Last year, he was hired as a bench coach by the Marlins. That move positioned him to be considered by the Red Sox as a candidate in their managerial search this offseason, and he was one of three finalists.
Venable and Lombard are seen as potential managerial stars, but their lack of exposure to the in-game managerial decisions had been a limitation in their prior interviews. Now, such concerns won’t be part of their future interviews. The path in front of them is clearer.
Of course, it also works in their favor that the last three titles — the Red Sox in 2018 with Alex Cora, the Nationals in 2019 with Dave Martinez, and the Dodgers this year with Dave Roberts — have been won by a diverse group of first-time managers who’d been hired for those roles after preparing as bench coaches.
“What Dave Roberts has done, being with the Dodgers, opening so many eyes, being a minority manager and winning the World Series — the second African-American manager to win a World Series — that’s amazing,” said Lombard, who got his coaching start in the Red Sox minor league system. “Now there are people you can look up to: ‘I want to be the next Dave Roberts.’ ”
And increasingly, it seems likely that such opportunities will exist.
“This emergence of talent that’s coming into this role as bench coaches, I truly feel like this group is now putting itself in a position where they’re essentially rounding for home,” said Brooks. “I’m very optimistic about how talented they are, getting these opportunities, putting themselves very much in a position in the future to become a major league manager.”
FRONT OFFICE TREE
Epstein left mark in Boston
Theo Epstein’s decision to step down as Cubs president of baseball operations came just over nine years after he departed the Red Sox at the conclusion of his nine-year run as general manager. Beyond his three championships, one of the strongest testaments to Epstein’s organization-building skills is his ongoing mark in the Red Sox front office.
While chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom joined the Sox from Tampa Bay in October 2019, nearly all of the rest of the baseball operations senior leadership team — save for assistant GM Raquel Ferreira, whose tenure began when Dan Duquette was GM — got its start under Epstein. GM Brian O’Halloran, two assistant GMs (Eddie Romero and Zack Scott), and all three vice presidents (Ben Crockett, Gus Quattlebaum, and Mike Rikard) were hired by Epstein.
Despite regime changes — from Epstein to Ben Cherington in 2011, Cherington to Dave Dombrowski in 2015, and Dombrowski to Bloom last year — the bones of the front office assembled by Epstein have remained intact.
“It’s a great environment that was started back in 2002 … [Epstein’s time as GM] just stands out as one of the most incredible times of my life because of the people I was doing it with,” said O’Halloran. “[The continuity] shows the kind of job Theo did in bringing people to the organization, giving them opportunities, developing them. It’s awesome. More importantly, we have had awesome people.”
On the field, of course, Epstein’s executive legacy — as he contemplates what he wants to do next — is defined chiefly by the 2004 Red Sox championship and the 2016 Cubs title. Yet it is the least remembered title of 2007 that may represent the greatest trick.
Recent years have offered a lesson in the challenges, and often pain, associated with the transformation of a championship core into another group worthy of a title run. The Red Sox’ last-place finishes in 2014, 2015, and 2020 highlighted the difficulty of moving away from one championship nucleus while trying to build another. The Cubs likewise have seen their proximity to a championship steadily diminish since 2016, and now seem on the cusp of a major, and potentially painful, roster overhaul.
The ability to transform the Red Sox from a veteran, largely imported roster in 2004 to a significantly homegrown group — with Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, and more — that won in 2007 with only modest transitional pain in the intervening years represents a remarkable achievement.
“I don’t know that I totally recognized the magnitude of that change, to go from having a championship team in ’04, having so much change and having a chance to win again in ’07,” said O’Halloran. “That  team is sort of criminally underrated.”
Cano’s Hall bid likely done
Robinson Canó's suspension for the 2021 season because of a second positive test for a performance-enhancing substance — in this case, Stanozolol — likely wipes out any shot the eight-time All-Star has at a place in Cooperstown. Canó’s career numbers — .303 average, .352 OBP, .492 slugging mark, 334 home runs, 68.9 Wins Above Replacement — likely would have warranted significant consideration in a vacuum.
But the disgrace of a second positive test almost surely will obliterate his candidacy. There have been some standout second basemen in the first 20 years of the 21st century, but it’s possible that the era will fail to yield a second player who ends up with a plaque in Cooperstown.
Longtime Phillies star Chase Utley, who retired after the 2018 season, likely has the best shot on the strength of his six All-Star berths and 64.4 WAR (as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com), 11th-highest among second basemen in baseball history. Four-time All-Star Ian Kinsler ended his career with 55.2 WAR, and by virtue of being limited to just nine games after his age-33 season, Dustin Pedroia has a career WAR of 51.6.
Smyly rewarded by Braves
Free agent lefthander Drew Smyly reached a one-year deal with the Braves, in the process highlighting the degree to which teams have become comfortable spending aggressively on what players show in small glimpses.
In 2015, Rich Hill reinvented himself in startling fashion as a Red Sox starter, forging a 1.55 ERA and striking out 36 in 29 innings over four season-ending starts. The A’s signed him that winter to a one-year, $6 million deal.
