The Astros Blueprint Begins To Fade

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For the Astros, all of a sudden the blueprint isn’t as simple as plugging a bunch of numbers into the machine and achieving the desired result. With the resignation of CEO George Postolos there’s speculation that the Astros “united front” of rebuilding by detonating the entire organization isn’t as united as it was portrayed to be. There’s also talk that Nolan Ryan now has an opening with the Astros to be the team president since the Rangers have mitigated his CEO role and he was unhappy about it.

To put an end to the speculation on both ends, Postolos is not a baseball guy. He’s a business guy who assisted Astros owner Jim Crane in getting the franchise. Losing him is irrelevant.

Ryan has ties to the Astros fans from his days pitching for them, but think about it logically: He would be leaving the Rangers because his say-so was supposedly undermined by the promotion of GM Jon Daniels to head of baseball operations and Ryan is now seen as a figurehead, but going to the Astros and working for GM Jeff Luhnow and placating the fans who are angry at the team being so supernaturally terrible would be the epitome of a figurehead move. Luhnow certainly wouldn’t listen to Ryan’s old-school baseball theories and the stat people in the front office would roll their eyes at him when he was out of the room. It wouldn’t be a lateral move, but a step down into the “old man” status he so clearly loathes. In actuality, the one place aside from public relations in which Ryan could help the Astros is on the mound. Since he could throw 90-mph years after his retirement, there’s a pretty good chance that he could still throw in the 80s even at age 66 and would have the pitching savvy to do better than what the Astros are currently tossing out there.

Dismissing the departure of Postolos and the talk of hiring Ryan, the Astros are coming to the inevitable conclusion that the fans being onboard with this expansion-style rebuild was fleeting. They’re not going to pay to see a product that is so blatantly and intentionally not of Major League quality, nor are they going to sit happily while the owner scoffs at the fans wanting him to spend more money to at least make the team cosmetically better. It’s easy to draw up the plan for a teardown and reconstruction without accounting for the blowback from such a decision. There’s support for what Luhnow and Crane are doing and that support will not waver in places like the halls of Baseball Prospectus and Keith Law’s house, but that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to do whatever they want with the fans merrily going along with it sans complaints. Ryan might quiet them briefly if he was hired, but how long would that last while his suggestions were being ignored and Crane was trotting him out as a human shield to protect him from fan and media vitriol? Fans don’t go to the park to see the team president do his presidenting. Most probably didn’t know who Postolos was and while they’d know Ryan, that wouldn’t perfume the stink that these Astros are generating.

The key for Crane is twofold: 1) can he stand the constant attacks he’ll be under as the team gets worse before it gets better? And 2) Can Luhnow find the talent to make the club viable again?

On the first front, Crane is probably not accustomed to people talking to or about him the way they currently are. Rich, successful businessmen aren’t pleased about criticism and when it’s an alpha-male Texan where any small concession is seen as a sign of weakness and can cost money and clients, it’s magnified.

Regarding Luhnow, because the Astros are going to have so many high draft picks and are pouring most of their resources into development, it will be hard not to get better and show signs of significant improvement eventually. Whether that will yield the results that are expected in a replication of the Rays or the new “genius” in the Moneyball sense remains to be seen and it’s not guaranteed to happen. Already there should be concerns that their hand-picked manager Bo Porter is starting to look overmatched and was rightfully mocked because he didn’t know a fundamental rule of the game last week against the Angels. To make matters worse, his coaches didn’t point out to him that what he was doing was illegal either. That he got away with it only made it look worse.

There are similarities between another Texas team that was purchased by a brash rich man who didn’t want to hear what didn’t work in the past as Jerry Jones bought the floundering Cowboys from Bum Bright in 1989. Jones said some stupid things as Crane has, but he also had the foresight and guts to fire Tom Landry and hire Jimmy Johnson to put him in charge of the entire on-field operation. Of course it helped that Troy Aikman was sitting there as the first pick in the 1989 NFL Draft and that Johnson was a ruthless wizard with moving up and down the NFL draftboard and dispatching those who couldn’t or wouldn’t help him achieve his goals as rapidly as possible. But the key for those Cowboys was the Herschel Walker trade in which Johnson fleeced the Vikings for a bounty of draft picks that he used to put a Super Bowl team together in four years.

Jeff Luhnow is not Jimmy Johnson in terms of personality nor intensity, can’t trade up and down the MLB draftboard, and he doesn’t have a Herschel Walker equivalent on his roster to trade. Porter is not Johnson in terms of on-field strategic skill and in threatening and pushing his coaches and players to get it done or else.

