By Ray Kuhn
Maybe Jim Crane can do it alone?
There is still a lot left to be determined in the 2022-23 MLB offseason, but the Houston Astros owner, and maybe now general manager (at least by default) has gotten off to a pretty good start. Granted, the team that Crane is working with picked up its second World Series trophy a few weeks ago and entered the offseason without any major holes. In fact, that one hole that Houston had, and tried to fill at this summer's trade deadline, was just addressed on Monday.
Before we get into that though, let us pause for a minute to take a look at how we got here.
Former general manager James Click was, in a sense, forced on Crane and the Astros. Houston had a perfectly good front office staff led by Jeff Luhnow, but other events rendered that moot and the Astros were forced to look for a replacement in the early months of 2021. They landed on Click, who while previously anonymous had spent a lot of time in the Tampa Bay front office and seemed to fit with the Astros' mindset. From a player personnel perspective, Click's main move was to sign Ryan Stanek in the offseason and then trade for Rafael Montero and Kendall Graveman during the season.
Ultimately, the Astros came up short in the 2021 World Series against Atlanta, but it was pretty difficult to argue with what we saw. Heading into this past season, Click kept things pretty much on the straight and narrow. His main acquisition was Héctor Neris, as he continued to work with all of the pieces that were in place and being developed. The organizational philosophy appeared to remain the same, but in hindsight, you have to wonder how much of that was truly due to Crane and not Click.
In part due to Michael Brantley's injury and also due to Yuli Gurriel's struggles (although he did have a solid postseason), the Astros were left missing one more bat. Click tried to trade for Willson Contreras at the deadline but was vetoed by manager Dusty Baker, and then Crane, before settling on Trey Mancini. There was never complete buy-in on Mancini, and he also failed to get his bat going, so the Astros ended up basically sticking with what they had.
While it was surprising to see the Astros part ways with Click after this year’s victory parade, I am not completely shocked either. There never really seemed to be a match, and the way Houston's front office was set up, it was always more of a collective group effort. Yes, Click took the Astros to two World Series, winning one, but the credit should really go more to Baker, the players, Luhnow, and others as all Click did was bring in a few key relievers. While we cannot underestimate the contributions of Montero, Stanek, and Neris, I am also not sure it is enough to stake a reputation on.
It is unclear what Crane's future plans for the front office are, but at this point he appears to be content running the show. While a few strong contributors did leave under Click, perhaps he was scared about having ready-made successors in place, the framework for continued success is there. And to begin this offseason, it is not like there really have been any issues, with Crane acting quickly to re-sign Montero while avoiding having to overreact and chase in the reliever market.
Monday though is when Crane really struck, as he brought former Chicago White Sox first baseman (and the 2020 American League MVP) José Abreu to town on a three-year contract worth approximately $60 million.
Abreu fills Houston's biggest hole, can be used at both first base and designated hitter, and was signed while fighting through a fairly healthy market. Abreu was clearly the best candidate to plug the hole Click was attempting to fill over the summer, as he is a strong and dependable bat and a revered veteran presence.
While the power is down -- he hit just 15 home runs last season after clobbering 30 the year prior -- Abreu still had 40 doubles and hit .304 on the season. The main thing that allows him to seamlessly fit in with the Astros is his low strikeout rate, which was just 16.2 percent in 2022. He is a consistent run producer who posted a 51.9 percent hard-hit rate last season, and even if he might be on a slight decline, there is still a lot to work with.
For a lot of Astros fans, Crane will be judged this winter on whether or not he brings back Justin Verlander, but given the team’s pitching depth, you could make the argument that, taking the emotions out of it, Abreu was the more important acquisition. We have a lot of offseason to go, and Crane already took care of two critical items before the Winter Meetings.
Ray Kuhn can be found writing on Fantasy Alarm and podcasting at Friends With Fantasy Benefits after previously covering the Houston Astros as part of the FanSided network at Climbing Tal’s Hill. Reach him on Twitter at @ray_kuhn_28 or email at email@example.com as he is always interested in talking or writing about our great game.