Smyly went 4-7 with a 6.24 ERA for the Rangers and Phillies in 2019. But in 26⅓ innings with the Giants this year, his velocity jumped and his curveball became a wipeout weapon, helping him to 42 strikeouts. That relatively brief glimpse of a reinvented pitcher was enough to convince Atlanta to commit $11 million on the 31-year-old for next year.
Smyly’s one-year deal notwithstanding, most early signs continue to point to a slow-developing free agent market. Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his team’s payroll projections for next year were “fluid” based on uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 public health environment and thus what size of crowds — if any — might be permissible next year.
Meanwhile, several teams already seem intent on slashing payroll, something that will introduce a number of trade candidates to the market and could impede the formation of teams’ interest in free agents. The combination of such forces suggest dynamics comparable to those that preceded the 2018 season, when J.D. Martinez had to wait until the start of spring training to sign.
Outfielder Rusney Castillo is playing for Mexicali in the Mexican Winter League, which resumed play this past week after a shutdown for the first half of November because of COVID-19 outbreaks that swept across multiple teams. Now a free agent after the completion of his seven-year, $72.5 million contract with the Red Sox, Castillo’s performance is being followed by teams interested in figuring out whether the 33-year-old can be an outfield contributor. While it was easy to lampoon the Red Sox’ decision to sign him, Castillo — who last appeared in the big leagues in 2016 — consistently looked like one of the best players on the field throughout his time in Triple A. Castillo consistently drew praise from Sox officials for the fact that he remained determined, even while contractually trapped in the minors, to perform to the best of his abilities. “There’s probably a lot of people who would have taken that [money] to the house. He never did that,” said one team official. “I hope he gets an opportunity. I do think there’s talent there.” … Deivy Grullón, the power-hitting catcher claimed by the Red Sox off waivers from the Phillies, is playing in the Dominican Winter League. Though his defensive skills lag behind his bat, his nickname (El Pulpo — the Octopus) suggests the potential for unique pitch-framing skills … Red Sox outfield prospect Marcus Wilson had been slated to play in Mexico, but he went home once the league shut down because of COVID-19 outbreaks … As the Sox look to upgrade their rotation, they’d love to do so in creative fashion rather than limiting themselves to the free agent market. But with many teams getting crushed by pitching injuries in 2020, few have seemed eager to deal rotation candidates. “The path to trades is tough,” said one evaluator. “No one is giving up starting pitching.” … As Theo Epstein turned over his position with the Cubs to longtime partner Jed Hoyer, he recalled the role Hoyer played in 2010 — when Epstein was in Boston and Hoyer the GM of the Padres — in shaping the future of several franchises, when the Sox were intent on trading for Padres first baseman Adrián González. The sides understood that pitcher Casey Kelly had to be in the deal, but there was haggling over the second player. “As I recall, Jed wanted Ryan Westmoreland, who would have been, if he hadn’t gone through the tragedy [multiple surgeries to address a cavernous malformation on the brain stem], I think would have been an amazing player,” said Epstein. “When we said no to Westmoreland, he wanted [Anthony] Rizzo. I kept trying to give him Lars Anderson instead. Even Lars Anderson would admit he’s no Anthony Rizzo. So, we were trying to give him Lars instead, but Jed wouldn’t take Lars Anderson. He wanted Anthony Rizzo. He did a great job getting someone who, luckily for us, has gone on to be a cornerstone of the Cubs when we acquired him a couple years after that.” … The Red Sox signed 25-year-old outfielder Michael Gettys to a minor league deal. The 2014 Padres second-round pick has what one evaluator called “huge power,” having blasted 31 homers and hitting .256/.305/.517 in the launching pad that is the Triple A Pacific Coast League in 2019, and he’s got speed that translates to the bases and all three outfield spots. If he can cut down on his strikeouts (he struck out in 30.5 percent of plate appearances in 2019), he could emerge as a useful reserve … Former Red Sox prospect Anderson Espinoza — dealt to the Padres in 2016 for Drew Pomeranz — is on the road back. The righthander, whom Pedro Martínez compared favorably to himself as a teenager, missed virtually all of the 2017-19 seasons because of two Tommy John surgeries. But he pitched this year in San Diego’s instructional league, where his fastball was 94-98 miles per hour … With their McCoy Stadium lease set to expire at the end of January, the PawSox plan on holding an online sale of stadium merchandise from Dec. 5-10. Details will be available at pawsox.com and on the team’s Facebook page … Happy birthday (Monday) to Luis Tiant (80), whose greatness — like his Fu Manchu — seems only to become more impressive with time and perspective. Jonathan Papelbon is 40 on Monday. His audacity during a standout closing career — he holds the franchise record for saves in both Boston and Philadelphia — has given way to an unexpected retreat from the spotlight in retirement. And Jonny Gomes, also turning 40 (Sunday), in just under two years in Boston managed to forge an indelible place in Sox lore as one of the (bearded) faces of the 2013 title team.