Throughout this series, the underlying message is that James Click was a successful General Manager. To casual observers, that would seem obvious. His team made the World Series in the second year of his tenure and won the World Series in his third and final year.
And yet, he was effectively fired. Apparently, for right or wrong, better or worse, he was the victim of internal politics, of having a vision at odds with the other power centers within the Astros organization.
James Click was generally a minimalist in an organization known for boldness and even revolutionary change. Thus, he is open to criticism that by doing so little of major consequence, he was merely reaping the rewards of institutional success created by his predecessor.
But as I stated in the first part of this series, not taking action when that is appropriate is a form of action. Look at the bold action taken by many of his colleagues, the GMs of the Yankees, Mets, Padres, Phillies: and even the Rangers. Then look at who landed on the top of this heap.
The conservative approach to player acquisition and retention was a philosophy that Click, no doubt, brought with him from Tampa, arguably one of the best-run and most successful franchises in baseball dollar for dollar. But according to some reporting, Click was viewed as not aggressive enough by owner Jim Crane. Still, he did a lot to rebuild the Astros' pitching staff, especially the bullpen, and of course, he helped bring home a second World Series trophy.
But I would argue that the real legacy of James Click is not so much the success he had while he was here but rather how he set the Astros up for continued success in the future. Teams not known as the Yankees or Dodgers almost never win World Series and then compete in League Championship or World Series for the next five years. Click kept that window open for all three of his years, but more importantly, he has kept it open for at least two or three more years into the future.
Under Click, the Astros won the World Series with the eighth-largest payroll in baseball at about $183 million, about $70 million less than numbers 1 and 2 the Dodgers and Mets, respectively, with the Yankees and Phillies not far behind. Very Tampaesque.
So while adding bullpen help and retaining some stars like Michael Brantley and Justin Verlander, Click (and who knows what the owner’s influence was in these decisions) decided to let two superstars of the rebuild-era walk.
Who doesn’t wish the Astros still had George Springer and Carlos Correa? But by saving the money that would have been spent on those free-agent contracts, the Astros are in a better position to remain competitive in the future. Let’s look at the impact of each move.
George Springer has done with Toronto what he did with Houston. An OPS+ of 135 in two seasons compared to a career average of 131. And he has averaged 3.3 fWAR on a salary of $26.7 million per year. So he has achieved what is considered the going rate for free agents in terms of production per dollar: about $8 million per WAR. He will be 33 this year with four more years left on his contract.
The Astros have not adequately replaced Springer with any one player even close to equivalent but have used a platoon system to fill the position, pretty much at the league minimum salary, saving about $25 million per year. Believe it or not, the Astros’ production at CF the last two years exceeds that of Springer (8.1 to 7.7), but to be fair, Springer played in only 210 out of 334 possible games these last two years. But isn’t the possibility of injury one of the reasons you don’t put all your eggs into one free-agent basket?
Who knows if George Springer could have brought a trophy home to Houston in 2021? But the Astros’ problem that year was a lack of pitching depth, a problem solved admirably by James Click in 2022 with the help of the signings of Justin Verlander, Hector Neris, and budget flexibility.
Considering that he was only 26 years old when he reached free agency, the decision to let Correa walk was probably more controversial than the decision to let Springer walk. He signed what was effectively a one-year contract with Minnesota for 2022 and re-signed for six years with an AAV of $33.3 million. Let’s use that as the cost to the Astros of keeping Correa.
After a slow start with the Twins, Correa had one of his better seasons batting, accruing a 140 wRC+ compared to a career average of 130. His fielding stats showed some decline, something predictable for a 6’4” shortstop heading into his 30’s. Consequently, his fWAR in 2022 was a respectable 4.4, but almost two points lower than in 2021, his best season. So for 2022, Correa cost the Twins $7.5 million per WAR. Not bad. And Correa did manage to stay on the field for 136 games, making two straight seasons with minimal injury problems, a bugaboo for Correa.
The Astros took a chance that rookie Jeremy Peña could fill a large part of the void left by Correa’s absence. And they were right. For league minimum, Peña contributed 3.4 fWAR, although his hitting was a league average 102 wRC+. And, of course, Peña made us forget the clutch playoff performances Correa often gave us, earning ALCS and WS MVP awards.
The bottom line is Correa would have cost the Astros about $30 million for one more win. Peña is three years younger than Correa and remains under team control until 2028.
By passing on Correa and Springer and saving about $60 million per year, the Astros have gotten younger at CF and SS without a massive drop in production, and they have enabled a number of other future assets, such as
- A team-friendly extension of massive slugger Yordan Alvarez, done by Click
- Re-signing Michael Brantley
- Signing Yuli Gurriel’s free agent replacement, Jose Abreu.
- Extending the Astros’ future Pedro Martinez, Cristian Javier
With money still available under the salary cap, the current Astros GM, Dana Brown, is discussing extensions with Kyle Tucker, Jose Altuve, Framber Valdez, and Alex Bregman.
And last year’s MLB-best pitching staff remains mostly under team control for at least two more years.
The Astros are in good shape, and with any luck, the future looks bright for the current World champions. And a least some of that credit goes to James Click.