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An early list of potential 2024 Guardians managers should Terry Francona retire

With Tito’s retirement seemingly likely, who should be on the shortlist?

Toronto Blue Jays v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

I don’t want to push Terry Francona into a premature decision, but it seems pretty clear from his recent comments that he is leaning toward retiring at the end of the 2023 season, primarily due to health concerns. I’m sure we would all wish him the best in his treatment and surgery plans. I also look forward to plenty of time to reflect on his time in Cleveland and the good he brought to the Guardians’ organization as the manager for the past 11 years.

In the meantime, I thought it might be helpful to look at some names who may be under consideration to step into the role of Cleveland Guardians’ manager. No one knows exactly what Paul Dolan, Chris Antonetti, Mike Chernoff, James Harris and company are thinking as they begin preparing for the hiring process, so these names are, at best, informed speculation.

Internal Options: The Old Guard

Demarlo Hale, Guardians Bench Coach: I suspect Hale would be among the top names destined to generate the smallest amount of excitement among the Guardians’ fan base, but he is said to have a lot of respect among Guardians’ players. At 62, Hale may be older than what would be ideal to lead a young roster, but my main concern would be wondering how friendly he is to the insights of modern analytics on optimizing a roster for on-field success. If the Front Office is confident he can do that, he certainly is the kind of candidate who has put the work in to deserve an opportunity. I can’t say I was impressed with his time as interim manager, but having Tito and the players’ trust can go a long way in smoothing a transition. I do wonder if, having had to work through the health issues of an older manager over the past few years, if the Cleveland brass may prefer a younger person for team stability reasons.

Sandy Alomar, Jr, Guardians First Base Coach: If you ask a cross-section Guardians’ fans who should replace Terry Francona, the vast majority of them will mention Sandy Alomar. However, while Alomar has interviewed for multiple managerial jobs, he hasn’t been able to land one, which is likely for a reason. The 57 year-old is obviously a good first base coach and catching instructor, but his skills in managing a whole clubhouse aren’t proven. I’d have some questions if he was the hire, but I never want to rule out that people can learn and grow into new roles.

Mike Sarbaugh, Guardians Third Base Coach: Of the old hands on the Guardians, Sarby is my personal favorite. The 56 year-old never had a losing season in nine years as a manager in Cleveland’s minor league system. He coaches third base very aggressively, which fits with the preferences modern analytics suggest for that spot. The players seem to love him from the interactions I observe on the field. Plus, he got himself ejected in the recent Jose Ramirez-Tim Anderson fight, so his “he gets us” quotient is high. My main questions would be about his familiarity and friendliness to analytics and about whether or not a new, fresh voice is needed for the current team.

Carl Willis, Guardians Pitching Coach: Willis is also 62, but, again, players clearly love him and he’s obviously done an excellent job as a pitching coach in Cleveland. One thing that stands out to me about Willis as I listen to him is that his job is clearly mostly about helping guys handle their emotions and play to the best of their abilities. Those are tasks that Tito has excelled at, and, if those skills are most important to the Guardians, I could see Willis being given the reigns.

Travis Fryman, Roving Hitting Instructor for Cleveland Guardians: In the category of former players, Fryman has been with the organization for a while. I know hiring a person who has been instructing Cleveland hitters may seem counter-intuitive, but, again, a manager’s primary job is to help the team be positioned to play to the best of their abilities and keep the clubhouse environment positive and productive. Giving a former Cleveland player who has had a chance to interact with many of the players in the dugout over the year the chance to manage the team can bring a steadying influence that might be of immense value. I don’t think Fryman is a likely candidate, but I did want to bring up his name.

With former players like Alomar and Fryman, it’s always tempting for fans to allow nostalgia to influence their opinions of them as potential managers. I’m sure that won’t play a role in the decision-making process for the Cleveland Front Office, nor should it.

Internal Options: Groomed for Succession

Andy Tracy, Manager of Columbus Clippers: Only 49, Tracy hasn’t seen a ton of success record-wise with the Clippers, but the focus is mostly development there, so it’s hard to say how the organization views Tracy’s skills. For what it’s worth, Tracy seems very competent in press interviews and he brings the experience of a former player to the role. He’s a native of Bowling Green and has been the manager in Columbus since the 2021 season.

