Image credit: (Photo by Mike Janes/Four Seam Images)
In just his second season of managing in the affiliated minor leagues, Chris Widger led his Quad Cities River Bandits to the High-A Central championship.
For the outstanding season, Widger is our Minor League Manager of the Year. The Royals affiliate finished with a regular season record of 77-41 that was fourth best in the minor leagues—but tops among non-Rays affiliates.
Coming off a 2020 season in which no games were played due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Widger and the River Bandits had to navigate through plenty of obstacles both on and off the field to get to the league championship.
It helped that the 10-year major league catcher had already built a solid foundation with many of the players he took to Quad Cities thanks to his previous managing assignment with the Royals.
“Widge had built a strong relationship with the core group of this team back in Burlington (N.C.) during the 2019 season,” said Alec Zumwalt, Kansas City’s director of hitting performance/player development. “His players love playing for him and in turn he creates a winning environment in the clubhouse that plays out on the field.”
The 2019 season in the Rookie-level Appalachian League was Widger’s first managing job in the Royals’ system. He led that team to the league finals before losing to Johnson City, two games to one.
One of the many challenges that Widger had to tackle over the course of the 2021 season was the turnover of players resulting from assorted injuries and promotions to Double-A. One of the key losses was when first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino was promoted to Northwest Arkansas in mid July.
“He was not only our best player overall,” Widger said about Pasquantino, “but he was the guy who the players turned to when they had a problem or needed to be picked up.”
Royals prospects Michael Massey, Nathan Eaton and Jimmy Govern were named by Widger as other Quad Cities players who led by example, playing the game hard and making it easy for their teammates to follow along.
It wasn’t just how his players performed on the field, but also how they handled themselves off the field that made a difference with this team. Widger credits the Royals’ front office, starting with president of baseball operations Dayton Moore, general manager JJ Piccolo and vice president of player personnel Lonnie Goldberg, for bringing not just good players into the organization but quality individuals.
“They want to make sure they have good men,” Widger said. “When they draft these good people, it’s easier for us as coaches and player development to just work with what they started . .. to mold them into being the type of people who we want them to be.”
Widger cites the fact that his Quad Cities players did not have one positive Covid test all season as an example of how well the players followed the protocols and functioned both on and off the field.
“A lot of that, I guess, is luck with the way things go,” Widger said, “but a lot of it is because our guys did things the right way. They followed protocols. They did things the right way away from the field. They stayed away from certain situations that they shouldn’t have been in.”
Perhaps Widger’s biggest challenge was adapting to the hitting development program put in place by the Royals starting in the fall of 2019. It forced coaches in the system to assimilate the use of analytics and new ways for both teaching and evaluating hitting.
“I was brought up kind of old school,” Widger said. “It was a little bit of a change, and it was something that I had to get used to . . . But you see these players buy into it or you see how they work at it every day and they get routines down . . .
“You go to more of a process-based mentality as opposed to, ‘Did I get a hit?’ They’re more concerned with, ‘Did I swing at a strike?’ or ‘Did I hit the ball hard?’ ”
Widger successfully met the challenges while also maintaining the solid foundation instilled in him as a player. Adapting to the newer hitting technologies has allowed Widger to grow as a manager. He has a strong belief in his ability to combine the new with the old in his coaching methods.
“There was a lot more talk and communication . . . with the analytics part,” Widger said, “trying to incorporate everything that that department is trying to do, and then still trying to keep things baseball-oriented, trying to mesh the two.”
What’s next for Widger? The role of a big league manager some time in the future piques his interest, but for now he’s content with his place in an organization that he admires.
“I’m happy with what I’m doing,” Widger said. “I like working with the younger guys. I like watching them grow. I like seeing them get better. I like trying to keep a little bit of the old school and history involved with these players, so that they know where the game was and where it’s been, and why we keep certain values in the game.”