Astros Try to Move Forward With a New General Manager

After the penalties against the Astros were announced for their sign-stealing scandal, there was a very brief time period where the club looked set to ride out the suspension of general manager Jeff Luhnow for a season before he regained control of the club, and the atmosphere that came along with it, that he helped create. Hours later, Astros owner Jim Crane fired both Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch. For the manager role, Crane hired something of a stopgap in the form of 70-year-old Dusty Baker, a veteran option with years of experience and a sterling reputation in the clubhouse. It was a hire designed to help the club move forward with as little friction and ties to the past as possible. It was also a hire made without a general manager, the person typically responsible for such decisions. Baker received just a one-year deal, likely in part due to this uncertainty. The Astros and Crane appear to be less interested in making a similar decision at general manager, opting for 42-year-old James Click from the Rays organization over a more-experienced option like Bobby Evans, formerly of the Giants.

If the Astros had wanted some consistency and someone within the organization to step up for a short time, the list of candidates wasn’t long. The last three assistant general managers for Astros are in charge of the Brewers (David Stearns), the Orioles (Mike Elias), and ineligible to be involved with major league baseball (Brandon Taubman). Several key front office members left with Elias when he moved to Baltimore as well. Internally, Pete Putila graduated from college in 2010, has been with the Astros since 2011, and rose to his current position of assistant general manager, but when Crane fired Luhnow, the Astros owner assumed responsibility for baseball operations. In Click, the club is going with a more experienced version of Putila.

Click joined the Rays in 2006 because he had experience in building databases, which he had done out in San Francisco after graduating from Yale, and he had helped out Baseball Prospectus with the same. It was Chaim Bloom, an intern at the time, who had recommended Click to Rays GM Andrew Friedman. From a profile by Marc Topkin:

“I cannot convey how much it was just right place, right time,” Click said. “If I hadn’t been doing database work out in San Francisco and hadn’t latched on to Prospectus and hadn’t met Chaim there and he hadn’t gotten an internship with Andrew, who knows…”

Though Bloom and Click hadn’t actually met at the time the former was brought on, it was the connection to Baseball Prospectus that got Click in the door. Several years ago, Click described the Rays’ operations at the time of his hiring as pretty bare-bones.

When he came aboard with the Rays (2006) what was the department like?
“There was no IT department their [sic] was just a guy that came in on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and helped out. We had no company email.” Click said. “We’ve come a long way. We now have six or seven guys that help me out and we have a pretty solid group of guys.”

Click’s bio with the Rays shows how he was able to increase his role in terms of importance and breadth.

James Click enters his second season as vice president of baseball operations. In this role, he is involved in all aspects of the baseball operations department with a focus on baseball research and development, baseball systems, clubhouse operations and departmental logistics. He also assists with player evaluation, roster configuration and deployment, contract negotiation and staff management. Click joined the Rays organization in 2006 as coordinator of baseball operations. He was then promoted to director of baseball research and development and later director of baseball operations.

In terms of his duties as general manager, Click checks all the boxes for experience. After Bloom’s departure for the Red Sox, the Rays weren’t actually going to replace Bloom, instead opting to divide those responsibilities among Click, Peter Bendix, and Carlos Rodriguez. Tampa Bay might have to re-evaluate that decision in light of Click’s departure.

Baseball is a copycat league. When teams are successful, their strategies and player types are copied. Whether that’s speed and contact, on-base and power, riding great starting pitching, relying on a bullpen, using shifts, or emphasizing catcher framing, winning strategies are quickly replicated and used all over the league. The same is true for player acquisition and development, rebuilding and tanking, and general statistical research. When an organization is successful, the front office blueprint is copied as well. Luhnow and the Astros’ strategies came in part from his time in a very successful Cardinals organization. Houston’s success brought Stearns to the Brewers and Elias to the Orioles. The Rays’ success in running a successful on-field operation with a slim budget is one that’s incredibly appealing to owners. That nearly all of these executives come from Ivy League (or similar) backgrounds is another form of copying not lost on those observing who is and who isn’t being hired.

Tayler’s list actually sells the numbers a little short, as Rick Hahn went to Harvard Law while Theo Epstein, Bloom, and Matthew Silverman also attended Ivy League schools but don’t hold the title of general manager. Arguing whether people like Click and Bloom have earned their positions and advancement isn’t a useful exercise given the time and success they’ve spent working in the sport, though it is worth wondering if their background provided an opportunity to excel that might have foreclosed the same for other talented, potential leaders because the sport isn’t casting a wide enough net. It’s worth noting that many of the original hires who went on to general manager jobs were made by Billy Beane (no college), John Mozeliak (Colorado), Andrew Friedman (Tulane), and Erik Neander (Virginia Tech). There should be a lot of avenues to front office jobs in baseball, though the top jobs tend to imply a much narrower path.

As for the Rays, they have had quite the drain of front office talent over the last few years. Andrew Friedman left the Rays for the Dodgers, leaving Erik Neander in charge. This offseason has seen Chaim Bloom leave for the Red Sox and now Click heading to the Astros. Of the last four organizations to play in the World Series over the last three seasons, three are headed by former Rays’ executives. That type of talent exodus is tough on any organization, though if Bloom trades Mookie Betts, and Click oversees a similar reduction in salary in Houston that we saw in Los Angeles and we are currently witnessing in Boston, they are actually doing the Rays a favor in the short-term as Tampa Bay looks poised for another 90-win season.

The Astros are trying to move forward and have hired someone with no connection to the prior regime and the cheating scandal that come with it. They chose someone who has spent basically his entire adult life in baseball in an organization known to be progressive in analytics and player development. It’s also an extremely efficient organization, which is something that Crane obviously liked when he hired Luhnow to turn around the Astros’ on-field fortunes. Hiring Click is an attempt to retain those efficiencies and the progressive attitudes without the poisonous culture that helped breed the cheating and the cutting corners that ultimately caused the general manager job opening in the first place. Firing Luhnow and Hinch was the first step. Bringing in a good, experienced manager like Dusty Baker was the next step, and hiring James Click moves the team further away from their scandal. However, given most of the players are still there, hiring Click is merely another step in a much longer process.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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2 years ago

I’m happy we got Hinch and Luhnow out. If we win, I want it to be genuine. If we don’t win with the new guys? Better than cheating for a win.