Luke Carlin, Catching Instructor for the Guardians: A name to keep an eye on is Luke Carlin, as I’ve heard consistent rumors for a while that he is well-liked by the organization who promoted him to a job with the major league team this offseason. At only 42 years old, Carlin would be the kind of hire the Guardians would make with the intent to give him a lengthy stay. Interestingly enough, Carlin had a very managerial-type interview with FanGraphs in 2019.

Chris Valaika, Guardians Hitting Coach: Valaika is certainly the popular whipping boy for the very poor performance of the Guardians’ hitters in 2023. While I can’t excuse the under-performance of the batters he coaches, the organization clearly liked the 38 year-old enough to replace Ty Van Burkleo and Valaika generally says smart things about hitting in interviews. I’ve seen folks say that Valaika as manager would be a bonus because the Guardians could then hire someone else as a hitting coach, and, while that’s petty... I get it. Again, the role isn’t primarily about coaching, it’s about positioning players to do their best and keeping an entire team focused on a goal. I don’t know if Valaika would be good at that, but certainly can’t rule it out.

Rouglas Odor, Akron Rubber Ducks Manager: At 55 years old, Odor has a lot of coaching experience under his belt and with his Venezuelan connections, he offers some unique insights into the needs and concerns of the strong Latino presence in the Guardians organization. Odor is generally well-regarded by his players and has been able to coach most of the Guardians’ current roster as they have made their way through Double-A.

Junior Betances, Columbus Clippers Hitting Coach: The only thing we know about Betances is that young hitters have liked him and often times blossomed under his influence. Antonetti has spoken highly of him in the past. If Betances is well-regarded around baseball, retaining him by promoting him to the big league club in some manner may be needed. He’s 50 years old, so he does have that “done my time” stamp.

External Options: Waiting in the Wings

In this list, you’ll find names who will be mentioned for numerous managerial openings around baseball. While I see the attraction in providing for organizational stability by hiring internally, I also wonder if it might make sense to add some fresh perspective and insights from other successful organizations with Francona’s retirement providing that chance. I tend to lean toward that being the right move, while acknowledging I may be wrong.

Will Venable, Rangers Assistant Manager. Venable has interviewed for a variety of managerial positions and seems to be being groomed to replace Bruce Bochy when the veteran manager retires. But, he was college teammates with Mike Chernoff at Princeton, is only 40 years old and has the reputation of being a kind and effective manager of people. Venable has been mentioned by both Andre Knott and Zach Meisel in connection with the Guardians job as someone they might interview.

Joe Espada, Astros Bench Coach: The 48 year-old Puerto Rican has interviewed for a few manager positions without being able to land one yet, but getting a member of one of the most successful baseball organizations of the few years seems like a pretty good idea for someone.

Troy Snitker, Astros Hitting Coach: I’m a huge fan of Braves’ manager, Brian Snitker, and since he’s not going anywhere, is hiring his son the next best thing? The Astros tend to get the best out of their hitters, so Snitker maybe able to offer Cleveland some help there, also. He is only 34 years old, which would be an unusual hire for that reason.

Rodney Linares, Rays Bench Coach: The popular name in Twitter circles is Kevin Cash, manager of the Rays, but as he is under contract through 2024 and local to Tampa, I find it more likely that someone could land Linares, 46 year-old Rays Bench Coach, and see if they can unlock some of the secrets that enable the Rays to be routinely successful as a small market team. Linares managed the Dominican Republic’s World Baseball Classic team, and, as a Dominican-American, he would provide a good connection to the strong Dominican presence throughout the Cleveland Guardians’ organization.

Kevin Seitzer, Braves Hitting Coach: Seitzer played for Cleveland from 1996-1997, so there is an organizational connection. He has extensive experience as a major league coach and could offer insight from a successful organization in the Braves as well as the experiential advice and guidance that comes with having been a successful major leaguer.

Ruben Niebla, Padres Pitching Coach: Cleveland could try a return engagement with Niebla, who received rave reviews as a pitching coach with the Guardians. However, Niebla has had a bumpy road in San Diego with the major league pitching staff over the past two years (ranking in the 18-20 range in MLB for FIP and xFIP), and Niebla’s family is local to San Diego, so it may not be a good fit.