Unless there’s some past business animosity between the two, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jones has called Crane as Al Davis used to call Jones during the Cowboys’ 1-15 season in Jones/Johnson’s first season running the team and told him to keep his chin up. By “chin up” I don’t mean Jones is suggesting to Crane to have the ill-advised, multiple plastic surgeries Jones has had as he’s aged, but to keep his chin up in response to the raking he’s getting for the atrociousness of his team. Not only does Crane need to keep his chin up, but it had better be able to take a punch as well because they’re starting in earnest now and won’t stop until there’s a marked improvement in the on-field product. And that’s a long way away.

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The Astros Reality Is Beginning To Sink In

2013 MLB Predicted Standings, Ballparks, Books, CBA, Draft, Fantasy/Roto, Free Agents, Games, History, Hot Stove, Management, Media, MiLB, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Waiver Trades, Paul Lebowitz's 2013 Baseball Guide, Players, Playoffs, Politics, Prospects, Spring Training, Stats, Trade Rumors, World Series

We’ve come a long way in a month. On opening night in Texas, the Astros beat up on the Rangers 8-2. Following the preseason prognostications as to how bad the Astros would be (I had them at 45-117), that one game inspired an absurd belief that they wouldn’t be all that bad. There were orgasmic reactions to GM Jeff Lunow’s in-game interview on ESPN with the response being, “He has a plan!!! He…has…a…plaaaannnnnnn, ohhhhhhh!!!!”

Owner Jim Crane made some arrogant and obnoxious statements in a Wall Street Journal article that went largely unreported and uncriticized (except for me); he was lauded for providing every player with an I-Pad like his players were a group of Unfrozen Caveman Lawyers given a “frightening new information machine.” Luhnow made an absurd projection that manager Bo Porter might be managing the club for decades. On and on.

From the time Luhnow was hired, the media has squealed in pre-teen girl delight as if they were at a Justin Bieber concert at the new metrics permeating the organization from top to bottom. They’re a pure stat guy club complete with the bizarre titles (Sig Mejdal—Director of Decision Sciences); multitudes being hired from various stat guy sources (Baseball Prospectus); a mutually beneficial “interview” of Keith Law for a position in the front office in which the ESPN “expert” made a great show of “choosing” to stay at ESPN when a job may not have even been offered; and the new, unapologetic manner in which the Astros are shunning any and all old-school techniques preferred by veteran baseball people.

There won’t be any inter-organizational squabbles and questioning of Luhnow’s credentials as there were while he was with the Cardinals and Tony LaRussa played sharp-elbowed politics to mitigate Luhnow’s influence and win the turf war. He’s in charge. It’s his baby and, admirably, he’s doing it his way and hiring people who will implement his vision.

In the end, it’ll work or it won’t. If it does, it will have more to do with the team accumulating years and years of high draft picks because they were so historically awful than because of any undervalued finds on the part of the front office. That’s just reality. It was so with the Rays, will be so with the Astros and is a fact that those looking to anoint the next “genius” will conveniently brush to the side when embarking on an archaeological dig for reasons to twist the narrative in their preferred direction—exactly like Moneyball.

Now the mainstream media—especially those who are unabashed stat guys who defend Bill James’s most ludicrous statements regarding Joe Paterno and think Billy Beane’s bowel movements are objects of worship—are not only catching on as to how bad the 2013 Astros will be, but are speculating as to whether they can rival the 2003 Tigers and 1962 Mets in terms of historic awfulness. The Astros are this bad with a few useful veterans on their roster. Imagine what they’ll look like in August once they’ve dealt away Bud Norris, Lucas Harrell, Wesley Wright, Jose Veras and maybe even Jose Altuve. They’ll have a legitimate chance to reach the depths of the Cleveland Spiders of 1899. And I’m not kidding.

The media can present the contextualized explanations as to what the Astros are doing (“What’s the difference between winning 40 games and 60 games?”) and they’ll kindasorta be right. It doesn’t make much difference. But to the fans of the club who’ll have to endure this and listen to the mantra of “trust us, we’re smart” from Crane, et al., it’s going to get tiresome quickly as they’re being abused. Crane is going to need a thick skin to get through the amount of cow refuse he’ll have flung at him as the season moves along. As a loud and brash Texan, he talks like he’s ready to withstand the criticism, but when it starts coming from those who were supportive as part of their own personal agenda and they leap from the plummeting rocketship in self preservation, we’ll see if he lashes out or stays the course. I have a hunch that it will be both. Then there will really be some good stuff to write about as Crane is saying derogatory things to critics/fans because his team is so dreadfully, embarrassingly bad. He’s used to people kissing his ass and they’ll be kicking it instead. That adds up to an explosive response that will come sooner rather than later.

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