When Farhan Zaidi outlined his ideal manager, he drew a picture of a connector, of a bridge.
“The No. 1 quality is relationship building,” the Giants president of baseball operations said at his end-of-season news conference.
Zaidi wants someone who communicates well with him, with the entire front office, with the players, with the clubhouse, with the media. A face of the franchise who’s respected by the brains and the brawn.
It is easy to see why Joe Espada is among the finalists for the job.
The Astros bench coach could not win the World Series but can win over the Giants, in the coming days getting a second formal interview in San Francisco to impress Giants brass. He has gotten managerial sniffs in the past and was a candidate for the Cubs job that went to David Ross. There was some interest from the Pirates, but according to a source, a formal interview never materialized. He’s all-in on the Giants, a bench coach with a background as a player, as a coach of so many roles and in the front office.
His first break came when pal Edwin Rodriguez, then a coach in the Marlins organization and eventually the first Puerto Rico-born MLB manager, recommended Espada for a Class-A hitting coach job with the Marlins in 2006.
Thirteen years later, Rodriguez wants Espada to get another promotion.
“I think last year he was ready [to be a manager],” the former Marlins manager and current Triple-A manager for the Padres said over the phone this week. “He’s young, but he’s been in every role of the game. As a player, as a coach, as a front office [member]. Infield coach, base-running, third-base coach.”
The two first crossed paths in the early 2000s, when Espada was a reserve player and Rodriguez a manager for Carolina, of the Puerto Rico Winter League. Rodriguez quickly saw a coaching future in Espada, who earned the trust of everyone, teammates to coaches to staff to media, all branches surrounding the team.
In 2005-06, the Puerto Rico-born Espada, a relative no-name and lifelong minor league middle infielder, was the de facto captain of the Carolina team. If you can measure a leader by his disciples, Espada is in good shape.
“He was the spokesman for the players. Something would happen, he would come running into the office,” Rodriguez remembered of a 2005-06 Carolina team that featured a young Jonathan Sanchez and a Yadier Molina who had just won a World Series with the Cardinals. “The players always would go up to him to deliver the message to the staff.
“I remember Yadi Molina, very young, was on that team. Although [Espada] was not an everyday player – and we had very veteran players, players with major league experience on that team. Players who were very successful in the Winter League. But always they would go up to him. I remember we won back-to-back championships in the Puerto Rican league with Carolina and he was very instrumental about keeping the chemistry of the team. That communication between the staff and the players.”
After his major league dream died in Triple-A, Espada broke in as a coach with the Marlins and began rising. From batting coach to minor league infield coordinator to big-league third-base coach before he threw a curveball – joining the Yankees’ front office as assistant to GM Brian Cashman in 2014.
“He’s been around,” Rodriguez said of Espada, who’s competing with at least Gabe Kapler and Pedro Grifol for the Giants’ gig. “Very good communication, experience, and he’s very knowledgeable with baseball analytics.”
With the Yankees, Espada navigated his way around the front office for a year before returning to the field, becoming the team’s infield and third-base coach. He was a coach — under manager Rodriguez — on the 2013 and ’17 Puerto Rico World Baseball Classic teams. For the 2018 season, he followed Alex Cora’s footsteps, becoming Houston’s bench coach and learning at the knee of the most analytically minded organization in baseball.
Rodriguez emphasized that Espada, 44 and a University of Mobile product, is guided as much by feel as numbers. He can digest information and smooth personalities.
“He’s very straightforward. He will shoot you straight. That’s his strength. He will tell the players the way [he feels]. … Whatever he says, that’s how he feels,” Rodriguez said of the bilingual Espada.
“[Two] full [seasons] as a bench coach with AJ Hinch, with a winning team and all kinds of personalities and strong characters like the Houston Astros. He’s ready.”