Plenty has been written in the last few days about Major League Baseball’s findings during its investigation into the Astros and the pending inquiry into the Red Sox, the penalties that were received or will be, and what these punishments say about baseball. The various (and sometimes divergent) constituencies commissioner Rob Manfred had to satisfy made doing so basically impossible; I’ve made it clear how I feel about the punishments. The Astros dismissed Jeff Luhnow and AJ Hinch following their suspension by MLB. The Red Sox mutually parted ways with Alex Cora on Tuesday; Carlos Beltrán and the Mets followed suit Thursday afternoon. It is and will continue to be a dark time for the league.
But even as the ramifications of the scandal continue to make themselves felt, we can look ahead to how we think the Astros baseball operations group might operate going forward. Houston’s baseball ops groups was already on the small side before Luhnow was fired, both by design and as a result of recent departures. In the last year or so, the club has lost Mike Elias, Sig Mejdal, and Eve Rosenbaum to the Orioles, Mike Fast and Ronit Shah to the Braves, and Oz Ocampo to the Pirates. Colin Wyers departed the organization, but hasn’t yet landed with another team. Brandon Taubman was fired before being placed on baseball’s ineligible list; he can apply for reinstatement after this season. And all of that has come against the backdrop of another scouting purge, and a couple of lower-level departures. So what comes next in Houston?
How The Astros Have Done Things
The Astros pioneered an organizational structure of having one assistant GM who’s in charge of everything other than the big league team. That role was first occupied by Elias, then by Taubman. Now Pete Putila is the lone assistant GM, though it appears his role is more limited than his predecessors’ as his experience is limited to player development. I’m told that Bill Firkus (Senior Director, Baseball Strategy) has been assisting with other high-level, day-to-day decisions. Putila interviewed for the Pirates and Giants GM openings and is seen as a strong GM candidate, though likely years from now, when he has more experience in other departments.
This small, inner circle structure also resulted in another signature trait of the Luhnow-led Astros: a lack of traditional scouting directors. If the evaluation process for the most progressive team in the sport includes more video analysis and statistical modeling, the value of a traditional scouting leader is diminished. The processes by which you scout an 18-year-old in the GCL or in high school or as an international free agent then become much more similar, allowing office roles to bounce between traditional department lines more than they do with other clubs. This means the Astros don’t have a domestic scouting director, as that decision-making has shifted a bit north on the org chart to assistant GMs and heads of research & development (read: the analytics department).
This serves to further a goal of today’s more paranoid, progressive clubs: confine valuable, proprietary knowledge to as few people as possible, and silo smaller snippets of information within each department to minimize losses. Having just a handful of decision-makers with a larger layer of rank-and-file below them means less turnover at the top (since there are fewer people at that level, and they are afforded the salary and autonomy that inspires them to stick around) and more turnover at lower levels, which are staffed with less experienced employees with less access to internal information. Replacing a veteran scout who travels frequently with an entry-level video scout based in the office (all while doubling the responsibilities for another existing scout) saves money while allowing the club to publicly (and technically, correctly) claim “scouting headcount” is unchanged.
As you might guess, the morale of the handful of traditional scouts is, I’m told, generally not high. Meanwhile, the unifying characteristic amongst the rank-and-file analysts and scouts is that they, on an individual basis and as a department, are cheaper. To my knowledge, all of the front office losses mentioned above have been replaced with less experienced, often cheaper personnel, if they were replaced at all. And not having a traditional director of these departments means the people at that level are paid less than their counterparts at other clubs. That’s why Eric and I refer to these sorts of practices as the corporatization of baseball in our forthcoming book Future Value, as Luhnow’s background working for management consulting giant McKinsey (and their long-time consulting deal with the Astros) is very apparent in the ruthless, efficiency-for-efficiency’s-sake approach that can be seen throughout the organization.
This, combined with an inability to put out an even passable press release after the organization’s various recent scandals, and these scandals themselves, makes it pretty clear that institutional control and self-awareness in the organization is pretty low. More than a few of the recent front office departures were people who left the team with no other job in hand, or for a lateral position.
How Will Houston Proceed?
It seems likely the Astros will hold steady with the current group of Putila, Firkus, and Co. to assess what they have in that group and what they need in terms of additional high-level ops staffers, then add to and re-title their personnel when those answers emerge.
Given the Commissioner’s comments about the team’s poor culture, and the Astros top execs’ relative lack of experience, an outside hire seems likely, and the sooner the better. Hiring someone with experience working for MLB’s Labor Relations Department seems like a strong possibility. The LRD is a small group within the league office that uses economic studies and its arbitration expertise to advise clubs in contract negotiations. Alums typically have a strong understanding of transaction rules, which translates well to eventually joining a club as a director of baseball operations or assistant GM. There are a number of LRD alumnae in senior positions on the club side, and such a hire by Houston could serve as an olive branch to MLB, which would no doubt like to have one of their own inside the new-look Astros.
And regardless of the penalties the league recently imposed, Houston’s GM job is enticing relative to other recent GM vacancies because there’s a very strong big league roster, a high payroll ceiling, strong infrastructure, and a seeming desire from ownership to right the most recent wrongs, or at least move on from them. The attractiveness of this GM opening is similar to the Braves’ vacancy post-scandal, but the Astros are a win-now contender while the Braves boasted a strong system in the upper minors, with a contending roster clearly on the horizon. An experienced, steady hand would seem to be most important for this role, and time is of the essence. Crane can’t afford to let 2020 be a time for tinkering. A high-profile front office addition before the end of the upcoming season would make a lot of sense. Someone like current Brewers GM David Stearns seems like a perfect fit, having previously worked under Luhnow as the Astros AGM, and in LRD. Stearns is free of any discipline or residue of scandal, and the Houston job offers some things Milwaukee’s can’t. But Stearns pulled out of the running for the Giants club president role and now has that title with the Brewers, making his availability difficult to project.
In terms of the actual day-to-day decision-making, I wouldn’t expect much to change. Crane appears to be comfortable with the organization’s general approach; despite firing Luhnow and Hinch, he disputed the Commissioner’s assessment of Houston’s culture in his press conference on Monday. The Astros could try to lessen the roughly $30 million’s worth of lost draft pick asset value by signing free agents to delay those picks into the future, but testing the limits of Manfred’s ire is juice that’s not worth the squeeze at this point. There’s value in cooperating with MLB, as John Coppolella learned the hard way. The team also doesn’t have a ton of holes or the money left to address it, so treading water with a slightly updated version of what has worked in recent years seems likely.
Kiley McDaniel has worked as an executive and scout, most recently for the Atlanta Braves, also for the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. He's written for ESPN, Fox Sports and Baseball Prospectus. Follow him on twitter.