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Astros hire 'a winner' with Dusty as new manager

@brianmctaggart
January 29, 2020

HOUSTON -- Needing a respected and veteran member of the baseball community to guide the team on the field as it tries to put one of the toughest periods in its history in the rearview mirror, the Astros turned to Dusty Baker as their next manager, the team announced on

HOUSTON -- Needing a respected and veteran member of the baseball community to guide the team on the field as it tries to put one of the toughest periods in its history in the rearview mirror, the Astros turned to Dusty Baker as their next manager, the team announced on Wednesday.

Baker, a baseball lifer, is on a one-year deal with an option for 2021, a source told MLB.com.

Joe Espada, the Astros' bench coach in 2019, was a candidate for the managerial role, and he will remain on Houston's staff as Baker's bench coach next season, per a source. It’s expected that Baker will bring in his former bench coach from the Nationals, Chris Speier, to join the coaching staff.

Baker, 70, brings a wealth of experience: He is a three-time National League Manager of the Year with 1,863 career wins who wants one final opportunity to get the World Series ring that has eluded him. He’ll have that chance in Houston.

The Astros are loaded on the field -- they won 107 games last year and came up eight outs shy of winning the World Series -- but have had their accomplishments sullied by the sign-stealing scandal that led to the firings of manager AJ Hinch and president of baseball operations and general manager Jeff Luhnow earlier this month by owner Jim Crane.

“Throughout his successful career, Dusty has embodied the qualities that we were looking for in a manager,” Crane said in a press release. “He’s a winner, and more importantly, a strong leader who has earned the respect of not only his players, but of virtually everyone that he has touched in baseball. We’re extremely excited to name Dusty as the new leader of our ballclub.”

By hiring Baker, the Astros will have a steady and calming voice with the team and the media in the coming weeks when the scandal likely returns to the headlines with the start of spring camp. Players have, for the most part, refused to discuss the controversy, but Baker allows the Astros to start fresh in the manager’s chair.

“I’m extremely thankful for this opportunity,” Baker said in the press release. “This is a great ballclub with outstanding players that know how to win. I applaud Jim Crane for the leadership he has shown in recent weeks and look forward to working with him and the players to bring a championship to the city of Houston.”

When he came to Houston earlier this month to interview, Baker said he had always liked the city and would love to manage the Astros. His best friend and former roommate, Ralph Garr, lives in Houston, and he has lots of family in the area.

“Everybody likes to feel like they’re wanted, and I talked to Mr. Crane and he made me feel that I was wanted here,” he said then.

Baker has managed for 22 years with four teams, leading the Giants to a 2002 World Series appearance and taking the Cubs, Reds and Nationals to the playoffs. Baker is highly respected in the game, but his failures in the postseason have been notable. He’s 3-9 in playoff series, including losing the '02 World Series with the Giants vs. the Angels and the '03 NL Championship Series with the Cubs against the Marlins in a series that included the infamous Steve Bartman incident. Baker last managed the Nationals from '16-17 before being replaced by Dave Martinez, who led the Nats to a World Series win over the Astros in '19.

The Astros gave Baker the job over several younger candidates like Brad Ausmus, Eduardo Pérez, Mark Kotsay and Espada. The hiring is a clear indication the Astros want a veteran leader who can navigate the crisis the club is enduring, but the team will continue to rely heavily on analytics through the front office and coaching staff.

The next challenge for the Astros is finding someone to lead that front office and replace Luhnow, who took over prior to the 2012 season and rebuilt Houston into a power. The Astros have won three consecutive American League West titles and reached at least 101 wins three years in a row. Their '17 season culminated with a World Series championship that MLB said in a nine-page report released on Jan. 13 included the use of technology to steal opposing pitchers’ signs.

That led to the one-year suspensions of Hinch and Luhnow (subsequently dismissed by Crane), a $5 million fine and the Astros’ loss of their first- and second-round Draft picks in each of the next two years. While Baker inherits an Astros team that returns its core position players from 2019 and former Cy Young Award winners Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke in the rotation, the GM might have a tougher job.

Sources told MLB.com on Wednesday that Royals director of pro scouting/special assistant Gene Watson and Rays vice president of baseball operations James Click have interviewed for the Astros’ vacant GM job.

The Astros are operating with a payroll already expected to be over the $208 million luxury tax threshold while dealing with a farm system that has only one top 100 prospect (pitcher Forrest Whitley), according to MLB Pipeline. While prospects such as Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker have graduated to the big leagues, the team traded away a strong group of them in recent years to land Greinke, Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who signed with the Yankees after two years in Houston.

The 2020 season could represent the club’s best remaining chance to contend for a World Series in the near future, and in hiring Baker, they Astros are getting a manager who’s taking one final shot at a ring, as well.

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.