What's next? Astros have key roles to fill

January 14th, 2020

HOUSTON -- A month away from the start of Spring Training, the Astros are without a general manager or field manager. Astros owner Jim Crane fired president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch on Monday after MLB suspended them for their role in the team’s cheating scheme, leaving Houston in a crunch only weeks before pitchers and catchers report.

Crane made the moves in an effort to repair the Astros’ reputation and move forward, which means trying to replace both men in the short term. Pitchers and catchers report to West Palm Beach, Fla., on Feb. 12. Crane didn’t give a timetable for making either hire during a news conference on Monday.

“We'll quickly look for someone to manage the team,” Crane said. “As soon as we get out of here today. Certainly, we have possibilities internally; we'll also look outside. The baseball operation, I will oversee. We have a number of capable guys that can run that operation. A number of them were interviewed for GM spots, one in particular [assistant GM Pete Putila]. And so we'll sit down today and start working on that and move as quickly as we can.”

MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reports that Astros bench coach Joe Espada is the favorite to become interim manager. Espada, who wasn’t with the Astros in ’17, when MLB’s report says the majority of the team’s illegal sign stealing occurred, would make for a smooth transition after working under Hinch for two seasons. Espada, 44, interviewed for a number of managerial jobs in each of the last two years and was a finalist for the Giants’ and Cubs’ jobs this offseason.

“Certainly, we have a bench coach that's capable,” Crane said. “We'll certainly look outside, but we know we've got to have somebody in charge when we go to Spring Training. That could be interim. I don't have the answer yet, but we'll make it work.”

Espada’s ascension into the managerial role would mean the club needs to add another member to its coaching staff to fill the bench-coach role. Likewise, Crane will be trying to find someone to run the Astros’ baseball operations with only weeks to spare before the team hits the field in Florida.

This has been an offseason of turmoil for the Astros.

Luhnow fired assistant GM Brandon Taubman in October after Taubman was proven to have directed profane language toward female reporters in the clubhouse celebration following the Astros’ win over the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. In November, Crane informed president of baseball operations Reid Ryan that Crane’s son, Jared, would be groomed to take over the business side of the club, phasing out Ryan.

The firing of Luhnow leaves special assistant Kevin Goldstein -- one of Luhnow’s closest confidants -- and Putila -- the assistant GM for player development -- as the two highest-ranking members of the front office.

Crane may choose to hire an experienced front-office executive to lead a baseball operations department that Commissioner Rob Manfred said in his report had a problematic culture in its relations with other clubs, the media and external stakeholders.

“We've got a short window here,” Crane said. “We've got to get ready for Spring Training, Feb. 15 or sooner. We'll work very hard to try to take care of the team first, and then look at the baseball operations. As I said, we've got good leaders in a number of those spots. It's just a matter of organizing and managing that staff for the next 30 days, and hopefully we can get someone in to take the point.”

On the field, the Astros’ roster is set for 2020 with most of the core position players returning from the 107-win team that lost in seven games to the Nationals in the 2019 World Series. The club, whose payroll this season will break through the $208 million luxury-tax threshold for the first time, did lose star pitcher Gerrit Cole to the Yankees, reliever Will Harris to the Nationals and catcher Robinson Chirinos to the Rangers.

Still, the Astros are in a good spot, with second baseman José Altuve, third baseman Alex Bregman, shortstop Carlos Correa, center fielder George Springer and starting pitchers Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. returning. Houston should be a favorite to win a fourth consecutive AL West title.

Luhnow signed Altuve to an extension two years ago and inked Bregman and Verlander to extensions last spring. The biggest front-burner item for a new GM will be the contract status of Springer, who is asking for $22.5 million in arbitration while the Astros have countered with a $17.5 million offer. Springer will be a free agent after this season, which means the Astros could risk losing their three-time All-Star center fielder.

Meanwhile, Houston’s farm system -- which was the best in baseball a few years ago -- has been diminished by a series of trades, including deals to acquire Verlander, Cole and Greinke. It will be even harder to replenish that talent on the fly after MLB took away Houston’s first- and second-round picks in the next two MLB Drafts as part of the punishment announced Monday. The Astros will keep the compensation pick they were awarded when Cole signed a nine-year, $324 million deal with the Yankees.

Crane made a solid hire in bringing Luhnow from the Cardinals in 2011, but his next GM hire will be the most important yet for a franchise seeking a fresh start.

“There's a lot of people there and all of them matter and all of them have skill sets,” he said. “So, I'm going to evaluate that, see what we have inside, and we'll start looking outside. I think it's a very good job. I think a lot of people would want to come in here and step into that position.”