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Chris Woodward Could Benefit from MLB Trend of Hiring Younger, Less Experienced Managers

It took Woodward one season as an infield instructor to transition from minor-league player to big-league coach, and another two to graduate to third-base coach for the Dodgers. The fast track seems to suit him.

John Lott

Photo by John Lott

In the winter before his first season as a third-base coach, Chris Woodward immersed himself in homework. He studied video, watching where coaches positioned themselves on certain plays and assessing how they determined when to send runners and when to hold them. He consulted veteran coaches, including his old Blue Jays mentor, Brian Butterfield, who is regarded as one of the best in the business.

While managing the New Zealand team at the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament, Woodward sought the advice of Ron Roenicke, his third-base coach, who left the Dodgers after last season to take on that job with the Angels, paving the way for Woodward to replace him in L.A. Roenicke took Woodward onto the field and literally walked him through various plays, advising him where to stake out the best vantage point in certain situations and how to weigh the factors involved in making split-second decisions.

Woodward asked every coach he consulted the same question: What's your toughest call?

"Everybody always said the same thing—the hit down the left-field line with a man on first, and whether to send him or not," Woodward recalled last weekend when his new team, the Dodgers, played the team that drafted him, the Blue Jays, at Rogers Centre.

READ MORE: Meet the Most Obscure and Longest-Serving Member of the Blue Jays

Throughout spring training—Woodward's first extended test in a new job—not a single Dodger was thrown out at home. Then, in the season opener in San Diego, he got his comeuppance.

Chase Utley was on first with one out. Justin Turner lined a double into the left-field corner. Utley sprinted toward third, looking for a sign. Woodward's eyes darted from ball to runner and back again. He pinwheeled his arm, sending the runner home. Utley was out.

Utley and Woodward talk shop on the Rogers Centre infield. Like when to send and when to hold. –Photo by John Lott

Afterward, manager Dave Roberts supported the decision. But the rookie third-base coach was second-guessing himself.

"Adrian Gonzalez is next, and that's why I was going, like 'Aww,'" Woodward says. "He's money when it comes to driving in runs. But it was a close play and Dave had my back. He said you send him every time in that situation. But I'm thinking in the back of my mind, we have one of the best RBI guys in the game coming up next.

"You can second-guess yourself all you want, but if he doesn't get thrown out, you don't even think about it."

The Dodgers won 15-0. Nobody, except possibly Woodward, had to think about it.

***

Chris Woodward is a mild-mannered man with a big smile, a business administration degree, a Canadian wife, three kids, a dogged work ethic and a burning ambition to be a big-league manager who might just bat his leadoff man ninth if given the chance. We go way back. I first met him when he was playing for Triple-A Syracuse in the late 1990s. He was easy to know and like, and already a serious student of the game.

Woodward spent most of his 14-year playing career in the Blue Jays system, mainly as an up-and-down fringe infielder that could play seven positions. In 2002, he was Toronto's regular shortstop for much of the season, but it didn't last. He retired as a Triple-A lifer 10 years later, but not before developing a reputation as an instinctive coach who enjoyed nurturing young players on their way up.

Woodward with Triple-A Syracuse in 1999. He made his big-league debut with the Jays that year. –Photo by John Lott

On his way to becoming one of the youngest coaches in the majors at 39, he served an important apprenticeship as one of the oldest players in the minors when he was 35.

He figured his playing career was over when, in the spring of 2011, he dropped by his old stomping grounds in Dunedin, Florida, to talk to some friends. He was also looking for work—coaching, scouting, anything. His own agent had offered him a job, which he found tempting.

As for playing, "I'd kind of let that ship sail," he told me back then. But the Jays needed an infielder at Triple-A, but equally important, they also knew he could serve as a role model and unofficial coach for their top prospects. The previous year, he'd played for Tacoma, Seattle's top farm club, and came out of that experience sounding like a coach.

"The kids I had down there in Tacoma were fantastic," he said in Dunedin after accepting the Jays' assignment in 2011. "It was kind of cool playing in Triple-A the last couple years, seeing all those young kids who have so much potential. They're good kids. I try to give them some advice about what I've gone through, the ups and downs."

