Astros making slow progress but ‘feel like we’re getting closer’ in manager search

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Major League Baseball’s managerial makeover Monday afternoon did not disturb the Houston Astros’ deliberate search for Dusty Baker’s successor. Houston had interest in Craig Counsell, who stunned the sport and reset a salary market for skippers by signing a five-year, $40 million contract to manage the Chicago Cubs.

Chicago’s coup opened another managerial job and filled two others. The Cleveland Guardians hired Stephen Vogt and the New York Mets chose Carlos Mendoza after Counsell chose to manage the Cubs.

The Milwaukee Brewers are searching for Counsell’s successor and, according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, have Houston bench coach Joe Espada on their list of candidates. Espada has interviewed for the Astros’ opening, general manager Dana Brown said Tuesday, but will not be permitted to speak with the Brewers — or any other interested team — until Houston makes its final choice.

“We hold the keys to permission,” Brown said Tuesday at the general manager’s meetings. “We have to go through this process before we can allow Joe to go interview. Because what if he goes there and gets the job? That’s pulling from our guys. If we don’t hire him and they’re still looking for a manager and they request permission, he would be definitely a guy we would say, ‘Hey, yeah, you can talk to him.’”

Espada, however, does not need the Astros’ permission. He coached this season in the final year of his contract, a person familiar with the situation told The Athletic on Tuesday. The contract expired on Oct. 31, meaning Espada is free to speak with other teams.

Still, Brown’s revelation accentuates the legitimacy of Espada’s chances and the peril Houston faces if it does not hire him as manager. On Tuesday, Brown declined to label Espada as the “leading candidate,” but even threatening to prevent him from an opportunity to interview elsewhere and passing him over would author an awkward, perhaps untenable situation between the organization and one of its longest-tenured coaches.

According to Brown, the Brewers have not yet asked for permission to interview Espada, though Milwaukee has had less than 48 hours to digest Counsell’s departure. A scenario where Houston chooses another candidate and denies Espada a chance to interview with Milwaukee would be difficult for Brown, owner Jim Crane and the front office to defend.

“(Espada) deserves it,” Brown said. “The guy’s been doing a heck of a job as a bench coach. He’s run our spring training and done a lot of good things here. He’s got a good relationship with the players. He’s been, of course, a candidate outside of our organization.”

Astros bench coach Joe Espada, left, has received attention from other teams in need of a manager, but he remains a candidate to fill Houston’s vacancy. (Bob Levey / Getty Images)

Some members of Houston’s clubhouse have privately advocated for Espada since Baker’s retirement last month. On Tuesday, Brown spoke like someone smitten with Espada but stopped short of proclaiming him the front-runner.

“No, it wouldn’t be fair (to call Espada the leading candidate). I don’t want to put that on Joe,” Brown said. “I really like Joe. But I don’t think we’re going to grade him on a curve just because we know him. I think that he’s a legit candidate; I just can’t say that he’s the leading candidate. But he’s a legit candidate. I think he deserves to be talked to. I think he’s good.”

Espada is the only candidate Brown spoke of with any specifics Tuesday. He is the only internal candidate for Houston’s opening, Brown said, eliminating first-base coach Omar López, who managed for 12 seasons in the club’s minor-league system before his promotion to the major-league staff.

Other than to refute an MLB Network report linking Los Angeles Angels bench coach Ray Montgomery to the Astros’ opening, Brown did not indulge speculation on other candidates. The second-year general manager said he is combing through a list of names and hoped to cut it down. A hire before Thanksgiving is possible, but Brown added to “not quote me on that.” Brown revealed another bench coach without prior managerial experience is under consideration but did not name him. The Tampa Bay Rays’ Rodney Linares and Pittsburgh Pirates’ Don Kelly, who both have Astros ties, would fit that description.

“We’re making progress, and we feel like we’re getting closer. We’re not going to rush because we want to do a thorough process, but we’re making progress,” Brown said. “The only candidate we have within the organization is Joe Espada. Joe’s deserved it. He’s worked his tail off. He’s been in the organization for six years. He’s got a really good background. He’s run spring training. This guy’s a really good candidate. And so he’s the only guy we interviewed in-house.”

The question Brown responded to did not even mention Espada, perhaps another example of how bullish Brown is on the 48-year-old bench coach. Brown’s opinion will carry considerable weight, but as with many of the Astros’ major decisions over the past 13 months, Crane will also wield heavy influence. Influential advisor Jeff Bagwell is involved, too.

“I’m leading the charge on the interview. But of course I want Jim’s blessing on it,” Brown said. “But I’m leading the charge. I’ll ask Bagwell some questions. And I’ll also ask some of our front-office people some questions, like my AGMs. Quite frankly, I’ll ask friends in the game questions, (people) that I know well — some ex-players, some ex-coaches — if I want to talk about some of the candidates.”

Whether any will eclipse Espada is the most pertinent question surrounding this search. The Oakland Athletics picked up Mark Kotsay’s option for the 2025 season Tuesday, eliminating him from possible contention. Asked whether Atlanta Braves coaches Eric Young or Walt Weiss are in consideration, Brown — the former Braves scouting director — replied, “I would just say that we’ve talked to a lot of people, and some of the people I know well.”

(Top photo: Bob Levey / Getty Images)

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