The Astros are playing dirty pool with a top prospect

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We know this is how it works. Phenoms get fewer September callups than they used to, and they rarely debut on Opening Day. Instead, it’s June that’s become the popular time for debuts, all in the name of delaying arbitration and free agency eligibility.

On the one hand, it kind of sucks: much of the fun in each new season comes from watching players burst on to the scene. On the other, it’s really hard to blame teams for playing in this way when the rewards are so obvious.

Sometimes, though, it’s a lot easier to blame teams. Take the Houston Astros and center fielder George Springer. Springer, the 11th overall pick in the 2011 draft out of the University of Connecticut, hit .302/.383/.526 with 24 homers and 32 steals in his first full pro season in 2012, with the big caveats that he struck out 156 times in 581 plate appearances and 80 percent of his season was spent at Single-A Lancaster, annually one of or the most explosive environments for offense in the minors.

So, there was still some reason for skepticism last year. Springer, though, answered all doubters in hitting .297/.399/.579 in 73 games in Double-A and then .311/.425/.626 in 62 games in Triple-A. In all, he hit 37 homers, drove in 108 runs and swiped 45 bases in 53 attempts. He was the first 30 HR-30 SB player in the minors since Oakland’s Grant Desme in 2009. He did strike out 161 times in 589 plate appearances, so he’s not exactly the perfect prospect. But it was the kind of performance that certainly should have earned him a major league audition.

Except, of course, he never got one.

While Springer was dominating the PCL, the Astros were going 51-111 and posting the worst record in baseball for the third straight season. Their center fielders ended up hitting .218/.270/.314 with eight homers on the season. The were successful on just 10 of 24 steal attempts. They struck out 187 times. And it’s not like the team had much going on in left field or right field, either.

Springer, though, was denied a September callup as Brandon Barnes and Trevor Crowe (both now departed) finished up the season in center. GM Jeff Luhnow lied through his teeth in November, saying Springer wasn’t called up because of 40-man roster issues.

In the offseason, the Astros acquired Dexter Fowler to play center. The official word entering this spring was that Springer could still win a job. However, everyone knew that was exceedingly unlikely. The plan all along has been to keep in the minors until June, delaying his free agency for a year.

Now, all of this is pretty typical. It’s no secret what the Astros were doing, and we’re all kind of used to this kind of thing. Personally, I had more of a problem with it than the typical delayed callup for two reasons. First, because Springer was simply so outstanding in the minors last season that he obviously earned his promotion; there would have been absolutely no question about it if not for the service time issues. Second, Springer turned 24 last September. It’s one thing to play this game with 20- and 21-year-olds. Springer, though, wouldn’t have been eligible for free agency for the first time until age 30 even had the Astros called him up in September. Now he won’t get to choose his own path until age 31.

Still, that’s the way it’s done. So, even though the thought crossed my mind and my twitter feed a few times, I never did voice my displeasure on the blog. At least not until FOXSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal dropped a bombshell on Wednesday.

Sources told Rosenthal that the Astros offered Springer a seven-year, $23 million contract last September. The obvious, obvious implication being “you sign this and we’ll give you your callup.” After all, once the Astros have Springer signed to the bargain deal, there’s no longer any reason to play games with his service time.

This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. In 2008, Evan Longoria was sent down by the Rays prior to Opening Day, even though it seemed obvious that he was the team’s best option at third base. Just a couple of weeks later, though, on April 12, he got a surprise callup. Six days later, his six-year, $17.5 million contract with the Rays was officially announced. Unofficially, agreeing to the deal meant he got to spend the rest of the season in the majors. It made him pretty much the biggest bargain in baseball until Mike Trout came along

Springer wasn’t interested in playing ball with the Astros, even though it would have gotten him to the majors three months earlier. And it was absolutely the right call, given that the Astros not only wanted him to give up all three arbitration years but also a year of free agency. Jacoby Ellsbury is about to make $21 million this year in his seventh big-league season. The Astros wanted to pay Springer barely more than that for seven seasons combined. Even though it’s $23 million guaranteed for a player who hasn’t set foot in the majors yet, it simply wasn’t a competitive offer.

I might even consider it extortion.

Thankfully, Rosenthal is taking the Astros to task over this, wondering how Springer is worth $23 million but not a spot on Houston’s still lackluster roster. The Astros declined to comment.

I’m not going to be as polite about it as Rosenthal (I rarely am). What the Astros are doing here is shameful. I know there are a lot of good people in that organization. They’ve hired a number of stathead favorites and other people I respect. And they’re certainly doing a lot of things right to turn their organization around.

But they’re doing this very, very wrong. If nothing else, they’re sending a terrible message to the rest of their prospects. Why should Carlos Correa and Mark Appel bother trying their hardest this year if they feel the Astros won’t promote them before June 2015 anyway?

And Springer certainly deserves better. It’s possible he’ll come up in June and struggle, and the team will start talking about how he wasn’t ready previously. And maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he isn’t. Heck, maybe he’ll be a bust and it’ll turn out that the Astros needlessly delayed a useless player’s free agency.

Springer, though, earned his opportunity. And he would have gotten it, if only he’d been willing to sellout. Good for him that he wasn’t. Shame on Luhnow and company for putting him in that position.

Astros owner Crane expects to hire new manager by Feb. 3

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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston Astros owner Jim Crane expects to hire a new manager by Feb. 3.

The Astros need a new manager and general manager after AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were fired Monday, hours after both were suspended by Major League Baseball for a year for the team’s sign-stealing scandal.

Crane said Friday that he’s interviewed a number of candidates this week and has some more to talk to in the coming days.

Crane refused to answer directly when asked if former Astros player and Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was a possibility for the job. But he did say that he had spoken to Biggio, fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell and former Astros star Lance Berkman in the days since the firings.

“We’ve talked to all of our Killer B’s,” Crane said referring to the nickname the three shared while playing for the Astros. “They’ve contacted me and they’ve all expressed that they would like to help. Berkman, Bagwell, Biggio have all called and said: ‘hey, if there’s anything I can do, I’m here for you.’”

“So we’ll continue to visit with those guys and see if there’s something there.”

Crane says his list is still rather extensive and that he hopes to have it narrowed down by the end of next week. He added that he expects most of Hinch’s staff to stay in place regardless of who is hired.

Crane has enlisted the help of three or four employees to help him with the interview process, including some in Houston’s baseball operations department.

“We compare notes,” he said. “I’ve learned a long time ago that you learn a lot if four or five people talk to a key candidate and you get a lot more information. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Crane’ top priority is finding a manager with spring training less than a month away, but he said he would start focusing on the search for a general manager after he hires a manager. He expects to hire a GM before the end of spring training.

“We should have another good season with the team pretty much intact … so I don’t know why a manager wouldn’t want to come in and manage these guys,” he said. “They’re set to win again.”

The penalties announced by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday came after he found illicit use of electronics to steal signs in Houston’s run to the 2017 World Series championship and again in the 2018 season. The Astros were also fined $5 million, which is the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution, and must forfeit their next two first- and second-round amateur draft picks.

The investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s odds of getting a hit.

With much still in flux, Crane was asked what qualities are most important to him in his next manager.

“Someone mature that can handle the group,” he said. “Someone that’s had a little bit of experience in some areas. We’ve just got to find a leader that can handle some pressure and there’s going to be a little bit of pressure from where this team has been in the last few months.”

Despite his comment about experience, Crane said having been a major league manager before is not mandatory to him.

“We made some mistakes,” he said. “We made a decision to let that get behind us. We think the future is bright. We’ll make the adjustments … people think we’re in crisis. I certainly don’t believe that.”