We almost made it through an entire season without a manager being fired, you guys. We had just one month to go!
Maybe that’s really the only surprising thing about the Houston Astros firing Bo Porter. At this point on the 2014 schedule, why not just let him finish out the season? But Porter was going to be fired. That became all but official when Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported last week that there were tensions between Porter and general manager Jeff Luhnow.
Prior to Rosenthal’s report, however, the presumption seemed to be that Porter’s job was safe. How could he possibly be fired, considering what Luhnow gave him to work with? No manager — no matter how experienced or innovative — was going to win with a roster stocked with developing players that might not even emerge into major league talents?
Luhnow and his front office took a wrecking ball to the Astros franchise, pummeling it to rubble with the intention of rebuilding the roster — and organization — brick-by-brick. It was a move long overdue for a team that tried to hang on to hopes of contending for several years, patching together rosters with aging veterans and role players. For the Astros to become a consistent winner again, they had to change their way of constructing a team, developing future standouts instead of relying on past stars whose primes had long faded.
Yet the extent to which the Astros took this rebuild surprised even those who thought starting over was a good idea. Last season, the team had an opening day payroll of $23 million, nearly $14 million less than the next closest MLB club. Five individual players were being paid more than the entire Astros roster, while three were making roughly the same figure. It’s difficult to even show a pretense of putting together a competitive team under those conditions.
Porter surely knew that his first season on the job — and likely his second — was going to be rough. But those years were going to be about development and discovery. Which players were really going to be part of the Astros’ future? To put it in grander terms, who would be on the next great Astros team?
However, perhaps Porter underestimated just how long this process was going to take or the steps that might be involved in overhauling the organization — and really, the typical way of doing business in MLB. Even if he was on board with Luhnow’s plan at the beginning, so many losses had to take a mental toll. Porter wasn’t seeing the daylight he needed to at the top of the hole as he kept trying to climb out with the players Luhnow was giving him.
So he began to chafe. Maybe the company line was no longer sounding like something he bought into. And maybe that led to reporters like Rosenthal learning about tensions between the field manager and front office.
That philosophy may have also become more difficult to justify to the players in the Astros clubhouse. When the team promoted Mark Appel from advanced Single-A to Double-A despite a 9.74 ERA, that irritated several players who felt Houston’s 2013 No. 1 pick hadn’t earned that reward. Those resentments were further inflamed when Appel threw a bullpen session at Minute Maid Park with pitching coach Brent Strom.
It was yet another crisis Porter had to manage, and he may well have wondered why the front office put him in such a position. Even if he understood that it was beneficial to have Appel evaluated by the major league coaching staff, was the decision worth alienating the players working hard to earn and keep their spots on the big league roster? And if the front office didn’t care about how Appel throwing a bullpen session in Houston would go over with the current team, Porter very likely felt that should have been a consideration.
Maybe Porter could deal with Luhnow overlooking how off-field decisions could create difficult scenarios for the manager to deal with. But if the general manager was being critical of how Porter was managing on the field, that’s a circumstance very few skippers — if any —would find acceptable.
This almost certainly goes to the central conflict between management and coaching staff in a situation like the Astros have created. Perhaps Luhnow wanted certain players to work on particular aspects of their game, in order to develop those skills. But that sort of in-game, on-the-job training often likely compromised the team’s ability to win a ballgame. And Porter wanted to win some games. How else was he going to show that the Astros were getting better on his watch? What sort of résumé would he be able to present to future employers?
A minor league manager surely understands that development is a priority over winning games. So if that means leaving a pitcher in who’s getting shelled because the organization wants him to throw a certain number of innings, build up arm strength, or work on certain pitches, the manager probably realizes that’s part of the job. But Porter wasn’t managing a minor league club, though the Astros roster could frequently be mistaken for one during the past two seasons.
It can’t have been a complete surprise to anyone that Porter was fired. We see this all the time in sports. Someone is hired at the initial stages of a team’s development to lead the team through those beginning stages. His record will almost certainly be terrible. And then a change is made because a new — preferably more experienced — coach is needed to get the team to “the next level.” Then that coach will probably be fired when it’s deemed necessary for a new leader to push a team through contention and toward a championship.
However, when Astros owner Jim Crane says that the team may be looking for more experience in a new hire, is he being delusional? Yes, of course Houston will find a new manager because there are only 30 of these jobs in existence and very few are likely to turn down such an opportunity. But the Astros have made it clear that a new manager will have to totally buy into what the front office is doing.
Can they find such a candidate outside the organization? Or will Luhnow have to make a hire like the Diamondbacks did in 2009 with A.J. Hinch? Hinch stepped from the front office into the dugout with no managerial experience. Naturally, he bought into what GM Josh Byrnes was trying to accomplish because he was a part of that process. Byrnes called it “organizational advocacy.” The players in the D-Backs clubhouse probably had another term for it that rhymes with “woolspit.”
Maybe interim manager Tom Lawless is that guy, since he’s been working in the minors. Maybe it’s new bench coach Adam Everett. Hinch didn’t even make it through his second season as Arizona’s manager, ultimately compiling an 89-123 record for teams that both finished in last place. “Singing the same song,” as Crane puts it, only goes so far sometimes.
Obviously, the Astros would like to avoid repeating that scenario. But has Luhnow made such an outcome all but inevitable? Maybe Porter wasn’t truly suited to be a major league manager. Yet how could he possibly be fairly judged from his tenure in Houston? Hopefully, Porter gets to find out what he can do in a different situation sometime in the future. However, Luhnow may have backed himself into a corner here.
And by firing Porter along with the other mishaps the organization has endured — such as having nearly a year’s worth of trade discussions leaked and failing to sign this year’s No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken and fifth-round pick Jacob Nix — Luhnow has now put himself and his job security under heavy scrutiny. He has Crane’s support for now, but how long will that last?
Thus far, at least the Astros have spared their fans the indignity of hiring one of the franchise’s former greats to manage the team with the hope of getting a pass while the team is terrible. You know, like the Tigers did with Alan Trammell from 2003 through 2005. Watch out, Craig Biggio. Maybe letting Adam Everett take one for the team is the way to go this time.