Rosenthal: Uncertainty surrounding Astros GM James Click marring World Series shine

I don’t know James Click’s personal finances, family dynamics or career ambitions, so it would be presumptuous for me to suggest that he tell Astros owner Jim Crane to stick his one-year offer you-know-where.

But it would be only fitting if Click, the team’s general manager, tells Crane to stick his one-year offer you-know-where.

Crane, at least based on the success of the Astros, is a good owner. That doesn’t mean he is a good boss, and it doesn’t mean he fosters a good culture.

Most Astros fans probably do not care about any such shortcomings, not when the franchise is celebrating a World Series title and sparking talk of a dynasty. But at a time when the team should be drawing universal admiration, Crane is again diminishing its standing within the sport.

The Astros’ illegal electronic sign stealing in 2017 and 2018 was a direct reflection of the franchise’s win-at-all-costs mentality. Crane’s treatment of Click pushes limits in a different way. And it, too, could have long-term ramifications for the club, from the quality of the candidate who might be willing to replace Click to the steps in the future employees might take to placate Crane — a circumstance not unlike the one that got the Astros into trouble previously.

The contracts of both Click and manager Dusty Baker expired on Oct. 31, in the middle of the Series. Baker, 73, accepted a one-year contract to return. He would not be back if he viewed Crane’s offer as illogical or insulting, and his stature gives him a certain measure of security. Click, 44, is in a different position. He is expected to discuss his own one-year offer with Crane on Friday. Unless the offer is for some astronomical sum — unlikely — it’s safe to call it illogical and insulting.

Jim Crane (Erik Williams / USA Today Sports)

I wrote about the strained relationship between Crane and Click on the eve of the Series, saying if the owner wanted to part with the GM, he would need better reasons than the ones cited by sources with knowledge of the situation: Stylistic clashes between the two, disagreements over the size of the baseball operations staff and concern from Click about other voices in the organization influencing the owner.

Crane has yet to publicly discuss any such reasons, which is his right — an owner can do whatever he wants, without explanation. But he hired Click in Jan. 2020 to stabilize the Astros in the wake of the sign-stealing scandal. Click proceeded to do just that, compiling the most regular-season victories in the American League during his three-year tenure, and ahem, capping off an 11-2 postseason with the 2022 World Series title.

And yet, to the incredulity of his peers, he effectively might be forced out.

Click, married with two children, told reporters at the general managers’ meetings Tuesday that his family is happy and settled in Houston. So, maybe he decides he wants to keep the job, warts and all. Even as a lame duck. Even with an owner who is effectively daring him to say no, so he could then claim, “I didn’t fire James. He walked.”

Crane will find another GM if Click departs; the job, one of only 30 in the majors, still will be coveted. Top candidates, though, might steer clear of the Astros, or at the very least ask pointed questions of the owner. And if Crane treats a successful head of baseball operations this ruthlessly, how can other employees feel secure?

On Wednesday, Crane all but admitted that is his M.O., saying at a news conference announcing Baker’s extension that he is “never satisfied.” The problem is that employees who feel threatened will fight, claw, scrap to survive. Previously with the Astros, they cheated, too.

The Astros’ illicit sign stealing was not only player-driven. Lower-level baseball operations staffers developed an algorithm in Excel called “Codebreaker” that helped decode signs more quickly — and when used during games, illegally.

Commissioner Rob Manfred, in his statement announcing the Astros’ penalties, described the culture of the team’s baseball-operations department as “very problematic.” For that, however, Manfred blamed former GM Jeff Luhnow, whom he suspended for one year along with manager AJ Hinch (Crane subsequently fired both). The commissioner actually praised Crane in his report, saying the owner was “extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested.”

Many rival fans to this day remain upset that Manfred did not penalize the Astros’ players, who were granted immunity in exchange for their honest testimony. Manfred ordered the team to pay a $5 million fine and forfeit their first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021. But he essentially exonerated Crane, as if the owner had nothing to do with the culture Luhnow created, the relentless quest for efficiency, the obsessive search for an edge.

Crane’s history also includes war profiteering and discrimination cases that were filed against his air-freight logistics business, resulting in multiple settlements. Many fans tend to overlook such things; Mets fans love Steve Cohen, even though a firm he owned pleaded guilty to insider trading and paid $1.8 billion in fines, and a former employee filed a gender discrimination suit against him.

If Click moves on, Astros fans can rationalize his departure by saying Luhnow mostly built the club. They can also point to a trade Crane quashed at the deadline, as first reported by ESPN — pitcher Jośe Urquidy to the Cubs for catcher/DH Willson Contreras — as a Click move that might have haunted the Astros. Such quibbles, however, would miss the larger points. How Click settled the franchise in the middle of its greatest crisis. How in his three years he led the team to Game 7 of the ALCS, Game 6 of the World Series and the Series title. And how he managed all this even though he initially was unable to bring his own staffers.

Last offseason, Click hired two assistant GMs, Scott Powers from the Dodgers and Andrew Ball from the Angels; added farm director Sara Goodrum from the Brewers; and boosted the team’s number of scouts from 27 to 38. His loyalty to his own people might be one reason he is reluctant to leave. Those staffers, upon joining the Astros, perhaps knew Click had only one year left on his contract. But they probably could not imagine the situation would deteriorate like this.

Whatever happens, Click will be fine. He is a 2000 graduate of Yale. He spent 15 years with the Rays before Crane hired him; former colleagues of his now run the Rays, Dodgers, Red Sox and Brewers. If he wanted to leave baseball, he surely could adapt his background in research and development to another field. If he wanted to stay in the game, some team would hire him, likely as a special assistant at first, and perhaps allow him to keep his family in Houston.

The Astros, likewise, would figure to remain strong no matter who replaced Click. Crane will continue spending the money necessary to win. But the farm system, damaged by the forfeitures of four top picks, is not what it once was, ranking No. 26 in Baseball America’s midseason rankings. And the team’s reputation, both within the industry and among rival fans, would remain suspect.

Crane evidently doesn’t care. Maybe he shouldn’t care. But his handling of Click is another unfortunate episode for a franchise that has had too many under his ownership, a franchise that should be basking in the glow of its untainted World Series title. It would be difficult to blame Click if he told Crane to stick his offer you-know-where.

(Top photo of James Click: Bob Levey / Getty Images)

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