Triple-A can be a challenging level for baseball players. For many of them, they’re on the cusp of making it to the big leagues for the first time; for others, it can be their chance to start a new career with a new team. But Triple-A can also be a challenging level for managers.
Warren Schaeffer is the current manager for the Albuquerque Isotopes. He was named skipper heading into the 2020 season — his first at the Triple-A level. Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic postponed his official Triple-A managerial debut, but the Isotopes posted a 58-72 record in 2021 with Schaeffer at the helm. Like any new job, though, there is a learning curve.
“It was good — it was fun,” Schaeffer said of his first season. “It was a learning experience with the older players coming up and down from the big leagues. It’s a whole different ballgame of what you have to deal with.”
Before that, Schaeffer spent time managing the Low-A Asheville Tourists from 2015-2017 and the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats from 2018-2019. In his managerial career, Schaeffer has posted a 344-347 record and took the Tourists to the South Atlantic League Championship Series in his first year.
Despite skipping High-A, Schaeffer felt that the jump from Low-A to Double-A was “easier...because those guys that I had in Low-A, by the time I got to Double-A, I already had relationships with them — Brendan [Rodgers] and Sammy [Hilliard] and all those guys — I knew them for a long time. We’d worked together since they were kids.
“The only thing that was different in Double-A was that we played a National League game, so double switches and stuff,” he continued. “But the biggest jump was definitely Double-A to Triple-A just because it’s the up-and-down player, it’s the older player... you just have to work harder with the personalities to create a culture in the clubhouse, which is my number one job.”
Schaeffer compared Low-A to a college team, saying “[the players are] still fresh, they’re ready to go, all together, [with] one goal in mind,” whereas in Triple-A, he said “it’s the balance between having still one goal in mind — winning that night — and getting you ready for the big leagues, but with a lot of other things going on. So you have a lot of individual, behind-closed-door conversations, individual expectations to try to meet the grand team expectation.”
Current Rockies third base coach Stu Cole is also no stranger to Triple-A managing. Cole spent 2009-2012 as the manager of the Colorado Springs Sky Sox before being called up to the bigs.
He agreed that Triple-A is the hardest level to manage “because you have players down there that are trying to get to the big leagues, and then you have players down there who are trying to resurrect their career,” he said. “And everybody thinks they should get that opportunity to go, and sometimes you have to deal with the personality of that player and also, sometimes some attitudes on occasion.”
On top of having players in all different stages of life, there are also players from different organizations and “they’re trying to fit into your organization, your policies and all that,” Cole continued. “I think one of the most difficult things I had to overcome was trying to deal with free agents we’d signed and then sent to Triple-A, and trying to have them mesh with our organizational policies.”
But Cole, like Schaeffer, said that the best way to try to get through to guys and to cultivate the clubhouse culture was to have “one-on-one conversations a lot, trying to inform them, ‘hey, this is how we do things over here and if you have any questions, we still want you to be yourself but there are certain things that we require our guys to do.’”
However challenging Triple-A management can be, though, it is also a rewarding job.
“Some of my favorite moments were telling guys that they were going to the big leagues,” Cole said. “I had a chance to do that with Dexter Fowler in Double-A, had a chance to do that with Troy Tulowitzki in Double-A and had to do it with a number of guys when I was Triple-A manager.”
While Schaeffer echoed his excitement about calling guys to the big leagues, he also mentioned that he loves the daily activities.
“I just love going out there and being with the guys every day and creating relationships,” he said. “It doesn’t matter for me whether I’m in Triple-A or Low-A or whatever, it’s just learning how to navigate through relationships and create them and try to make them better people at some point. It’s just trying to get the most out of them, really.”
Any advice for future Triple-A managers?
“Come to the ballpark ready to work every single day, ready to try to make somebody better because it can be an up-and-down season throughout the Triple-A season,” said Cole.
The Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes play their home opener tonight at Rio Grande Credit Union Field at Isotopes Park against the Tacoma Rainiers (SEA). First pitch is at 6:35 p.m. MDT on MiLB.tv, and you can catch all of Purple Row’s minor league updates in Kenneth Weber’s weekly Pebble Report!