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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Finding a Path for a Talented but Shaken Franchise

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HOUSTON — From his spot in the stands down the left field line at Minute Maid Park two years ago, James Click could picture everything changing. The Houston Astros, the era’s dominant American League postseason team, were wobbling in the ninth inning, and Click was hoping they would fall.

Click is now the general manager of the Astros, who on Friday were trying to secure another pennant in Game 6 of the A.L. Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox here. In 2019, however, he was vice president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays, who loaded the bases with one out in the ninth inning of the second game of their division series. One more hit and the Rays could tie or take the lead.

Alas, the hit never came, and while the Rays would win twice at home, they lost the tight series in five games.

“If we actually come back and win Game 2, the entire narrative of that series and everything else really shifts fairly dramatically,” Click said in an interview on Friday. “It’s always weird to think about those sliding doors and those little things that can turn franchises.”

At that moment, nobody knew about the demon lurking behind one of those sliding doors. The Astros’ illegal sign-stealing scheme would be revealed after that 2019 season, ravaging their reputation and upending their leadership structure.

General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinch were suspended by Major League Baseball and fired by the Astros. After Dusty Baker was named to replace Hinch, the Astros chose Click to take over for Luhnow.

Click came to the Astros from Tampa Bay. In an earlier life he had worked for Baseball Prospectus. Credit…Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle, via Associated Press

Click inherited a team that won a tainted title in 2017, then lost in the A.L.C.S. in 2018 and lost in the World Series in 2019. Even with the players escaping punishment in exchange for cooperating with M.L.B.’s investigation, the franchise was deeply shaken.

“It’s hard to sum up how tumultuous last year was for this organization,” Click said. “You come in and you know what you’re dealing with, at least in terms of the P.R. aspect of things and the reputation of the organization and trying to turn that around.

“But the one thing I had to lean on was the fact that this was a very, very, very good baseball team. And almost always when these jobs are open, it’s because something needs fixing and something needs to be addressed. Normally that’s the major league roster, but in this case, it was not.”

With a 29-31 record in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the Astros did just enough to qualify for an expanded playoff field. They wound up losing in the A.L.C.S. to the Rays, and this season returned for the fifth consecutive time after handily winning the A.L. West.

Click strengthened this year’s bullpen with trades for Kendall Graveman and Phil Maton in July. Maton arrived from Cleveland in exchange for Myles Straw, who was the Astros’ regular center fielder. That opened the position for the prospects Chas McCormick, Jake Meyers and Jose Siri, who had floated through three organizations before the Astros signed him to a minor-league contract last December.

Siri, 26, reached the majors in September, hit .304 and started two of the first five A.L.C.S. games in center field.

A series of moves by Click led to the team trading its center fielder, Myles Straw, for a reliever. That opened the door for Jose Siri, above, who has played well for Houston. Credit…Paul Rutherford/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

“He has as much natural talent and ability as any player out there — just a superior athlete,” Click said. “He can run, throw, hit for power. When you have a guy like that, who has already been through a couple of organizations, as a minor league free agent with that much talent, sometimes it begs questions. We did our homework and tried to get to know him as a person, but ultimately, we’re betting on the talent and in our ability to hopefully tweak a few things and really harness what he has.”

While the core of the Astros was in place when Click arrived, he had some decisions to make. He ended up retaining two everyday players who reached free agency after last season, signing outfielder Michael Brantley for two years and first baseman Yuli Gurriel for one year, plus a 2022 option. Gurriel won the A.L. batting title at .319, with Brantley second at .311.

An even more significant contributor, shortstop Carlos Correa, will be a free agent after the season. Correa will most likely seek to top Francisco Lindor’s record contract for a shortstop ($341 million for 10 years with the Mets), and the Astros — who let outfielder George Springer leave for Toronto last winter — may have flexibility in their payroll. The contracts of their two highest-paid players, pitchers Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, expire after the season.

“It is not something that I have spent a lot of time focusing on,” Click said of Correa’s contract. “We are really laser-focused on just trying to win tonight’s game and trying to win a World Series. We are hoping to have a very short off-season, but we’ll get to that when we have to.”

The enormous question looming over Click this off-season will be what to do about Carlos Correa. The star shortstop has had a terrific all-around season, but he is likely to command a contract in excess of $300 million in free agency.Credit…Elsa/Getty Images

Correa’s status will have a major impact on shaping the future of the Astros, who forfeited their first- and second-round draft choices in 2020 and 2021 as part of their punishment for the sign-stealing scandal. But so will the vision of Click, who started his career as a writer for Baseball Prospectus.

Surrounded there by bright young outsiders — several of whom have gone on to work for teams — Click said he learned to think critically and challenge conventional wisdom. He spent 14 years with the Rays before joining the Astros, and he said he hoped to blend his experiences in Tampa Bay with the best aspects of a successful Houston organization that still, sometimes, evokes suspicion.

Another championship, in theory, could convince fans and rivals that the Astros, despite their past cheating, have been a legitimately great team. Click isn’t waiting on such validation.

“I still think there’s a large contingent of people out there that, you know, their minds are probably never going to be changed,” Click said. “And that’s fine. That’s not our focus. That’s not what we’re playing for.”

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