Among the three Rays finalists to interview for the managing position, the not-yet-retired Raul Ibanez will be the final man considered.
Raul Ibanez has 19 seasons as a player under his belt, most recently as a mid-season signing by the World Series bound Kansas City Royals. His joining that clubhouse was credited as an instigator in the team's mid-season turn around.
Speaking with Marc Topkin, Royals manager Ned Yost said Ibanez has, "tremendous people skills." Communication is a key aspect to the position of managing, and Yost's endorsement conveyed the candidate could "effectively and honestly communicate with 25 different personalities."
That's great, and to be expected, but there's not many other advantages to Ibanez that we can observe from the outside.
Properly spelled Raúl Ibañez, this former catcher first learned his trade from a familiar name, current Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, who worked as a janitor at Ibanez's high school in Miami in the early 90's to earn more income during the minor league off-season.
A child of Cuban immigrants who moved to New York in 1970 and a father of five, Ibanez was drafted by the Mariners in 1992 and broke into the majors as a utility player in 1996, primarily covering the outfield and first base. At the major league level, he would only catch one game in an emergency situation in 1999.
Among his destinations, Ibanez had two stints with the Mariners, two with the Royals if you could half a season in 2014, and in the sunset of his career has played in Philadelphia (09-11), New York (12), Seattle for the third time (13), and then Anaheim in 2014 before he was released and re-joined Kansas City.
As a hitter, Ibanez did not necessarily have a bat until 2001, his age 29 season when his OPS+ launched from 64 (or 36% below average) to a 115. From there his bat would remain above average in all but one season through 2013, peaking in 2009 at a 132 OPS+, his age 37 season and his lone year as an All-Star and only trip to the World Series while on the playing roster.
Yes, his bat would eventually disappear in 2014, at age 42, but by then he was most functional as a clubhouse presence. He was not selected to the Royals playoff roster, but still traveled with the team and remained in the locker room.
While he has not yet officially retired, the move is expected should he receive the Rays manager position or not. Should he not be selected, the Yankees are thought to be awaiting Ibanez as their next hitting coach.
"It's a tribute and a testament to him," Ibanez's agent Seth Levinson relayed to Marc Topkin. "12-14 teams have contacted me about positions within their organization, [but] he feels - and this is who he is - that the greatest impact he can make is by managing. It's something he's always wanted to do. Always."
There have been many former players to join the ranks of managing in recent seasons, including Robin Ventura in Chicago, Mike Matheny in St. Louis, and Brad Ausmus in Detroit - but all three first served roles in front offices before making the leap, the same as Gabe Kapler is doing now in the Dodger front office. Ibanez, on the other hand, was on a 25-man roster three months ago. The only experience he has managing a game has been in his head while standing on the field.
That said, Ibanez was named a finalist for the Rays manager position when far more likely names like Dave Martinez or Charlie Montoyo are not. Ostensibly for his communications skills, presumably for much more than that, but there's not much evidence in the press to tell us what that is.
When Mike Matheny was hired by the Cardinals, former teammates said things to ESPN like:
"I think Matheny will be a great manager, given time. He lacks managing experience, but it shows a lot about his character that the Cardinals hired him." - Chris Duncan
-- or --
"He's a great leader, and an even better person. I think this is great. There's nobody that's going to work any harder than Mike." - Jim Edmonds
Should Ibanez be hired, I have to imagine we would be seeing the same sort of quotes. The only thing truly lacking is familiarity with the franchise. Going back and examining the Matheny or Ventura hires, you see General Managers praising leadership qualities and acumen and professionalism, but you also see them praising long standing connections within the organization.
The best comp we could find to Ibanez making it this far without front office experience was the Rockies consideration of Jason Giambi. He was coaching his kids' high school team before the consideration, shortly after retirement, but his clubhouse presence was well know. Rockies writer Troy Renck wrote at the time, "Leader of a fraternity? Yes. Leader of a baseball team? Few saw this coming."
Most telling of Giambi was Renck's concluding statement on the matter:
For an experiment such as this to work, Giambi would have to work in concert with assistant general manager Bill Geivett. The two have had a good relationship. Hiring Giambi, for most teams, would seem like a huge leap in faith.
But the Rockies have narrowed the manager's responsibilities. He's responsible for in-game strategy and dealing with the media. In this framework, Giambi should be viewed as a serious candidate.
And that's the rub. The Rays are likely looking for so much more than a face and a presence. They've clearly valued an advanced mind for many years by having Joe Maddon on staff, and knowing what we know of the men in the front office, it's hard to imagine they would change course.
Then again, Ibanez's manager Ned Yost said his hiring by the Rays, "makes perfect sense when you stop and think about it."
Early on in the manager search, I mentioned we really don't know what's going on behind the closed doors. It might be likely that Cash brought along a giant binder like Maddon did to his Red Sox and Devil Rays interviews, but that doesn't mean Ibanez needed to either.
With our write up of Kevin Cash, there were road signs all along the way pointing toward a future career as a manager. With Ibanez, the biggest testament to his ability is that he's made it this far.
Ibanez conducts his second round interview with management and ownership today, ahead of an expected decision by the end of this week.
Other Ibanez fun facts:
- In Double-A, during his 1996 season leading up to his promotion, Ibanez shared catching duties with another Rays manager finalist, Don Wakamatsu who was managing as a player/coach.
- Prior to the 2010 season, Ibanez discovered dietary sensitivities to gluten and dairy, and has been an advocate for healthier eating habits ever since.
- In 2011, Ibanez was voted the second nicest player in all of baseball, behind Jim Thome, in a poll conducted by Sports Illustrated among 290 players.
- Ibanez is a four-time nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award for community involvement.