The Houston Astros are taking over from general manager James Klick just days after winning the World Series. Team owner Jim Crain made the announcement Friday after offering Click just a one-year contract.
Click, who previously served as the Tampa Bay Rays’ CEO, replaced GM Jeff Luhnow, who was fired in early 2020 amid a sign-stealing scandal. Click has maintained the Astros’ dominant record amid turmoil and suspicion. The team has reached the postseason every year and has reached the World Series twice, winning this season.
According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the 44-year-old Klick turned down a one-year contract offer from Crain that would have returned him to the lame-duck status he’s had with manager Dusty Baker through 2022.
“We appreciate all of James’ contributions,” Crain said in a statement. “We’ve had great success in each of his three seasons and James has been a big part of that success. I would like to personally thank him and wish him and his family well in the future.”
Despite Crain’s words, the fact that the giants are offering the GM a one-year deal says something else: He really didn’t want to run the Click team.
A break in Houston’s front office reveals a strange development behind the scenes for baseball’s newly crowned champions. The uncertainty of Click and Baker’s 2023 has already drawn attention in the middle of the playoffs. For example, the Philadelphia Phillies temporarily suspended manager Rob Thomson and signed him to a two-year contract on October 10 in the midst of a successful postseason run. Crain and the Astros survived a 106-win season and a World Series without the services of more proven leaders in Click and Baker.
Baker agreed earlier this week to return in 2023.
What was the rift between the Astros’ Jim Crain and James Click?
Reports in October hinted at an uncertain rift between Click and Crane, but it was unprecedented in the sport’s modern, front-office-centric history that the World Series champions failed to retain baseball’s best manager in the postseason. The last great baseball manager to retire a World Series winner before the start of the next season was the Yankees’ Larry McPhail in 1947, after a drunken hitting of a writer during a celebration and other antics.
The closest comparison is … Dave Dombrowski, current president of baseball operations for the Astros’ Phillies. Less than a year after winning the 2018 World Series, Boston Red Sox owner John Henry fired Dombrowski at the end of 2019 and quickly hired CEO Chaim Blum to lead the team in a completely different, cost-effective direction that included trading Mookie Betts.
It is unclear what the owner’s motivations might be behind this change.
Button was moving the Astros in the same direction that Luhnow set. They have built their squad in-house, particularly in the player development department, and avoided major long-term deals. Their key outfield additions were mostly shortstops (Justin Verlander was retained) or middle-of-the-pack, but they continued to win despite the departures of George Springer, Gerrit Cole and, most recently, Carlos Correa. They made an offer to Correa, but ultimately saw him walk away, subbing in rookie Jeremy Peña and watching him win the World Series MVP award.
Industry speculation relayed by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal in October focused on Click’s decision to upgrade the front office and scouting staff in addition to Luhnow’s actions. Crane also mentioned that he leaned more on former players in his circle, such as Jeff Bagwell and Reggie Jackson.
Despite the absence of a contract, Click represented the Astros in GM meetings this week. When Crain’s called a press conference on Wednesday, initial reports were to announce the return of both Baker and Click, but Click quickly told reporters that he had not signed a new contract.
“We’re in negotiations right now,” Click told ESPN. “I think you’re never going to have a full discussion.”
Click told ESPN he hopes he returns to Houston, but didn’t rule out some philosophical differences with owner Crain, who canceled the final deal to bring Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras to the Astros.
“We’re different,” Click told ESPN. “Jim is — well, look, let me clarify. There are some things that we do very differently. There are some things that we’re very compatible with, and that’s going to be true of any boss-employee relationship. I think that’s it. Very quick action. like to do. In some cases, I tend to be more deliberate. He’s very demanding, but he gives you the resources to do what you’re assigned to do.”
Who will lead the Astros front office now?
Click’s output suddenly raises a very important question: Who will take over MLB’s most consistently successful organization? And can they keep it up?
The Astros’ front office, which has drawn much scrutiny and public outrage over the Luhnow era’s sign-stealing scandal and other cynical and nefarious practices, has arguably emerged the winner. After MLB’s report on the scandal questioned whether Houston had fostered a toxic culture, Crane hired Click from Tsatsla to stabilize operations.
He did it … and won a World Series … but not being rewarded with a contract will raise big questions for anyone considering the job. Looking for more faucet impact? Is he asking for a small front office?
Even with those questions, it’s likely to be among the most coveted jobs in baseball. Star position players like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Jordan Alvarez have already signed team-friendly extensions. Kyle Tucker, Peña and most of the starting rotation have been under team control for two or more seasons.
Several key Astros baseball leaders who might have been in the running for the job have left over the past two months. Longtime Astros executive Pete Putila has left to join the San Francisco Giants GM under decision-making hierarchy president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. Oz Ocampo, the international scout widely credited with discovering key players in the Astros’ rotation, has joined the Miami Marlins as an assistant GM.
The most obvious name to immediately discuss is David Stearns. He resigned as president of baseball operations for the Milwaukee Brewers in late October, shocking the baseball world and fueling speculation that he was considering jumping ship to the New York Mets. The same suspicions will resurface now, but with the Astros. He worked in Houston’s front office under Luhnow before taking over the Brewers.
Stearns is still under contract with the Brewers, and any attempt to hire him would require the approval of Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio. He was very protective of whether he would grant itor if he did, what compensation the Brewers might seek.
Luhnow, the architect of the Astros’ tanking and return to contention, is currently the director of football and is the only major leaguer not to return to the game after his suspension. Manager AJ Hinch is now managing the Detroit Tigers, and then-innings coach Alex Cora has returned to his role as manager of the Red Sox. Carlos Beltran, who lost his job as manager of the New York Mets before taking over, has not been rehired by the team, but works in television. Luhnow played down interest in returning to MLB when Sports Illustrated spoke to him earlier this year.