Astros moving deliberately in managerial interview process as others rush ahead

HOUSTON — Dana Brown’s phone is “blowing up,” but the demand isn’t dictating his pace in searching for the Astros’ next manager.

Brown said on Wednesday the team has not started interviewing candidates and has no timeframe for hiring Dusty Baker’s successor, offering a stark contrast to the four other clubs currently searching for skippers.

All of them — the New York Mets, Cleveland Guardians, Los Angeles Angels and San Diego Padres — are in various stages of the interview process.

Houston is not, but perhaps the patience should not be a surprise. Owner Jim Crane “parted ways” with James Click on November 10, 2022, and did not hire Brown as his replacement until January 26.

Crane is intimately involved in this search, too, but it’s difficult to envision that he will wait two months to pick a manager. Still, Brown said on Wednesday he has no interviews scheduled during next week’s general manager’s meetings in Phoenix and avoided giving a timeframe for naming the franchise’s 20th full-time manager.

“There’s no rush,” Brown said. “Right now, we’re going to gather a few names, cast the net and get started here soon.”

Brown declined to name specific candidates, but did acknowledge that previous managerial experience is not a prerequisite for the role — a revelation that would bode well for longtime Astros bench coach Joe Espada, the most logical internal candidate to replace Baker.

First-base coach Omar López has no major-league managerial experience but managed for 12 seasons in Houston’s minor-league system before leading Team Venezuela during March’s World Baseball Classic.

“I’m looking for someone with some leadership ability, someone that can run the clubhouse. Looking for someone with great feel for players and managing players. There’s a lot that I’m looking for,” Brown said. “He’s got to know the game, be able to run a bullpen. Most of all, he’s got to have the leadership skills and I’m looking for someone I can gel with and communicate well with.”

No general manager and manager will ever agree on everything, but it’s worth noting how often Brown and Baker’s disagreements became public last season. Most centered around Baker’s lineup decisions and a curious division of playing time, especially regarding backup catcher Yainer Diaz.

Finding someone with whom Brown is aligned should be the foremost objective for whoever is running the search — Brown himself, Crane or influential baseball operations adviser Jeff Bagwell.

Last week, Crane acknowledged he will be involved in a search he described as “fluid” and perhaps shorter than Brown projected on Wednesday. Former Astros catcher Brad Ausmus, a friend of Bagwell’s, and Arizona Diamondbacks bench coach Jeff Banister remain two logical candidates with ties to the organization or area.

Craig Counsell is a person of interest in the Astros search. (Sam Hodde / Getty Images)

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported on Tuesday night that Houston had “expressed interest” in Craig Counsell, though Counsell is not known to have an interview scheduled in Houston.

KHOU-11 reported earlier this week that Atlanta Braves third-base coach Ron Washington is interested in the opening, too. Given Washington and Brown spent three seasons together in Atlanta, it stands to reason Washington may be one of those “blowing up” Brown’s phone.

Peek at the payroll

Though he has not addressed it yet this winter, Crane has been consistent during his ownership tenure when discussing his club’s payroll and possibly exceeding the competitive balance tax. In March, the owner claimed he is “not afraid to go over” the CBT, but did not sound like someone eager to do so. Crane has echoed a similar refrain over the past two offseasons.

The Astros have exceeded the first CBT threshold once during Crane’s ownership tenure, a consequence of absorbing Zack Greinke’s massive contract during his blockbuster acquisition at the 2019 trade deadline.

According to Cot’s Contracts, Houston finished the 2023 season $4,147,355 under the first CBT threshold. The club ended $31,713,857 under the mark in 2022, according to the same calculations.

Last season, only 10 teams had a higher luxury tax payroll than the Astros. Not much money will be removed from that estimated $228,852,645, inviting the question of whether Crane and the Astros must consider exceeding the tax for the second time in franchise history.

“We haven’t had much discussion. I’m sure we’ll have those discussions as we move forward and it depends on who is available,” Brown said on Wednesday. “We’ll probably get more into it. But as I’ve said, we’ll do whatever we have to do to focus on 2024 and win the division and get back deep into the postseason.”

The first luxury tax threshold in 2024 is $237,000,000. Most outside projections have the Astros already close to reaching it, though estimating these payrolls is an inexact science. Only a look at the Astros’ official books would give an accurate assessment — and it’s important to note that the final luxury tax calculations aren’t made until the season ends.

Cot’s Contracts currently projects Houston’s 2024 CBT payroll at $235,168,810. Roster Resource estimates it at $231,396,032.  Both of those approximations included the projected salaries of Houston’s seven arbitration-eligible players, which MLB Trade Rumors puts around $38.5 million.

Spotrac did not include those estimates — and still has Houston’s 2024 CBT payroll at $200,740,476. According to that same site, only Steve Cohen’s New York Mets have more luxury tax allocations for 2024 than the Astros.

None of Houston’s seven arbitration-eligible players are non-tender candidates. Two of them, Kyle Tucker and Framber Valdez, are projected to earn at least $12 million next season.

The roster isn’t set for 2024, either. On Wednesday, Brown listed bullpen help and a backup catcher as his foremost priority, but it would behoove him to survey both the starting pitching and outfield markets to augment the Astros’ roster. If Brown addresses even three of those four areas and Crane is intent on remaining under the competitive balance tax, could Houston engineer a trade or two to trim its CBT commitment and give itself more room for possible in-season acquisitions?

Click tried to trade starter José Urquidy in 2022, but Baker and Crane vetoed it. Urquidy is projected to make $3.5 million during his second trip through the arbitration process this winter. Houston’s starting pitching surplus, even as uncertain as it is, once again could make Urquidy expendable. Finding a team willing to take on the remaining two years of reliever Rafael Montero’s $34.5 million contract feels doubtful, but Houston could pay down some of the deal to make it more appealing and still get further under the CBT.

(Top photo of Crane: Elsa / Getty Images)

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