Woodward played two seasons at Triple-A Las Vegas, then retired and immediately accepted a job as Seattle's minor-league infield instructor. He was good at it. A year later, he was the Mariners' first-base coach and infield instructor, a role he filled for two years.

Woodward catches up with Toronto skipper John Gibbons, who managed him with the Blue Jays in 2004. –Photo by John Lott

He had the opportunity to stay in Seattle after a new regime took over this year, but the Dodgers came calling. He is the youngest third-base coach in the majors. Having grown in up Covina, just east of Los Angeles, he is also back home.

***

Woodward's wife, Erin, is from Aurora, Ontario. Introduced by mutual friends, they met in 2000 during one of his early call-ups to the Blue Jays.

"We talked forever one night at a little bar," he recalls, and they began dating soon thereafter. Erin was in medical school. She also did a little acting.

"She can do anything," he says with a smile. "She's really talented. She's very smart."

They were married in 2001 and spent three winters in Toronto before moving to Florida. Their daughter, Sophie, now 14, was born in Toronto. They also have two sons, Mason, 9, and Brady, 6.

Late in her husband's playing career, Erin returned to school and earned her registered nurse's licence. Last week she finished a two-year contract as an emergency-room nurse at a hospital near their Florida home. Now Erin is packing the family for a move to L.A., and then to a new permanent home in Arizona.

"She's a special woman," he says. "I was lucky. I always thank the Blue Jays for that one."

***

Certainly, there is a touch of serendipity in Woodward's quick transition from minor-league player to major-league coach, starting with that day in 2011 when Alex Anthopoulos—now in the Dodgers' front office—agreed with a staff recommendation to send him to Triple-A as a tutor as much as a player. He can thank the Blue Jays for that one, too.

But anyone who knows Woodward will tell you he got there on merit.

Back in the stadium he called home for most of his big-league career, Woodward coaches for the opposition. –Photo by John Lott

"I'll never give myself too much credit, but I work hard," he told me last weekend. "That's something I take a lot of pride in. As a player, I tried to be a mentor, tried to show guys the right way to do things. I believe it to my core, that it defines not only players but teams.

"A player might not win a championship, but he could be considered a champion, just by the way he conducts himself around his teammates, the way he plays the game, the fight he goes through in the struggles, in the good times. It really defines the person. I believe that that's what defines a champion, and if you get a group of guys believing that same mentality, you're going to be tough to beat."

He wants to manage, and says he continually prepares for the job by observing and by imagining himself building "an overall culture" within a team, dealing with diverse personalities, running a bullpen, making in-game decisions.

"Obviously I have a job to do from an infield (coaching) standpoint and a third-base coach standpoint," he says, "but I'm constantly thinking about the game—what would I do here? Just trying to get ahead of the curve."

He imagines forming a staff with progressive ideas and the confidence to "push back a little bit on me." He believes he's in the right place to build on that notion.

"The beautiful thing about the Dodgers," he says, "is that we have a lot of forward-thinking people who aren't afraid to step outside the box a little bit when it comes to maximizing performance.

"From a game-management standpoint, I love hearing people's ideas. And we've got all these numbers nowadays—analytics—and they reveal a lot of flaws in traditional baseball thinking: playing outfielders shallow as opposed to deep, the infield shifts, all that stuff. It makes sense. I love it."

Woodward chats with Josh Donaldson during batting practice before the Jays played the Dodgers. –Photo by John Lott

Asked about that Chris Woodward batting order, he replies with a rhetorical question.

"Why would you put your best hitter third or fourth where he might get one less at-bat every three games? That adds up to a lot of at-bats over the course of a season. I'm not against hitting the leadoff man ninth, just to see you start off with your best three hitters. I'm open to anything that makes some sense, and I definitely have a mathematical mind. When you throw up numbers and the proof behind it, sometimes it becomes valid."

He is prepared to be patient. "You obviously have to wait for your time," he says of his ambitions to manage. But increasingly, clubs are taking chances with younger, less experienced managers. The Dodgers' own Dave Roberts, 43, is one example. Others include the Rays' Kevin Cash and the Padres' Andy Green, both 38.

It took Woodward one season as an infield instructor to transition from minor-league player to big-league coach, and another two to graduate to third-base coach for the Dodgers. The fast track seems to suit him. Managing, maybe sooner than later, might well be the next good fit.