Despite the Astros cruising to a 106-56 record in 2022, rumors began to trickle out during the season that there was some tension between owner Jim Crane and general manager James Click, with the latter on an expiring contract. Despite those reports, the assumption of many was that the success of the team would compel the parties to work something out eventually. However, despite the Astros making the ALCS for a sixth straight year and winning their second World Series title in that time, Click was eventually fired just a few days after the title celebration, as was assistant GM Scott Powers.
ESPN’s Jeff Passan provides a deep dive behind the scenes, taking a look at how such an unusual situation came to be. Interested readers are encouraged to check out the full piece for all the details, but the essence is that Crane didn’t like Click’s approach to the job as much as he liked that of Jeff Luhnow. Luhnow, of course, was fired after the sign-stealing scandal was revealed, with Click quickly hired to replace him.
Over the past year, Crane has seemingly taken a more hands-on approach to the team. He apparently was the one who closed the deal to bring Verlander back for 2022. He also felt the organization needed more “baseball men,” bringing in former big leaguers Jeff Bagwell and Reggie Jackson to take part in front office meetings. He also reportedly blocked a deadline deal, on the advice of manager Dusty Baker, that would have sent José Urquidy to the Cubs for Willson Contreras.
With Click and Powers now gone, it seems as though Crane is running the show, at least to some degree. Bill Firkus, recently promoted to assistant general manager, seems to be handling day-to-day operations. Andrew Ball and Charles Cook, who also have the title of assistant general manager, are also involved to some degree. But according to Passan, Crane personally negotiated the three-year, $34.5MM deal given to reliever Rafael Montero last week and he seems to be directly involved in Verlander’s free agency yet again.
It might continue in this ad hoc fashion for some time as well, with Crane telling Brian McTaggart of MLB.com that he plans to take his time with his search for Click’s replacement, probably not making a hire until the calendar flips to 2023. “I’m going to take my time on it this time,” Crane says. “Last time, I was in a little crunch. I didn’t have a GM and didn’t have a manager. We’ve got a pretty solid baseball ops team that’s been around. Firkus and Charles Cook have been with the team a while. … We’re going to interview a bunch of people and see where we land with that. I don’t expect anything to happen before the first of the year.”
Passan floats some names as candidates who cover a spectrum of styles. Sig Mejdal, formerly of the Astros but now with the Orioles, is known for his expertise on the analytical side of the game. While former player and manager Brad Ausmus is thrown out as someone with an arguably more traditional approach. Passan adds that Ausmus was recently in Houston and met with Bagwell, though it’s unclear if they discussed the open GM position. Even when a new GM is hired, all signs seem to point to Crane staying heavily involved.
There’s still a lot of uncertainty in terms of what lies ahead for the Astros, but the idea of them turning their backs on their calculated approach has the potential to alter the trajectory of the franchise. The club’s current golden age has been achieved not by wild spending, but largely by player development and quantitative analysis. They’ve never given a free agent a deal longer than four years and only crossed the competitive balance tax threshold once, in 2020. Justin Verlander took a sizeable investment but the rest of their rotation was homegrown, either through the draft (Lance McCullers Jr.) or international free agency (Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, Urquidy).
The position player core is similar, with most of the lineup having been drafted by the club and sometimes subsequently extended. Even when players do reach free agency, like George Springer and Carlos Correa, the club has been savvy at replacing them internally. Their primary shortstop and center fielder this year were Jeremy Peña, a third round draft choice playing in his rookie year, and Chas McCormick, a 21st round pick playing in his second season.
That makes it especially eyebrow-raising that Bagwell, who apparently is one of Crane’s most trusted advisors, criticized the club’s player development system. From an outside perspective, it would seem that the Astros’ recent run of success would be credited in large part to their successes in that department, but perhaps Bagwell and Crane don’t see it exactly that way.
Though it seems the Astros are making a pivot on the heels of their second World Series title, we likely won’t know for some time exactly how drastic the changes are. Perhaps any suggestion of a sea change is overblown and the club will continue largely on a familiar path. Though if they do indeed move away from what has made them so successful, it would make for a stunning and fascinating turn of events. For now, the Astros are pushing forward without Click and Powers, and without Pete Putila and Oz Ocampo, two front office members who recently left for the Giants and Marlins, respectively. It seems that Crane is now the one driving the bus, and time will tell where he takes it.