This week marked the second anniversary of the firings of Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow for their acts of commission and/or omission related to “IT”. To those new to the blog “IT” is our shorthand for the cheating scandal that tainted the 2017 championship and hacked off the long-suffering Astro fans to no end.
Today, two years on, we will take a look at how the replacements for those two fared and whether we thought the results would be different if the original two were still in place.
Bringing in the then 70-year-old Baker to manage a team that was on the cutting edge of baseball technology (or beyond as “IT” showed) seemed a bit odd at the time. But it made sense in that the team wanted someone who had seen it all, had lived through the steroid controversy related to his big star Barry Bonds and who brought gravitas and earned respect from the baseball community. It was thought that he would come in, cleanse the palate for one season or two at the most and then mosey off to retirement. Well, we are two years out now and Baker is still standing with a one-year extension in his hand and the thought that he may well leave on his terms, not the teams’.
When it comes to judging Baker, I have to admit that my motto at work is that the only people who don’t make mistakes are those that don’t do anything. Has Dusty made mistakes? Sure he has. Did I always agree with him? Absolutely not. I still don’t know why Kyle Tucker was slotted so far back in the lineup and why he didn’t move a struggling Alex Bregman down in the lineup for most of the season. But A.J. Hinch made mistakes – go re-run the late innings of the 7th game of the 2019 World Series. And I definitely did not always agree with all his lineup machinations. But in the end, the results were about as good as you could expect.
Coming into 2020, the pitching staff had lost Gerrit Cole, Wade Miley, Collin McHugh, Hector Rondon and Will Harris. Due to injuries and Covid, they had minimal or no contributions from Justin Verlander, Brad Peacock, Roberto Osuna, Joe Smith, and Chris Devenski. Of the 524 innings pitched in the shortened year, 100 were by pitchers with ERAs 5.70 and above. Approximately 230 innings (44%) were by pitchers making their major league debuts or still classified as rookies. Dump on top of this that practically the whole of the positional core of the team (Jose Altuve, Yuli Gurriel, Alex Bregman, Josh Reddick and Carlos Correa) who had been suspects in the cheating scandal were terrible in 2020, the season could have been a catastrophe. Oh, and 2019 Rookie of the Year, Yordan Alvarez, only played in two games before requiring season-ending knee surgery. But Baker somehow kept the team near .500, had them sneak into the last spot of an expanded playoff field, guided them through two winning rounds of the playoff and helped them come back within a late rally of erasing a 3-0 deficit against the Rays in the ALCS. His handling of the pitching staff and use of tandem pitching was especially important in getting them to the cusp of the World Series.
Heading into 2021, Baker and his team were facing a mixed bag of expectations and reality. They knew they would not have Verlander, likely for the season. George Springer had moved north of the border. Peacock, Osuna and Devenski were gone. They lost their best pitcher from 2020, Framber Valdez to a finger injury in Spring Training that for a moment looked like it could be season-ending, but in the end, they were lucky it only cut into 2 months into the season. But they were getting Alvarez back and they did get bounce-back years from Altuve, Correa and Gurriel.
In the regular season, Baker held them together again despite an early big hit from COVID and regression from a chunk of the bullpen that had stepped up in 2020. After a trade deadline bullpen infusion, the team rolled to 95 wins and a return to the AL West title after the struggles of 2020.
Dusty guided them through the first three rounds of the playoffs, but the World Series proved to be a bridge too far after the team fully lost Lance McCullers Jr.and mostly lost Zack Greinke from the rotation.
I’m also of the school that players make a lot more difference than the manager. A manager might make a few games difference over a season, but in the end over or underperformance by the players means a lot more. But, I know that fans like to pick on the managers for “losing”. Heck, 7 time World Series-winning manager Casey Stengel was let go after a season where his team lost Game 7 in a Bill Mazeroski walk-off homer.
It is hard to think that the very flawed 2020 squad could have gone any farther than the Game 7 loss in the ALCS under Hinch. Could he have pulled out another World Series win in the 2021 World Series? Again, it is not very likely he could have overcome the starting rotation problems that Baker faced.
Judging the first time General Manager is a bit tougher than looking at Dusty Baker. All we can look at is how the moves played out immediately, while normally you would like to look at trades and signings from three or four years in the future. But that won’t keep us from giving it a shot.
When Click took over from Luhnow a few weeks after Jeff’s firing in early February, the roster was basically set. There were very few moves made by Luhnow’s front office prior to the changeover. Thewy had signed catchers Dustin Garneau and Martin Maldonado and reliever Joe Smith and traded for pitcher Austin Pruitt and traded Jake Marisnick for Blake Taylor. Click’s main actions were during the shortened 2020 season as he moved many pitchers and a few position players in from the Training sites to take the place of the injured. The only real external move he made during this time was a trade for lefty Brooks Raley.
While Click did not make a big splash move like Luhnow was famous for in 2020, he was also trying to hold onto prospect capital during the two seasons when the Astros would not have a 1st or 2nd round draft choice. It is a spot where some of his Tampa based sustainability came to the forefront.
In the offseason after the 2020 season, Click was quite a bit more active, re-signing Michael Brantley when he was believed gone to Toronto. He also brought back former Astro Jason Castro as a backup catcher and signed relievers Ryne Stanek and Pedro Baez along with OF Jose Siri. During the international signing period he signed prospects, headlined by highly rated Cuban OF Pedro Leon. During Spring Training he signed veteran Jake Odorizzi, when the injury to Framber Valdez clouded whether he would return during 2021.
The first half of the season was spent moving bodies around to cover for COVID, injuries and poor pitching out of the bullpen. In July Click stepped in and brought in 4 experienced relievers, Kendall Gravemen, Rafael Montero, Phil Maton and Yimi Garcia to help down the stretch. Somehow, he did this while staying under the luxury tax threshold (helped by moving Joe Smith in the Graveman trade).
The current off-season featured an early surprise re-signing of pitcher Justin Verlander and a signing of veteran reliever Hector Neris from the Phillies. The Astros made a big dip in the recent international free agent signing frenzy, but the big news that will be the focus when/if the lockout ends is what happens with free agent shortstop Carlos Correa’s spot on the roster.
What If…..Jeff Luhnow had been the GM the last two seasons instead of James Click?
It is possible to believe that Luhnow might have pulled a big move out of his hat in 2020 to help the team to a bit better regular-season performance. Whether this would have resulted in a long run in those playoffs is a bit doubtful. Getting more than a 95 win season and a World Series appearance out of the team in 2021 with the Verlander salary boat anchor wound around their necks, again might be a bit doubtful.
So, two years on – what are your thoughts about the replacement manager and general manager and how much the team missed the two that were jettisoned in January 2020.