Giants at A Crossroads: Who Is The Best Choice To Manage In SF?

For Bay Area sports fans, the year 2019 has been a tumultuous one, full of upheavals both good and bad. The Oakland Raiders are currently playing their last season in the East Bay before moving on to the (metaphorically) greener pastures of Las Vegas. Also leaving Oakland behind are the Golden State Warriors, in this case for the greener (as in dollars) pastures of San Francisco and the Chase Center arena, where they face an uncertain on-court future thanks to the departure of Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson’s long road back from injury. The San Jose Sharks have begun a new season without their captain Joe Pavelski, and are struggling to cement their new identity in a tough Pacific Division. And, finally, the San Francisco Giants, faced with the grim reality of a rebuild after a run that saw them bring three championships back to the Bay, are saying goodbye to the man who captained the ship all of those winning years- manager Bruce Bochy. And the choice of who will replace Bochy will be critically important, determining the future of the franchise for years to come.

Bochy leaves an enormous hole behind him, one that anyone would struggle to fill. As soon as the 2019 regular season ended, Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi set to work on a list of candidates. While two members of Bochy’s staff, third base coach Ron Wotus and hitting coach Hensley Meulens, were given consideration, the vast majority hailed from outside the organization, a testament to the Giants’ desire to reinvent the franchise following the end of their dynastic run. The Giants’ search also has skewed younger, with two World Series winning stalwarts, Joe Maddon (formerly of the Chicago Cubs) and Joe Girardi (formerly of the Yankees) quickly signing with other organizations. As the World Series unfolds, two candidates have seemed to emerge as the frontrunners- each represents a departure from Bochy’s style, albeit in very distinct ways.

The first candidate to emerge as one of the frontrunners is Gabe Kapler, fresh off of being let go as manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. Kapler, a twelve year major league veteran as a player, is already well known to Farhan Zaidi- the two worked side by side during Zaidi’s time as the Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager, where Kapler served as director of scouting and development. His track record there of finding and developing young talent speaks for itself- the Dodgers’ farm system currently ranks in MLB’s top five, despite the team not having had a draft pick in the top 10 since 2006. Kapler’s tenure over the last two seasons as manager of the Phillies was less successful.

Swaggering in by giving everyone in the clubhouse t-shirts that said “BE BOLD” and “VAM” (value added at the margins), Kapler was brought into modernize a team long thought of as behind the times by incorporating cutting-edge analytics to the clubhouse. But all of Kapler’s numbers and slogans proved to not be what the Phillies needed, either in 2018 or this year. 2019, especially, was viewed by Phillies ownership as an indictment of Kapler, as the team’s record barely improved despite the blockbuster signing of free agent Bryce Harper, trading for star catcher J.T. Realmuto, and more. Following the season, he was promptly let go. Kapler was criticized by fans and media in Philly for being as overly rigid in favor of the statistics as previous managers had been skeptical of them.

As to that last point, this Giants fan remains agnostic. Kapler was not without his defenders in Philadelphia, after all, and the team’s failure to contend seemed to have been much more due to the slew of season-ending injuries to a number of big name players including left fielder Andrew McCutchen, starting pitcher Jake Arrieta, closer David Robertson, and others. If Kapler were to be hired by the Giants, he might well be the second coming of A.J. Hinch, who was fired after two disastrous seasons managing the Arizona Diamondbacks only to come back and lead the Houston Astros to win one World Series and to the verge of a second in three years. And yet, I remain skeptical overall of the prospect of Kapler as Giants manager.

A baseball manager does not draw up plays, like a football or basketball coach. He doesn’t design the offense or defense through schemes, plot out routes, or anything like that. But what he has to do above all is connect with the players, and in this department Kapler seems to have repeatedly fallen short. Phillies owner John Middleton reportedly polled his players on whether Kapler should stay or go, and if any spoke up in his defense, it was not very loudly. And unconfirmed rumors persist that Kapler was so unpopular with Dodgers players that he did not get the managerial job that instead went to Dave Roberts, when on paper he should have been the frontrunner due to already being inside the organization.

But even if none of those rumors are true, hiring Kapler would be a slightly disturbing move coming from Zaidi. He is also looking for a GM, and there he is already believed to be leaning towards a former colleague of his- Oakland A’s assistant GM Billy Owens. If Zaidi were to go with yet another person from one of his former organizations, it could reflect a tendency towards prioritizing the familiar over the best ideas. Zaidi and those close to him are highly intelligent, certainly. Their track records speak for themselves. But if the Giants are to accomplish what, despite all their success, the A’s and Dodgers have not for over thirty years- win a championship, then some tweaks to Zaidi’s familiar formula will be needed. That is ultimately why I would support a candidate who comes from pedigree, but outside of Zaidi’s comfort zone- such as Astros bench coach Joe Espada, also a top candidate. If the Giants are to succeed in rebuilding a championship contender, it will require even someone as smart and creative as Farhan Zaidi to think outside of his box- and Gabe Kapler would be firmly inside it.

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