The Houston Astros are moving on from general manager James Click just days after winning the World Series. Team owner Jim Crane announced the news Friday after reportedly offering Click just a one-year contract.
Click, formerly an executive with the Tampa Bay Rays, was hired in early 2020 in the aftermath of the sign-stealing scandal, replacing suspended and fired GM Jeff Luhnow. Click maintained the Astros' era-dominating run of success through the turmoil and suspicion. The team reached the postseason each year, and twice made it to the World Series, emerging victorious this season.
ESPN's Jeff Passan reports Click, 44, declined a one-year contract offer from Crane, which would have thrust him back into the lame duck status he and manager Dusty Baker worked under in 2022.
“We are grateful for all of James’ contributions,” Crane said in a statement. “We have had great success in each of his three seasons, and James has been an important part of that success. I want to personally thank him and wish him and his family well moving forward.”
Despite Crane's words, the actions of offering a champion GM a one-year deal say something different: He did not really want Click to run the team.
Click wasn't the only executive to part with the Astros on Friday, either. Assistant general manager Scott Powers was fired, too, according to ESPN's Jeff Passan.
The break in the Houston front office caps a bizarre progression behind the scenes of baseball's newly crowned champs. Click and Baker's uncertain status for 2023 was already raising eyebrows in the middle of the playoffs. The Philadelphia Phillies, for instance, took the interim tag off of manager Rob Thomson and gave him a two-year contract on Oct. 10, in the middle of a successful postseason run. Crane and the Astros went all the way through a 106-win season and World Series run without securing the services of far more proven leaders in Click and Baker.
What led to rift between Astros' Jim Crane, James Click?
October reports hinted at a vague rift between Click and Crane, but the World Series champs not retaining the top baseball executive for the following season is unprecedented in the contemporary, front-office-centric history of the sport. The last top baseball executive to depart a World Series winner before the beginning of the following season was the Yankees' Larry MacPhail in 1947 — the product of an incident during the celebration where he drunkenly punched a writer, among other antics.
The closest comparison might be ... Dave Dombrowski, the current president of baseball operations for the Phillies team the Astros just beat. Boston Red Sox owner John Henry fired Dombrowski in late 2019, less than a year after winning the 2018 World Series, and quickly hired executive Chaim Bloom to steer the team in a vastly different, cost-conscious direction that included trading Mookie Betts.
It's less apparent what owner motivations might be behind this change.
Click largely kept the Astros moving in the same direction established by Luhnow. They built a great deal of their team internally, particularly through success in the player development department, and steered clear of major long-term deals. Their key external additions have largely been of the short-term (retaining Justin Verlander) or mid-tier variety, but they kept winning despite the exits of George Springer, Gerrit Cole and, most recently, Carlos Correa. They made an offer to Correa, but ultimately saw him walk away, only to install rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña and watch him win World Series MVP.
Industry speculation relayed by The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal in October focused on Click's decision to beef up the front office and scouting staff beyond Luhnow's lean operation. It also mentioned that Crane has leaned more on former players in his circle, including Jeff Bagwell and Reggie Jackson.
Click continued representing the Astros at the GM meetings this week despite the lack of a contract. When Crane called a news conference Wednesday, an initial report indicated it was to announce the return of both Baker and Click, but Click quickly told reporters he did not have a new deal.
"We are having discussions right now," Click said, per ESPN. "I think anytime that you're having discussions it means that it's not complete."
Click told ESPN he was hopeful he would return to Houston, but didn't deny some philosophical differences with Crane, a hands-on owner who reportedly quashed a deadline deal that would have brought Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras to the Astros.
"We're different," Click said to ESPN. "Jim is — well, look, let me clarify. There's some things that we do very differently. There's some things that we are very lined up on and that's going to be true of any relationship between a boss and an employee. I think he likes to act very quickly. In certain cases, I tend toward a more deliberate approach. He is very demanding, but he also gives you the resources to accomplish what he tasks you to do."
Who will lead Astros front office now?
Click's exit suddenly raises a rather important question: Who will take over MLB's most consistently successful organization? And can they keep it going?
Heavily scrutinized and widely disliked because of the sign-stealing scandal and other cynical, off-putting moves in the Luhnow era, the Astros front office has undeniably built a winner. In the aftermath of MLB's report on the scandal — which questioned whether Houston had created a toxic culture — Crane hired Click from the Rays to stabilize the operation.
The fact that he did that ... and won a World Series ... but wasn't rewarded with a contract commitment, will raise big questions for anyone considering taking the job. Is Crane looking for more influence? Is he asking for a smaller front office?
Even with those questions, it likely ranks among baseball's most coveted jobs. Star position players like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez are already signed to team-friendly extensions. Others, like Kyle Tucker, Peña and most of the starting rotation, are under team control for two or more seasons.
Several important Astros baseball leaders — who could have reasonably been viewed as candidates for the post — departed over the past two months. Longtime Astros executive Pete Putila left for the San Francisco Giants GM job, which falls under president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi in the decision-making hierarchy. Oz Ocampo, an international scouting whiz who received a lot of credit for discovering key players in the Astros rotation, took an assistant GM job with the Miami Marlins.
The most obvious name immediately up for consideration will be David Stearns. He stepped down as Milwaukee Brewers president of baseball operations in late October, surprising the baseball world and fueling speculation that he intended to jump ship for the New York Mets. The same suspicion will resurface now, but in relation to the Astros. He worked in the Houston front office under Luhnow before taking over the Brewers.
Stearns remains under contract with the Brewers, and any attempt to hire him would require permission from Milwaukee team owner Mark Attanasio. He has largely hedged on whether he would grant it, or what compensation the Brewers might seek if he did.
Luhnow — the architect of the Astros' tanking and return to contention — is currently working as a soccer executive, the only major figure who hasn't returned to the game following his suspension. Manager A.J. Hinch now helms the Detroit Tigers, then-bench coach Alex Cora returned to his job as manager of the Red Sox. Player Carlos Beltran, who lost the New York Mets manager job before presiding over a game, hasn't gotten another job with a team, but works in television. Luhnow downplayed any interest in returning to MLB when Sports Illustrated spoke to him earlier this year.