The Astros wrapped up the top seed in the American League last night, having already secured 102 wins. It’s Houston’s second straight AL West title and third playoff appearance in as many years under general manager James Click and skipper Dusty Baker. The Astros have advanced at least as far as the AL Championship Series in each of the past two seasons, and the AL road to the World Series will again run through Houston.
Given that immense success, it’d seem to go without saying that Houston was satisfied with the franchise’s trajectory. However, both Click and Baker are in the final year of their contracts, and some uncertainty about the organization’s leadership future looms. Click signed a three-year deal when he took over baseball operations in February 2020, while the club inked Baker to a one-year extension last offseason. Owner Jim Crane told Mark Berman of Fox 26 (Twitter link) last month he’s “aware both contracts are up and we’ll address them at the end of the season.”
While there’s no questioning the team’s on-field success, it does not seem a mere formality that both Click and Baker will be retained. During an appearance on the Houston Chronicle’s Texas Sports Nation podcast last weekend (Twitter link), Chandler Rome noted the contract status for Click and Baker “has been a topic that has been whispered about in the Astros organization, people both in and out of the clubhouse, since the beginning of the season.” Rome added that, particularly in Click’s case, “everybody that I talk to (emphasizes) that this is not just a rubber-stamp thing. This is not just, ’we’re going to extend him and everyone’s going to be happy and be merry.’ There is some real speculation, some real intrigue, that James Click is not going to be back with the Astros after this season.”
Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic examined the situation yesterday, writing that some friction between Crane and Click could explain the organization’s hesitance to hand him a long-term extension. According to Rosenthal, Crane has taken on a very active role in baseball operations and tends to favor more bold additions than Click, whose approach to the roster is generally more restrained. Rosenthal notes that Click and Baker sometimes differ on the extent to which analytics should be integrated into in-game decisions but suggests that’s not as notable as whatever divide there may be between Click and Crane.
Both Click and Baker were brought in under unexpected circumstances. After the extent of the Astros’ 2017 sign-stealing operation was made public during the 2019-20 offseason, MLB handed down suspensions for then-GM Jeff Lunhow and manager A.J. Hinch. Houston promptly fired both after the league’s investigation. Crane tabbed Baker as Hinch’s replacement, then hired Click out of the Rays front office a few days later. It was a reversal of the typical course of action, in which the front office head plays a key role in deciding on the manager.
Crane has maintained he had no knowledge of the team’s sign-stealing operation. It’s not clear whether he’s subsequently taken on a more active role in baseball operations as a direct response to the fallout from that scheme. Either way, Rosenthal writes that “Crane does not trust Click the way he trusted Luhnow, with whom he worked for eight seasons.”
To be clear, neither Rome nor Rosenthal suggests Click’s or Baker’s time in the organization is definitively nearing its end. The two have adeptly led the team past the sign-stealing fallout with little drop-off in performance. They’re as well-positioned as any club (aside from perhaps the Dodgers) to make a deep postseason run in 2022. Both Rome and Rosenthal point out that it’d seem unlikely Crane makes any changes at the top if the Astros find playoff success this year, particularly if they win the World Series.
It’s nevertheless notable that questions persist given the consistent excellence the Astros have maintained for the past three years. If ownership does decide to tie Click’s and/or Baker’s future to the results of this year’s postseason, there’d be a lot riding on the extremely small sample of a playoff series. That’s not a great way to make decisions of this magnitude, but the reported tension in the Minute Maid Park offices will at least lead to some speculation about the franchise’s direction until Click’s and Baker’s situations are decided at year’s end.