McLane Hindering Astros' Turnaround

Dan McArdleContributor ISeptember 28, 2009

HOUSTON - MAY 2:  Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane gestures as he comments outside the Bob Casey U.S. Courthouse during the midday break of the fraud and conspiracy trial of former Enron executives Kenneth Lay and Jeff Skilling May 2, 2006 in Houston, Texas. McLane has been called as a character witness for Lay.  (Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images)

Major League Baseball in late September might be a warm-up act for the Fall Classic, but it isn't without its own theatrics on and off the field.

Prospects have had their cups of coffee, some are turning heads. A few teams are still dogging it out for playoff spots. And some organizations just can't wait until after the 162nd game to run a skipper out of town, buying into the notion that end-of-summer managerial shake-ups have measurable effects.

Two years ago, Drayton McLane's club had clearly lost its momentum towards being an annual playoff contender. The inroads that led to the Houston Astros' 2005 National League pennant had crumbled, and the team's owner had seen enough by the end of August.

So, McLane axed both his field manager, Phil Garner, and his general manager, Tim Purpura, with just over a month remaining in the season—in order to breathe new life into the struggling 'stros and to get them to "play more like a champion."

Two years later, the Astros are right back where they started—and McLane hasn't found a remedy for his itchy finger.

Once-interim manager Cecil Cooper, retained throughout a vastly improved 2008 campaign and nearly all of this season, was dismissed last week. No surprise there, with Houston's pitching still abysmal and bearing no resemblance to the lights-out trio of Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens from the pennant year.

But Cooper now becomes the third in a string of managers—first Jimy Williams, then Garner—to have his final season abridged, given the boot by McLane's hopes of another "fresh start."

Sure, current GM Ed Wade officially made the personnel move, and the corresponding promotion of third-base coach Dave Clark to interim manager. However, McLane's proclivity to be an excessively hands-on owner casts doubt on whether Wade is not simply doing his boss' bidding.

“Unfortunately, I got to a point where it was appropriate to make this change and make it now," Wade said of the decision to fire Cooper. "It gives us a couple of weeks to go ahead and evaluate some other facets of our operation at the field level and hopefully use that time to try to make the right decisions going forward."

One must wonder, though, how a general manager's ability to 'evaluate some other facets' of the team could possibly be hindered by a lame-duck manager riding out the final two weeks of the season.

And when the buzz of likely candidates for the permanent managerial post includes names like Jim Fregosi (last managed a game in 2000), Manny Acta (ousted by Washington in mid-July after going 26-61; overall winning percentage with Nats—true, it's a tough gig—was .385 through two-plus seasons), and Al Pedrique (22-61 in 'mopping up' Bob Brenley's mess in Arizona in 2004), the prospects of making 'the right decisions' appear to be headed in the wrong direction.

Looking beyond Fregosi, Acta, and Pedrique, the dark horse possibilities are rumored to include—you guessed it—none other than the old Killer B's themselves, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Nostalgic fans might approve, but ushering in Bags or Biggs could prove even more disastrous than the Cecil Cooper experiment.

For an owner that also said of the embattled Clemens in February '08, "I think Roger, long term, can be an asset to the Houston Astros," it's difficult to put any scenario past the McLane and Wade tandem.

'Gradual downward spiral'

All-Star first baseman Lance Berkman, arguably today's face of the franchise, summed up the team's performance over the past few seasons as a "gradual downward spiral." And few would argue with his summation.

Before 2007 (and omitting the anomaly of the fourth-place finish by Larry Dierker's team in 2000), the Astros had not closed out a season worse than second in the standings since 1993. Names like Ken Caminiti, Derek Bell, Brad Ausmus, Moises Alou, Richard Hidalgo, Morgan Ensberg, Willy Tavaras, Darryl Kile, Billy Wagner, Wade Miller, Shane Reynolds, Roy Oswalt, and Brad Lidge—and of course the B's, Clemens, and Pettitte—decorated a batch of highly competitive ball clubs. And while none of these players were eventually fitted for World Series championship rings as Astros, something was working in Houston.

Whether or not it was the genius leadership of Terry Collins, Dierker, Williams, or Garner that gave Houston its new found competitive edge, the hiring of Cooper was puzzling for a team that surely had other options in late-August '07.

If it was a minority candidate they were pursuing, Dusty Baker was available. His present-day candidacy notwithstanding (Baker's Cincinnati Reds are on pace for a dismal finish nearly identical to last season), the former Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants skip was likely the best of available—and experienced—minority options.

He had produced a pattern of declining results with Chicago, but Baker's resume still boasted an NL pennant. His arrival in Cincinnati, a franchise solidly stuck in the bottom half of the NL Central Division for the past decade, should indicate that McLane must have given little, if any, consideration to hiring Baker. (It was Baker's 2004 Cubs that nearly outpaced Houston for a wild-card berth).

New direction down the same path?

Should Houston elect to keep Clark on as manager next season, it wouldn't necessarily spell doom. Clark has taken separate teams in separate organizations to championships at the minor league level. But handing the reins to Coop's former third base coach would fly in the face of McLane's public quest for a new direction. It might also signal a tendency for Houston to shy away from consideration of minority candidates from outside the organization.

For a team with a payroll nearly exceeding $103 million this year, looking outside the box for a proven winner shouldn't be that cumbersome. If the Rockies were able to land Jim Tracy mid-season, surely the 'stros could have enticed his predecessor, Clint Hurdle.

Taking a chance on the aforementioned Acta isn't the worst move imaginable—not even Joe Torre would be able to whip the Nats into shape. The outspoken, occasional firecracker Lloyd McClendon could also prove to be a good fit in the home dugout at Minute Maid Park. He posted no record of success in Pittsburgh, but neither has anyone before or since besides Jimmy Leyland. McClendon was also the last manager to post 70-plus wins—three years straight—for the Bucs.

The Astros have effectively swapped places with the Milwaukee Brewers as a team entrenched near the bottom of the NL Central. For a team that ascended to the World Series a short time ago, and had staying power for over a decade—unlike the short-lived thrills of the Marlins, Rays, Rockies, etc.—something has gone awry. Point to the collective age of marquee players (most of whom are in their mid-30s), the inadequate flow of talent from the farm system, or an uninspiring skipper (Cooper).

Or point to the hierarchy at the top. While it's not entirely probable that McLane is as omnipotent as George Steinbrenner once was for the New York Yankees, it is apparent that one or more forces—perhaps McLane and Tal Smith (former interim GM and current President of Baseball Operations)—remain over-involved. As long as decisions are coming from that end, a "fresh start" might continue to last only through the interim.


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