Matt Blake, Yankees Pitching Coach: Again, 38 year-old Blake was well-regarded in his time with Cleveland and has been fairly effective with the Yankees (considering some injury issues they’ve had), so perhaps a return to Cleveland would be of interest to both parties if Blake is seen as someone who can guide an entire team as well as he can pitchers.

Chris Woodward, Special Assistant for the Dodgers: 47 year-old Woodward has been around the league as a player and a coach and is often times mentioned as a potential managerial candidate. Working with the successful and progressive Dodgers is certainly a plus on the old resume.

Tony Mansolino, Orioles Third Base Coach: Mansolino managed in Cleveland’s organization for 5 years before going to Baltimore, so there’s a connection here for the 40 year-old. Mansolino is well-regarded in an organization that is gaining a reputation as one of the most progressive in the game.

Bryan Bannister, Director of Pitching for the Giants: With a scouting background and a well-known expertise in analytics, the 42 year-old Bannister is one of the most highly regarded potential managerial candidates in the game. He also has a history of good success with Giants pitchers, often times getting the best out of both rookie and veteran pitchers there.

Danny Lehmann, Bench Coach of the Dodgers: Only 35 years old, Lehmann is one of the youngest bench coaches you’ll ever see. Again, he’s obviously deeply connected to the analytically strong approach of the Dodgers and would seem likely to offer some useful insights to a new franchise if the Guardians want to go young in the role.

Ozzie Timmons, Hitting Coach for Milwaukee Brewers: A former hitting coach for the Rays and now working for the similarly analytically-strong Milwaukee small market, the 52 year-old Timmons will be rumored for some managerial roles this offseason.

Alyssa Nakken, Assistant Coach for the Giants: In 1974, the Cleveland baseball team became the first organization in MLB to hire a black manager. They hired Frank Robinson because of his skill and in recognition that MLB teams were missing out on the value that Robinson and other black coaches could provide. Similarly, I wonder if some organization is going to evaluate the value they may be missing out on by not considering hiring a woman as a manager. Nakken was the first female to coach on a MLB field. At only 33 years old, I suspect she’ll have another 8-10 years of work to put in to be considered for a position like this, if she is even interested, but Nakken certainly already has a strong resume of rising through the ranks to work for an excellent organization in the Giants.

Justin Viele, Hitting Coach for the Giants: The Giants have a very young coaching staff, including Viele who is 32 years old. The Giants always seem to be getting the best out of veterans needing to make hitting adjustments and over-performing their projections, so stealing some of that coaching talent would be of interest to me.

External Options: Old Pals

Mike Napoli, First Base Coach for the Cubs: Again, it’s hard not to let nostalgia for 2016 influence our views here, but Napoli, obviously, had a great reputation as a clubhouse leader in Cleveland in other organizations, leaving a lasting impact on players like Jose Ramirez. He is known to be friendly toward the insights of analytics and his approach to hitting the ball as hard as possible, as far as possible couldn’t hurt here in Cleveland.

Shelley Duncan, Manager of Yankees’ Triple-A Team: The nostalgia effect is certainly not as strong for Duncan, but he is also known to be analytically-inclined and working for a progressive organization in New York.

Victor Martinez, Special Advisor to Blue Jays’ Front Office: My nostalgia kicks in to its highest gear thinking about VMart, who tearfully bid goodbye to the city after being traded, returning as a manager. However, he doesn’t seem to quite have the experience and training the team would likely want in the role.

Josh Bard, Bullpen Coach for the Dodgers: A gritty, former catcher working for a super smart and successful organization should be someone the Guardians inquire about.

Bottom Line

It’s no fun to think about not having Terry Francona in the Guardians’ dugout, but I’m sure we all want what’s best for him and his health. I think the above list has a few names who will likely be very good major league managers at some point. If Tito’s plans continue as seems likely, it will be up to Dolan, Antonetti, Chernoff and Harris to sort through names like this and find the best option to lead a young team to the promised land. For me, I am most interested in Linares, Bannister and Carlin. But, my heart also roots for the chances of Sarbaugh, Odor, Napoli and Duncan. We’ll see what unfolds when the season comes to a conclusion.

It will be scary to leave the safe confines of a Tito-led ball-club, but I am optimistic that Francona will still be associated with the organization to help lend credibility to the new manager (as a cheerleader of a sort). I am also optimistic that there are lot of bright baseball minds who would love to lead a young, talented team to better days ahead.