Mandatory Credit: Photo by Ashley Landis/AP/Shutterstock (12554849s) Houston Astros owner Jim Crane talks on the phone during batting practice before Game 1 in baseball’s World Series against the Atlanta Braves, in Houston World Series Baseball, Houston, United States – 26 Oct 2021
Astros owner Jim Crane has known for at least a year that James Click would not remain with the team as general manager beyond his original three-year contract that expired after the World Series. At least, that is what Crane has told multiple people over the last several months.
Crane has known this day was coming for so long that he surely already has a short list of candidates. Also, whoever is hired, Crane will be very involved in the operation.
As one of his associates told me, “Jim sees himself as the baseball guy.” Crane has done contracts himself, pushed for trades, most notably the deal for Justin Verlander, and developed strong opinions for how things should and should not be done.
Regardless, he needs a staff to handle the dozens and dozens of things that come up by the hour. In other words, he needs a general manager or president of baseball operations or whatever the working title is.
Jeff Bagwell is certain to be involved on some level. He has had Crane’s ear for a while, and the two men appear to have a comforting working relationship.
This would be a huge gamble. Bagwell is one of the finest people and greatest players I have ever known. But he does not possess the skillset baseball’s best general managers bring to the table these days.
Old-timers love to complain about how baseball has been ruined by the flood of data that has rewritten the book on evaluating players, preparing for games, and even playing them.
But there is no going back. Today, general managers spend hundreds of man hours attempting to look around corners and see what the next new thing is.
Injury prevention? Some believe that is the next frontier. Pitching and hitting mechanics are being studied exhaustively. This work is being done by people with advanced degrees from places like MIT and Princeton.
As Oakland A’s president of baseball operations, Billy Beane, who started the information revolution, says: “Baseball is now the smartest industry on earth. We have men and women turning down huge salaries from Wall Street and Silicon Valley to work in baseball.”
This is true of the game’s best executives: Houston native Andrew Friedman of the Dodgers, Farhan Zaidi of the Giants, David Stearns of the Brewers, Mike Elias of the Orioles, and Erik Neander of the Rays.
If Bagwell is willing to surround himself with the data experts and figure out how to utilize the avalanche of information and place it in the context of his lifetime in the game, he would be a great, great hire.
But there is a big leap of faith in this. On the other hand, he is so smart and has had a front-row seat for everything the Astros have accomplished this last decade that it would be a serious mistake to doubt him.
Jeff Luhnow is the other name to remember. Crane is seeking someone he is as confident in and comfortable with as he was while Luhnow constructed arguably the smartest and most successful franchise in the sport during his time rebuilding the baseball operations department from 2011 until his firing in early 2020.
Click made a series of smart decisions in building one of the greatest bullpens in history. But almost everything else the Astros have done has the fingerprints of Luhnow himself, along with the people he hired and the infrastructure he put into place.
Problem is he and Crane did not have an amicable separation. As a high-ranking MLB executive told me, “One rule of thumb: we do not rehire the people that have sued us.”
Indeed, Luhnow has not spent a day in baseball since his dismissal. What is less known is the state of his relationship with Crane. Could they still work together? Can they even stand being in the same room with one another?
Former Brewers’ executive David Stearns is a name to consider. He stepped down as Brewers general manager recently, even though he has a year left on his contract.
However, when he says he will remain in Milwaukee for at least the next year, he means just that. He is not going to be available for another year, and even then, it is unclear what his interest in the Astros would be. He has been widely tied to the Mets, but no one outside of David Stearns seems to know exactly what he has in mind.
As for James Click, he and Crane have had an uncomfortable working relationship for a long time. Some of it is stylistic.
Crane is much more aggressive than Click. He is also going to be involved. This is not new. Remember that he pushed Luhnow to make the Verlander trade in 2017 after negotiations had hit a wall?
That single trade changed the Astros in ways that are impossible to overestimate. That trade may have empowered Crane. He also pushed the Zack Greinke trade over the finish line in 2019.
That was a bad trade if you factor in Greinke’s big salary and the number of prospects the Astros surrendered. But every Astros fan should be heartened that Crane knows the Astros have a window to win multiple championships and that he is doing everything in his power to make it happen.
If there is anything curious about Click being let go, it is that Crane allowed him to complete all three years of the contract before sending him packing on Friday.
He may not have had a perfect working relationship with Crane, but it did not keep the Astros from three more great seasons. If theirs’ was not a good working relationship, 29 other teams would like a similar arrangement.
Anyway, Crane has delivered in a way no team owner in this town has ever delivered and has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. Stay tuned.