Crane’s Astros expectations: positive vibes or implied threats?

MLB

Houston Astros owner Jim Crane expects his club to make the playoffs this year.

Well, he thinks they can make the playoffs.

It’s a goal.

Or he believes they’ll make the playoffs this year.

Perhaps it would be better stated to say they’d better make the playoffs this year.

He didn’t say “or else” but it’s clearly implied. Crane’s growing impatience and ambiguous statements as to what he thinks the Astros are going to accomplish this season are having a blatant influence in his front office expediting their veteran acquisitions to try and get better in a hurry in 2015. The hurry that Crane is in might not correspond to what his hand-picked front office led by general manager Jeff Luhnow had in mind when he started the teardown to an expansion-level entity and that, along with the variety of missteps that Luhnow has made in his time as GM, could lead to major structural changes if the team doesn’t show enough improvement to suit Crane.

Going from 72 wins to 82 wins would constitute a marked improvement. It’s unlikely in the American League West. Combine that with Crane’s clear edict to make a playoff run and this team is in trouble before spring training starts. His expectations are not reasonable even with their acquisitions and moderate improvements. And that’s the problem that the organization faces in trying to placate the owner and sell a media and fan base on believing the unbelievable. Faith is one thing, delusion is another. Right now, the owner is deluded.

Even staunch supporters of the front office are looking at this winter with confusion as to what the plan is and whether it’s changed. Surrendering two of their top ten minor league prospects – Michael Foltynewicz and Rio Ruiz – as part of the package to land Evan Gattis was puzzling and indicative that the speed with which the team is trying to get better doesn’t coincide with what the stat guys in the front office would have preferred.

That seems to stem from ownership edict.

While Crane might understand that winning in baseball or sports in general is not a simple matter of improving one’s farm system with high draft picks, by trading veterans for other teams’ top prospects, and acquiring useful veteran players when the time is right, that realization is in conflict with the hammering he’s taken since he bought the team. After three years of telling the fans to wait with the justification for their patience being prospect handbooks and nods of approval in the stat-centric faction of the media, it’s still not enough to yield on-field results greater than going from 107 losses in 2012 to 90 in 2014.

Yes, they’re younger. Yes, they’re cheaper. But are they ready to contend as Crane is openly stating he wants them to? And how much is their front office’s plan being damaged by the none-too-subtle influence from the owner that he wants noticeable results sooner than they would otherwise have had if they’d stayed the course and not made these questionable deals like trading for Gattis and Luis Valbuena and signing Luke Gregerson, Pat Neshek and Jed Lowrie?

The problem with diving headfirst into the management style of Luhnow with his coldblooded adherence to numbers and clumsy handling of any issue that requires a touch of humanity is that there was always that chance that it wouldn’t be one smooth rise from dreadful to dreaded.

Can they achieve the heights that Crane expects this season? If everything goes exactly right and every single move they made works perfectly, then they can hover around the fringes of contention as they’re currently constructed. In today’s game, the “fringes of contention” doesn’t mean what it did 20 years ago when that meant a team that won 88 to 93 games might not make the playoffs. The term today means that the team might win 81 games and have a chance in late September to steal a Wild Card spot. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the definition of a prototypical “playoff contender.”

It’s easy to say that if Crane was going to go so far against the grain of what was conventional in baseball that he had to fully commit to it for a full five years. But as the extremely wealthy people who own sports franchises quickly learn, their critics are not intimidated by their wealth and success as those who they’re doing business with are; they don’t bow to the dollar as politicians do; and they don’t care if a person has made billions by creating, building or investing. That can lead to shellshock and reactive maneuvering, which is what appears to be happening with the Astros as they pivot into what the owner expects will be a contender when that likelihood is moderate at best.

Their margin for error is nonexistent and, given what the owner wants, so is that of Luhnow and his staff. If this doesn’t work, then it’s clear that the owner is going to make changes. They might be nuanced to a more conventional baseball approach with an sprinkling of people who are not running their teams by the numbers and a stripping of Luhnow’s nearly all-encompassing power. Or it could be drastic with an influx of people who are old-school baseball people led by someone whose hiring as a powerful baseball voice in his organization will automatically take the heat off the owner: Nolan Ryan.

To think that this team will be a playoff contender in the American League West and pronounce that to the public is an owner putting his front office into a terrible position in which they’ll be blamed if it doesn’t work. But maybe that’s what he wants. Maybe he’d like to make a change and doesn’t want to take the blame for a strategy that didn’t work. So he’ll make this demand in the face of all realism and then make the changes with the justification that he currently doesn’t have. He doesn’t want to take the blame even though, in the end, he’s the one who’s responsible because he’s the one who gave Luhnow the green light to do what he did at the start, then forced his hand to alter the template before it was wise to do so.

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