The Houston Astros, the greatest team in baseball the past three years, woke up Tuesday morning, looked in the mirror, and gasped at the sight.
The makeup has come off, their hair is now gray and balding, their six-pack has turned into a beer gut, and their face is pockmarked with pimples.
The Astros, winners of 311 games, a World Series and two American League pennants, the last three years, are reporting to spring training in four weeks as the most vulnerable team in the game.
They must find a new GM to replace Jeff Luhnow, a new manager to replace A.J. Hinch, and leadership to recover from the greatest cheating scandal since the BlackSox in 1919.
Astros owner Jim Crane, infuriated by Major League Baseball’s findings, made sure that Luhnow and Hinch will never be back, firing them atop their one-year suspensions by MLB, and now is scouring the baseball earth for instant help.
Astros outfielder George Springer is part of the young core in Houston. (Photo: Brad Mills, USA TODAY Sports)
The easiest transition would be to simply promote bench coach Joe Espada, who was the runner-up for the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants openings this winter, but officials with direct knowledge told USA TODAY Sports the Astros instead plan to open an outside search.
Espada was with the New York Yankees in 2017 when the Astros were cheating throughout the season and playoffs, but he also was Hinch’s bench coach when the Astros were also cheating during part of the 2018 season, according to commissioner Rob Manfred’s investigation.
So how can you fire Hinch, and then hire someone who was also aware, if not directly involved, when the cheating scheme continued into the 2018 season?
Bruce Bochy, the three-time World Series champion manager who was drafted and played three years for the Astros in his playing career, would be the natural choice, but he told USA TODAY that he plans to hit the “pause button,’’ and continue his plans to sit out the 2020 season.
Dusty Baker, who led the Washington Nationals to two consecutive NL East titles in his last two years as manager, is available and interested in the position. So are former managers John Gibbons and Buck Showalter, each who reside in Texas. Or they could turn to Atlanta Braves third base coach Ron Washington, the former Texas Rangers manager who nearly was hired as the San Diego Padres’ manager this winter, or Yankees third base coach Phil Nevin.
The Astros will begin their managerial interview process soon, and at the same time, decide whether they will promote from within for their GM opening or choose from the outside, with dozens of former GMs and powerful candidates all salivating for the opportunity.
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“I think it's a very good job,’’ Crane said. “I think a lot of people would want to come in here and step into that position. We'll quickly look for someone to manage the team, and then look at the baseball operations.
“We have a number of capable guys that can run that operation. A number of them were interviewed for GM spots, one in particular (assistant GM Pete Putila). We'll sit down and start working on that and move as quickly as we can.”
Yet, no matter who comes aboard, and no matter how much experience they have, the transition could be painful. The Astros never hired an assistant GM after firing Brandon Taubman in October after his profane tirade towards female reporters after winning the American League pennant. President Reid Ryan was fired after the season with Crane’s son, Jared being groomed to take over the business side.
“It is very clear to me that the culture of the (Astros’) baseball operations department,’’ Commissioner Rob Manfred wrote in the investigative report, “manifesting itself in the way its employees are treated, its relations with other clubs and its relations with the media and external stakeholders, has been very problematic.’’
Damning words, and why the Astros could have a lengthy search for a GM, hiring their manager first. They need a manager who cannot only heal a wounded clubhouse, but limit the distractions with the Astros becoming a traveling circus wherever they go.
They better brace themselves because they will be lustily booed and taunted in visiting ballparks throughout the land. Chants of “Cheaters,’’ will ring in their ears. They’ll be openly scorned by their peers. And their performances will be heavily scrutinized wondering how much of their previous stats were inflated by the cheating scandal.
“Can we recover?’’ Crane said. “Absolutely. I think we have a great organization. We’ll have a great team still.”
The core of the position players will be back with All-Stars Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve, George Springer and Alex Bregman. The staff will be anchored by Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke. But they did lose co-ace Gerrit Cole and prized reliever Will Harris.
The Astros’ window for playing deep into October could also be closing much quicker with the loss of first- and second-round draft picks in 2020 and 2021, as punishment in the cheating scandal. The impact won’t be felt for years, but it will be painful. Look at the Astros’ roster, it is filled with first-round picks with Springer, Correa, Bregman and young outfielder Kyle Tucker. That type of young talent will be gone by the time they pick, with their draft bonus pool will be slashed. They won’t be making their first pick until 72nd this year.
“I'm still optimistic,’’ Crane said. “This thing is deep here. We had one of the best baseball operations in the business and got a lot of great results. That didn’t happen with one or two people. That happened with a lot of good people, and so we’ll move forward to handle that in a very professional manner.’’
There will be immediate checks and balances put in place with a compliance program. No more deception. No more lying. And no more cheating.
“We need to move forward,’’ Crane said, “with a clean slate. The Astros will become a stronger organization because of this. You can be confident that we’ll always do the right thing and will not have this happen again on my watch.”
Now, we’ll see if the Astros ever win another World Series on Crane’s watch.
Just how good are the Astros are without the cheating?
And just how much of their past glory was a fake?
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
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