At the outset, allow me to say that none of this is a defense — or an indictment — of the Astros front office. I have no idea what really goes on there, and neither do you.
We have had reports in recent days that there was a lot of strife between fired manager Bo Porter and GM Jeff Luhnow. We have heard that there was dysfunction. But we don’t know how much dysfunction there truly has been. We don’t know if the strife between Luhnow and Porter was one guy’s fault or the other’s, although most of the time such things are a two-way street. We can likely expect to hear more about this in the coming days and, in all likelihood, sometime this offseason. It’s possible Houston is a nuthouse. It’s possible Porter and Luhnow simply didn’t get along in the way lots of GMs and managers don’t get along when teams lose a lot. Let’s wait and see about that.
But one thing I think that deserves some pushback at the moment is the notion — which I’ve seen creep up in the past 24 hours — that Bo Porter was somehow wronged in terms of how the Astros chose to rebuild. That he was sold a bill of goods about what his situation would be like or that he somehow had the rug pulled out from under him after he took the job.
The strongest argument in that regard comes in Buster Olney’s column this morning (sorry; ESPN Insider only). It starts out like this:
With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, we know a lot more about the position that Bo Porter signed up for in the fall of 2012, when he became manager of the Houston Astros. Whether he knew it or not at the time, this is what the job notice probably should’ve looked like . . .
After which Olney offers a lot of comments implying that it was unknown at the time that the Astros were going to have an extremely low payroll and run out a lot of not-ready-for-prime-time talent in the first couple of years of what was and continues to be a massive rebuild job. Also, that it was unknown that GM Jeff Luhnow was going to rely on his front office staff to an extremely high degree and take an approach that made the “Moneyball” A’s look like poster boys for laissez-faire front office management.
I have no idea if the Astros’ rebuilding plan is a good one. On the one hand, that organization was a smoking pile of rubble when Luhnow took over and new ownership came in, so perhaps something radical was called for. On the other hand, the Astros’ tear-down/rebuild has been really extreme, the losses have been close to unprecedented and there are lots of examples of teams who have rebuilt while still putting more resources into “win-now” efforts than the Astros have. Veterans that, while unlikely to be part of the next good ballclub for that city, at least push them closer to 90 losses a year than 110. Whether this is truly something worthwhile is something people debate, but it has been done. Maybe the Astros made a mistake in not doing that. Maybe they’ll be shown to have done OK with the approach they took.
But no matter what you make of all of this, it’s impossible to say that Porter had no idea that was what was coming. The Astros made all kinds of headlines in 2011 and early 2012 when they hired Luhnow. He, in turn, made unconventional hires like a “Director of Decision Sciences,” and made several hires from the sabermetric community and/or online analysis world, such as Mike Fast, Kevin Goldstein and Colin Wyers. The notion that this was a going to be a tear-down unlike that seen in recent years was pretty darn clear. Also clear: that a lot of baseball writers have scoffed at what the Astros have been doing, presumably because it’s either unconventional or because they are reflecting the displeasure of their baseball sources. Olney himself has engaged in this before.
Again, none of this is to say that the Astros are doing the best things or even the right things. It’s possible that the strategy ends up a failure. It’s possible that three years (and possibly more) of copious losing does more to undermine the team in the eyes of fans and others than the presumed reward at the end of the process gains them. It’s also possible that, yes, Luhnow is a flaming jackwagon and the Astros’ front office is a mess. I have no idea.
But to suggest that Bo Porter was somehow surprised and wronged by the low payroll, the piles of losses and the idea that this was going to be a front office which took an extremely active role in day-to-day decisions is just fiction. At least as far as those things go he, and everyone else, knew what he was getting into.