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A couple of thoughts about the Astros’ sudden leadership vacancies

The firings of A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow undoubtedly leave the Astros scrambling only one month before Spring Training.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

At the time of this writing on my couch, the baseball world was about thirty-six hours removed from the heavy punishment levied by Major League Baseball against the Astros. We are now aware for the most part of what basically transpired behind the scenes with this particular sign-stealing operation (aka, the banging scheme). Spoiler alert: The Astros don’t come out smelling like roses as most of the baseball world anticipated in light of the original report published by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic late last year.

The punishment, as a whole, has a couple of different layers. First, there is the $5 million fine, which is the max allowed by the league constitution, to club owner Jim Crane’s pocketbook. The draft pick forfeiture for the next two drafts is another important topic, although it doesn’t exactly carry much in the way of immediate effects. Then there were the season-long suspensions in 2020 for both manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow along with former assistant general manager Brandon Taubman receiving his own punishment, with the caveat that he must seek the approval of commissioner Rob Manfred for reinstatement. For Hinch and Luhnow, their punishment concludes following the 2020 World Series. But as we all know by now, they won’t be members of the Astros when that suspension is over.

Outside of ownership, there isn’t a more important position in baseball when it comes to leadership other than manager and general manager. Well, in Luhnow’s case, he was also the president of baseball operations. Regardless, their sudden firings now leave the Astros in a precarious position to fill two important vacancies with only a month separating the offseason and Spring Training. Below are just some quick thoughts I have on this leadership situation and where the Astros can go from here.

  • Crane stated in his press conference on Monday that he’ll oversee the baseball operations department for the time being, but this development, in my mind, is likely to be a short-lived one. The lone assistant general manager, Pete Putila, will be mentioned as a candidate for the job. After all, he was interviewed by the Giants and Pirates earlier this offseason for their respective general manager positions. There is also no denying the impact Luhnow had on the sport from a front office standpoint on-the-field, so the Astros may want to keep some continuity there. But the culture within the front office was noted as a problem in the Commissioner’s report, although Crane did push back a bit on that point. Here’s a small tidbit about Putila: He was actually hired as an intern by Ed Wade in 2011, who was Houston’s general manager through that season.
  • On the other hand, the Astros could choose to distance themselves from the Luhnow era with their next general manager hiring. With the 2020 roster already set and much of the infrastructure still in place among the front office, Crane may take his time to pick his next head of baseball operations. An outside hire feels more and more like a distinct possibility as this news continues to digest. Unlike the time of Luhnow’s hiring, the next general manager won’t need to overhaul the front office. And most front offices in today’s environment are more homogenized than they were back in 2011.
  • For the role of manager, bench coach Joe Espada, who wasn’t with the Astros in 2017, is the presumptive favorite for at least the interim assignment. But the sign-stealing did extend through at least a portion of the 2018 season with Espada on that coaching staff. Again, Crane may wish to distance himself here, although Espada did interview for a couple of managerial positions earlier in the offseason. Repeat the same process for the potential bench coach replacement if Espada is named manager.
  • If the Astros choose to go outside the organization, there isn’t a lack of candidates. I’m just not sure if those already rumored online would be a worthwhile investment at this point in the year with most managerial vacancies already filled. Also, the new manager may wish to have their own coaches within the organization sooner rather than later, which is a difficult task to undertake logistically in January. But expect names like Dusty Baker, Bruce Bochy, Jeff Bannister, Andy Green, Ron Washington, Buck Showalter, and Brad Ausmus to pop up in the next few weeks, if Espada isn’t named manager.

In short, the Astros have a lot riding on this next pair of hires. Whoever is brought aboard will largely dictate how the club rebounds from this scandal. Crane has numerous options in front of him, although the timing is far from ideal. But, hey, self-inflicted wounds.