The Fresno Grizzlies introduced their new manager Friday, and for the first time that person is not an employee of the San Francisco Giants.
Tony DeFrancesco works for the Houston Astros, which became evidently clear during his opening remarks.
“I know this is Giants country, and I know the Giants had great success over the last five years,” DeFrancesco said. “But it’s our time. It’s our turn.”
When DeFrancesco says “our” he means the Astros and, by extension, the Grizzlies.
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Yes, that’s going to take some getting used to.
The Grizzlies remain a Triple-A baseball team. They still play their home games in downtown Fresno at a stadium named Chukchansi Park. (Yep, even though the casino is closed.) Most of the employees are the same, including the radio announcer, and they still have a furry yellow mascot named Parker.
Besides that, get ready for change more sweeping than a Dwight Gooden curveball.
Being an Astros farm team means the Grizzlies will have an entire new roster of players. It also means Fresno fans will be seeing a different brand of baseball.
Most glaring is the designated hitter. The Grizzlies previously only used a DH when they played an American League affiliate. Since Houston is an AL club, they’ll have a ninth hitter in the lineup for all 144 games. (I would howl in protest if MLB ever tried to force the DH upon the National League. But at Triple-A, fine.)
Fresno’s new parent club is at the forefront of baseball’s advanced statistical analysis movement. All teams mine data to help predict the future, so forget those lame “Moneyball” stereotypes. The Astros just do it to the extreme.
For example, if a left-handed slugger comes to the plate who hits balls to his pull side 85% of the time, it’s become more common to see three infielders on the right side of second base.
No MLB club employs these shifts more than the Astros, and few do it less than the Giants.
“You might be watching the game and wondering, ‘What’s this (manager) doing?’ ” DeFrancesco said. “Then it’s a ground ball to right field, and the guy gets thrown out at first.”
With due respect to Bob Mariano, Steve Decker, Dan Rohn, Fred Stanley, Shane Turner, Lenn Sakata, Ron Roenicke and Jim Davenport (did I forget anyone?), the Grizzlies have never had anyone with DeFrancesco’s track record.
The 51-year-old is entering his 21st season as a minor-league manager, 12th in the Pacific Coast League and fifth with the Astros. He enjoyed a tremendous run with the Sacramento River Cats from 2003 to 2010 (including one season as Oakland A’s third-base coach) highlighted by PCL championships in his first two seasons, 2003 and 2004, and again in 2007.
“I feel like I’m the Tom Brady of the PCL,” DeFrancesco joked.
It took Brady 10 years to win his fourth Super Bowl, but DeFrancesco sounded confident his PCL title drought would end sooner than that. The Grizzlies, of course, have never won one.
“The (Astros’ Class-A) teams have been winning championships, so the next wave of winning players is on the way,” DeFrancesco said.
Former Grizzlies managers used to talk about winning and developing at the same time but were never given the ammo to accomplish both. Prospects who performed or showed value quickly graduated or were traded for pieces to help the major-league club.
Can hardly fault the Giants for that approach, especially considering the results. But it sure produced a lot of lousy Triple-A baseball.
There’s every reason to expect this year will be different. The Astros fielded the worst team in the majors from 2011-13 and put their resources toward building for the future.
Now that future is nearly here. Besides a loaded Astros farm system comprised of high draft picks, the Grizzlies should benefit from offseason moves Houston made to add experience to its major-league roster.
“Some guys that played in the majors over the last two or three years might have to spend some time here, and that’s good for our team,” said DeFrancesco, echoing comments made in November by Astros director of player development Quinton McCracken.
This new expectation of winning coincides with a new emphasis on local. For the first time, the team’s home jerseys will have “Fresno” across the front instead of “Grizzlies.”
It’s all part of a re-brand designed to subtly remind local fans the Grizzlies are Fresno’s team. That Fresno was a baseball town long before the Giants arrived, and it’ll remain one after they’re gone.
Soon, the newness may extend all the way to the ownership level. The Grizzlies are for sale and have been for a couple years. Nothing concrete yet, but owner Chris Cummings told me Dan Barrett, the consultant hired by the City of Fresno to broker a deal, has unearthed a few potential buyers.
“There’s an aroma … of possibility,” said Cummings, carefully choosing his words.
Smells like change.