Fresno's Triple-A franchise had a new affiliation in 2015, joining the Astros after 17 years as a Giants affiliate. The geography worked with the Giants, and with the parent club having won three World Series championships in five seasons, Fresno didn't want to stop being a Giants affiliate.
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But when the Triple-A musical chairs stopped, the Grizzlies wound up with the Astros, which meant they would get Pacific Coast League veteran Tony DeFrancesco as their manager. He wasted little time in making a positive impression, declaring before the season that the Grizzlies would make the playoffs.
He knew what a Triple-A playoff team looks like; he'd managed in the league since 2003, winning three league championships with the Athletics' Sacramento affiliate and winning a division title in 2013 with the Astros' Oklahoma City club.
But this was no mere playoff team; Fresno won its first division title since 1998, won the league championship and finished it off by winning the Triple-A National Championship. DeFrancesco's consistent winning, commitment to the Astros organization (he's already signed up for 2016 in Fresno) and development skills earned him Baseball America's 2015 Minor League Manager of the Year Award.
“Tony's a winner first and foremost," Astros farm director Quinton McCracken said. “We knew that with Tony, he knows how to win at this level and get the most out of his players."
Procession Of Talent
DeFrancesco's players kept changing this year. That's common for Triple-A teams, though most teams don't have back-to-back No. 1 overall draft picks as the Grizzlies did. They opened the season with Carlos Correa at shortstop, before the 2012 No. 1 pick was promoted to Houston. They played the second half with 2013 top pick Mark Appel, who started the clinching game of the PCL finals.
Appel was a key rotation piece, but Correa is just different, and DeFrancesco said everyone on the Grizzlies knew it.
“Everyone looked at Carlos almost like another Ripken, another Jeter," DeFrancesco said. “The talent, the makeup—I think we all know he's going to be one of the game's best, and a great ambassador for the game. He raised everyone's game while he was here."
After he left, the deep Astros system kept providing players, both high-profile and otherwise. They built the lineup around third baseman Matt Duffy, 26, a 20th-round pick in 2011. The PCL MVP broke out with a .294/.366/.484 season that included 20 homers. But DeFrancesco also got the most out of players like first baseman/DH Tyler White (.362/.467/.559), a 33rd-round pick in 2013, and righthander Chris Devenski, whose win in the Triple-A title game was his first start at the level.
“We had a lot of guys who bought in to the Astros' system," DeFrancesco said. “These guys did the work, they took the information we gave them and then they applied it. We led the league in runs (804, 5.6 per game), OBP (.357), walks (606), and we tied in stolen bases (157).
“The analytics in the game today, they aren't going anywhere. For our staff, that means a lot of meetings, a lot of one-on-ones with guys going over scouting reports, spray charts—there's a lot for them to digest, but our guys really bought in to what we were doing, and it is working."
DeFrancesco also has bought in to the Astros' approach. He played nine seasons in the minors, most of it as a catcher. The Athletics hired him as a roving catching instructor and coach after his playing career ended in 1992, and in 1994 to manage their Rookie-level Arizona League affiliate. He moved up the ladder until taking over in Sacramento, where he managed from 2003-10 with the exception of '08, when he was Oakland's third-base coach. He won a Triple-A National Championship in 2007 and PCL titles in 2003-04 and '07.
The Astros hired him in 2011, and he remained in the organization after Jeff Luhnow became general manager in 2012. DeFrancesco got his only big league shot as a manager in 2012 when he succeeded Brad Mills in Houston down the stretch, going 16-25 for a team that went 55-107 overall.
He has stuck with the organization to see it through to this year's 86-win team that reached the playoffs for the first time since 2005 with homegrown products he's managed such as Correa, ace lefty Dallas Keuchel and outfielder Preston Tucker. He made it through a cancer scare that required six weeks of chemotherapy that interrupted his 2014 season, to make it to a championship season that he got to share with his 17-year-old son Anthony, who spent three weeks with the Grizzlies this summer.
Father and son are on the road again this fall, touring colleges as the Red Mountain High (Mesa, Ariz.) infielder tries to make a college choice. He should listen to his dad. Plenty of other players have, to their benefit.