The Royals are in the ultimate transition, in ways huge and tiny, and the path of one specific transition will say so much about the rest.
This is the first defining moment of the new Royals — of John Sherman’s Royals. The team needs a new manager, and while the process will happen away from public view the result will be the first significant clue of what the Royals will be next.
General manager Dayton Moore, with the help of his assistants and friends around Major League Baseball, has several candidates to interview and the blessing of both outgoing owner David Glass and incoming owner Sherman to make a decision.
But, put yourself in Moore’s shoes: Would you make such a major decision without participation or feedback from the man who will soon write your checks and decide on your own employment?
Further, put yourself in the next manager’s shoes: How confident would you feel taking a job without knowing and understanding the man who will be in charge?
This is more than a process to find a manager, then.
It’s a process for Moore and the holdover baseball operations staff to introduce their work to Sherman, and Sherman’s first opportunity to see what he’s buying from the inside, in real time.
The three known candidates:
Mike Matheny, the former St. Louis Cardinals manager.
Pedro Grifol, the Royals’ quality control and catching coach.
Dale Sveum, the Royals’ bench coach.
External candidates could emerge. Joe Maddon, Clint Hurdle and Brad Ausmus were recently fired. The Royals have expressed interest in Joe Girardi in the past. There could be others.
But Maddon is widely believed to be the L.A. Angels’ next manager, Ausmus hasn’t had much success as a manager and it’s unclear if Hurdle wants to manage next season (his contract has two years remaining) or whether the Royals would view him as a fit. Girardi turned down the Cincinnati Reds last year, leading many around the game to believe he’s holding out for bigger markets and bigger payrolls.
Matheny would seem to be the favorite. The Royals hired him as a special adviser for player development last year, similar to the way they hired Ned Yost as a special adviser in 2009 before hiring him as manager months later.
Matheny was the first manager in baseball history to make the playoffs in each of his first four seasons and then was fired midway through 2018. The end was ugly in St. Louis, with criticisms ranging from strategy to personnel management. But he was also a respected player for 13 years and achieved success.
Grifol is a fascinating candidate. He has a diverse baseball background that includes time as a farm director, scout and hitting coach. He is bilingual and for the last two years has basically been assigned Adalberto Mondesi’s development.
Sveum was a 12-year big-leaguer who took over as the Milwaukee Brewers’ manager in 2008 after Yost was fired during a pennant race. He managed the Chicago Cubs during their can’t-call-it-tanking years and has been with the Royals the last six seasons, including the postseason runs of 2014 and 2015.
Grifol and Sveum each have interesting cases, but the Royals are likely to prefer an outside voice after 207 losses the last two seasons.
But, anyway. That’s a different conversation. We can all have our favorites. The point here is not about the result.
It’s about the process.
The Royals are not expected to make a hire in the next week, despite the front office having months (years, in some ways) to prepare for the decision, having a defined short list in place, and being empowered by both owners to do it.
And that’s the point.
Sherman is serving many masters at the moment. He must divest his minority interest in the Cleveland Indians, and juggling the mechanics of purchasing an MLB team is a full-time job on its own.
It would make sense, then, that the deliberate timeline of hiring a manager is a way to ensure that Sherman is fully involved and feels (umm ...) ownership in the process.
One signature of Moore’s front office has been learning from mistakes. When Moore hired Trey Hillman as manager before the 2008 season, he called the decision the most important he’d make as GM.
When that didn’t work, the next process reflected that experience. Part of Hillman’s struggles came from his lack of experience as a big-league player, coach or manager. Pairing him with Jose Guillen’s personality and big contract only amplified the problem. Also, part of Moore’s mis-read came from a lack of familiarity with Hillman.
So, fast forward. The Royals hired Yost before they had an opening. They called it an adviser’s role, but in reality the job description was to get to know the organization — and for the organization to get to know Yost.
Yost played six seasons in the big leagues, coached for 12 in Atlanta and then managed six in Milwaukee. The Royals took extra steps to ensure the clubhouse’s personalities could co-exist. Everything lacking with Hillman was fulfilled with Yost.
Those lessons are worth remembering now, too. Previous experience remains important. The template of an initial adviser’s role — which other teams use, too — would fit with Matheny.
Some teams view this as a way to blend the most productive parts of familiarity with the best parts of an outside voice.
Whether it’s Grifol, Sveum or Matheny, both sides will know what they’re getting into.
But the most important piece of this process might be the club’s priority on Sherman’s involvement. The Royals have been one of baseball’s steadiest franchises, in terms of leadership. Moore and most of his closest advisers have been together since 2006, or close to it. Only Bruce Bochy (who also just retired) had been a manager longer than Yost.
That leadership also had routine interaction and open communication with the owner, a key part of this, particularly when you consider how easily any of them could have been fired after 2012 or in July 2014 or, if we’re honest, after 2017 or 2018.
Glass is selling, so it’s in the interest of everyone that a similar bond is built with the new owner.
Being deliberate with the process of hiring the next manager is a good start.